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Film review

An iconic moment, a tragic epic

Published October 19, 2006

[Warner Brothers]
Flags of Our Fathers tells the story of the men who raised the famous flag on Iwo Jima, and of the weight of the moment -- and the war -- on their lives once they left the battlefield.

At an age when most filmmakers are retired, dead or coasting, Clint Eastwood continues to amaze. The 76-year-old icon, who softly croons a melancholy song over the dark opening frames, presents his most ambitious work ever in Flags of Our Fathers, an epic in every sense, yet, intensely personal.

This is Eastwood's tribute to heroes of his generation, troops who stormed Iwo Jima during World War II and created the unforgettable image of six men raising an American flag atop Mount Suribachi.

Yet Flags of Our Fathers isn't merely nostalgia. The prices paid, in blood on the beach and guilt at home, are timeless.

Only three of those flag-raisers survived to speak about it, starting with a whirlwind tour to sell war bonds that casts them as poster boys for patriotism. Government officials in charge of the tour don't mind that they're celebrating the second flag over Iwo Jima on the fifth day of a 35-day battle for victory.

"The right picture can win or lose a war," one says. Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal, who died in August, gave them the right one, an eternal symbol of teamwork for Old Glory.

Of the surviving trio, Navy corpsman John "Doc" Bradley Ryan Phillippe is most level-headed. Yet he feels uneasy about being yanked from combat and hailed as a hero. Doc's son, James Bradley, cowrote the source book about his father's experiences, skillfully adapted by William S. Broyles and Paul Haggis.

Another anointed hero, Marine Pvt. Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford) loves the attention. He always considered himself a matinee idol, anyway. The fact that Gagnon was a gofer who didn't fire a gun but was in the right place when the shutter clicked doesn't matter. He expects to parlay fame into fortune.

The celebrity is hardest on Pvt. Ira Hayes (Adam Beach), who suffers insults about his American Indian heritage even after coming home. Hayes tries to avoid being identified in the photograph, perhaps sensing what the attention will bring. He considers the tour a farce and starts drinking heavily, leading to bouts of angry depression.

Eastwood balances Flags of Our Fathers between the flag-raisers' appearances before cheering throngs in Times Square and Chicago's Soldier Field and flashbacks showing fragments of what haunts Bradley and Hayes from Iwo Jima (actually Iceland in disguise).

An armada of Navy battleships and scores of fighter planes are impressive sights. Such awe-inspiring details mark another masterpiece by Eastwood's favorite production designer, Henry Bumstead, who died in May. The film is dedicated to the memory of Bumstead, Rosenthal and Phyllis Hoffman, Eastwood's longtime casting director, who also died this year.

Eastwood's ambition leads to a few minor problems as he grapples with a continual shifting of time and place. By the end of the first hour, we settle into his free-form rhythm. Just when Bradley, Gagnon and Hayes shilling bonds and griping starts to get stale, we get a heart-wrenching dramatic boost as they meet the parents of dead comrades.

The performances are uniformly excellent, but the standout is Beach, who has the most intriguing character to work with. Hayes' life was the essence of American prejudice; people saw the red but not the white and blue, even when he served his country. The results of his life are pitifully tragic. Without being showy, Beach perfectly conveys the social estrangement and unrequited pride of a classic outsider.

Like Patton, released at the height of the Vietnam War, Flags of Our Fathers will be appreciated by both hawks and doves for different reasons that are curiously linked; one person's heroism is another's insanity.

The story's main conflict away from the battlefield - using images to engender public support of war - is a timely debate. Eastwood supports the troops while casting wary eyes on the politicians directing them.

Steve Persall can be reached at (727) 893-8365 or


Flags of Our Fathers

Grade: A

Director: Clint Eastwood

Cast: Ryan Phillippe, Adam Beach, Jesse Bradford, John Benjamin Hickey, Barry Pepper, John Slattery, Melanie Lynskey, Jamie Bell, Robert Patrick

Screenplay: William S. Broyles, Paul Haggis, based on the book by James Bradley and Ron Powers

Rating: R; graphic war violence and carnage, profanity

Running time: 132 min.

[Last modified October 18, 2006, 12:42:41]

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