October 26, 2006

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Flags of Our Fathers (R)
Clint Eastwood unfurls the story of the men who planted the flag, planted the flag again, took credit for planting the flag and were only later recognized for planting the flag at Iwo Jima in Flags of Our Fathers.

The ďsĒ in Flags is one of the many fun facts you learn while watching this movie. There was a flag planted at the top of a hard-fought for mountain on Iwo Jima. A general lays claim to it so a colonel tells his underlings to go up the hill and plant a new flag for the general to take home as a prize ó the colonel wants that first flag. Itís the second flag planting that leads to the picture that ends up on the front page of every paper in America. Itís a picture the Army and the treasury department quickly jump on as a symbol of impending American victory, a victory the country needs to ensure by buying war bonds. Treasury official Bud Gerber (John Slattery) gives the help-your-buddies-by-selling-war-bonds pitch to the two Marines and one Navy corpsman pulled off Iwo Jima and sent stateside to play the roles as the heroes of the battle. While they were there for the second flag planting, John ďDocĒ Bradley (Ryan Phillippe), Manchesterís own Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford) and Ira Hayes (Adam Beach) were not particularly crazy about being dragged all over the country, especially since the other men in the photo were dead and their surviving compatriots remained overseas, fighting and dying. (The movie shows Gagnon as the groupís most publicity-loving member. He is here portrayed as a striver and ultimately marries a striving girl. I donít know how this will be received by those who might have known him but dramatically it helps to round out the picture of these people. We learn that Gagnon worked in the Millyard before the war and returned to it afterward. It seems only reasonable that during this brush with fame he would try to find a way up the socioeconomic ladder.)

Haunted by images of brutal and barbaric killings, the men seem nearly as horrified by the hero label as they are by their memories. Ira, a Native American, takes the national tour particularly hard. Still living in a country full of prejudice, heís called a hero and denied service at a bar on the same day. He drinks, he has nightmares and sometimes, when flashbulbs are too harsh, he has flashbacks. So, too does Doc ó itís his son James (Thomas McCarthy) who we see interviewing various veterans decades later to try to find out the story of the flag, the picture and what happened to the men who were there. What happened in many cases is that they died ó the guys from both the first and second flag raising and their friends. Those who returned lived quiet lives and never talked about their ordeals (like Doc), were unable to cash in on the promises of the heroes tour (like Rene) or openly suffered during the post-war years and died young (like Ira).

The horrors of war are ever-present in Flags of Our Fathers ó movies went a good long time between The Best Years of Our Lives in 1946 and this one during which WWII veterans never seemed to suffer from the post-traumatic stress that plagued the men who fought (in movies at least) in Korea and in Vietnam and in subsequent portrayed-in-movies wars. Itís nice to see some recognition of the idea that, no matter how good the warrior, it pretty much always leaves a damaged warrior. Though I doubt most will see it this way, this movie seems perfectly to make the point that a war better be fought for a good reason because it makes casualties of all who fight it. The movie also seems to make a point of not turning all (or any) soldiers into saints. They are shown here as men ó men with problems and flaws before they join the war and men with even bigger problems and flaws afterward.

Though it makes these points with some grace and subtlety and the performances are pretty uniformly solid (supporting characters Jamie Bell, Barry Pepper and Neal McDonough do strong work), the movie seems a little too ungraceful toward the end. Excessive voiceover tells us what weíve just seen ó that the men didnít feel like heroes, that fighting a war is ultimately about fighting to protect your buddies. This lack of trust in the two-plus hours of movie that have come before creates a sour finish to this otherwise engaging story. B-

Rated R for graphic battle scenes and up-close carnage and language. Directed by Clint Eastwood and written by Paul Haggis and William Broyles Jr. (from a book of the same name by James Bradley and Ron Powers), Flags of Our Fathers is distributed by Dreamworks SKG in wide release and is two hours and 12 minutes long.

ó Amy Diaz