As a director, Clint Eastwood elevates and illuminates every genre he touches with his depth of experience, to a greater extent than he ever could as an actor. He cashed in decades of spaghetti Western saddle sores to create a complex cowboy anti-hero in Unforgiven, translated the bare-knuckles brutality of Dirty Harry into the withering reality of Million Dollar Baby. Now he's channeling the military machismo of Heartbreak Ridge with a heavy assist from co-producer Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan for the harrowing, hauntingly melancholy World War II epic Flags of our Fathers. It's almost inconceivable that Eastwood has achieved a vision this immense and visually powerful at the age of 76. We should all have so much creative vigor.
With a galaxy of A-list Hollywood talent backstage (the screenplay was co-written by Crash mastermind Paul Haggis and China Beach creator William Broyles Jr.) and virtually no celebrities on screen, Flags offers a cynical, provocative back story to the most iconic image of WWII, the raising of the American flag on the sacred Japanese island of Iwo Jima. The movie is based on the bestseller James Bradley wrote about his father, "Doc" Bradley, the last survivor of the six soldiers who hoisted Old Glory. It revolves on the notion that an accident of chance was responsible for that historic photo, that its value as propaganda almost single-handedly saved the U.S. war effort, and that the Big Lie and spin control were standard practice in Washington decades before the Nixon administration.
By the time of the bloody takeover of Japan's "Sulphur Island" in 1945, Americans were sick of the war. It had dragged on for years, and the country was virtually bankrupt from supporting it. The government needed to sell war bonds to an unwilling public and it needed a hook; it came in the form of that photo, which became an unexpected symbol of hope. Seizing the moment, the White House ordered three of the six men in the picture (the other three died in combat) back to the States for a whirlwind fund-raising tour, touting them as "true heroes." Forget the facts, sell the sizzle. But the three soldiers on this dog-and-pony show, Bradley, Rene Gagnon and Ira Hayes, found themselves tormented by knowing who the real heroes were: those bodies still on the beach.
Eastwood aims to put you in the middle of the war; the gory, panoramic battle scenes are spellbinding. Ryan Phillippe is solid if unremarkable as Doc, Jesse Bradford a bit too chipper as Gagnon. The performance you'll salute, however, is Adam Beach (Windtalkers) as Hayes, a Native American who turns to booze to escape the horrors he's seen and never fully recovers. The back-and-forth pacing is occasionally choppy and the narrators often indistinguishable one grizzled vet begins to sound like another yet Flags of Our Fathers leaves you with one unmistakable message: You want a hero, buy a sandwich. Eastwood has already wrapped Letters From Iwo Jima, a feature telling the story from the Japanese perspective, due in February.
Jim McFarlin writes about movies for Metro Times.. Send comments to [email protected].