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FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS (****)

Movie Review by:
Jim "Good Old JR:" Rutkowski
Directed by:
Clint Eastwood
Written by:
William Broyles Jr. and Paul Haggis, Adapted from Ron Power's book  "Flags of Our Fathers"
Starring:
Ryan Phillippe, Jesse Bradford, Adam Beach
Running time:
131 minutes
Released:
10/20/06
Rated R for sequences of graphic war violence and carnage, and for language.
"It's about heroes, and how a country can need them so badly that it simply manufactures them."
Fall has arrived, and with it, the cinematic equivalent of a breath of fresh air. These last few weeks have seen a major up tick in the quality of movie product. After a summer of superheroes, pirates and animated livestock, it is a tremendous relief to see all these well written, and personal films being released. Iíve seen so many terrific films in the last couple of weeks that my faith has been restored in Hollywood. Youíll be seeing some high marks from me over the next few weeks (Iíve seen six movies in the last two weeks so Iím a bit back logged). Iím not one to give four stars that easily. But youíll be seeing quite a few of them from me in the near future. You may ask yourself, ďhas good olí JR gone THAT soft?Ē No, my friends, the movies have become THAT good. On with the show.

As a director, Clint Eastwood has made several good films, but just two great ones. Flags of Our Fathers, his latest, does for World War II combat movies what Unforgiven did for the Western. It strips the genre of some of its myth, makes its violence immediate and in-your-face, and draws parallels between events way back when and today. It's another great movie, from a director who continues to go from strength to strength. Because this is not just a vivid re-creation of an epic battle, one of the bloodiest ever fought. It's about symbols, and heroes, and how a country can need them so badly that it simply manufactures them.

We've all seen that iconic image, five Marines and a Navy corpsman raising the Stars and Stripes on Iwo Jima's Mount Suribachi on Feb. 23, 1945. It was just five days into a bloody battle for a volcanic rock 5 miles long and 11/2 miles wide. It's a stirring image even now, as it was then, in the last months of World War II.

Maybe we know that this "mission: accomplished" photo was a bit premature, that the battle raged for another 31 days. Maybe we've heard that the flag was raised twice that day, or that the second raising was "staged." The story Eastwood chose to tell is of those men, the real ones, the ones who mistakenly got credit, the politics of financing a war, and the survivor's guilt of men that a war-weary nation insisted on embracing as "heroes" when they felt like nothing of the sort.

Eastwood, using Iceland's black volcanic shores as a main location, re-creates the horrific inch-by-inch slog through carnage that was this battle, an attempt to seize a Japanese home island as an emergency landing field for B-29 bombers. Then he (and screenwriters William Broyles Jr. and Paul Haggis) drop us into the fog of war. This is a muddled history that came from a Pulitzer Prize-winning photo, an image that led to the survivors of that battle shipped home to be feted, paraded and honored by a country that was exhausted and nearly broke from years of total war. That's where Flags finds its footing.

Jesse Bradford (Happy Endings) is Rene Gagnon, a Marine who was a message runner during the battle, not the best soldier, and an opportunist who tried to make the most out of his accidental fame (his girlfriend back home was even worse). "Doc" Bradley (Ryan Phillippe) was a quiet Navy corpsman (medic) haunted by the scores of wounded men he could not save.

And Adam Beach of Windtalkers is Ira Hayes, a Pima Nation American Indian stung by pervasive racism , a man so troubled by what he went through and survivor's guilt that his life after the parades -- and even during them -- was as wrenching as the battlefield. Beach has the most emotive role to play, a man given to drinking and weeping, and he plays the heck out of it. His story was made famous in the 60's as the title character of a Johnny Cash song.

Eastwood deftly intercuts between three timelines -- the battle and events leading up to it -- a dizzying war-bond tour that came after it -- and the years of guilt and remorse that followed. A modern-day son of the corpsman pieces together the story from the battle's aged, reticent survivors (the film is based on James Bradley's book).

It's a film shot in muted grays and olive drabs, where even skin-tones fade like black-and-white images captured during the war. Digital technology re-creates the landings, the sweeping panorama of the battlefield, from the fleet that landed the men, to the aircraft buzzing in to try and make deadly, personal combat go more easily for the Marines fighting their way from trench to tunnel. But to his credit, the filmmaker didn't make this another Saving Private Ryan. The combat takes up only about a quarter of the story.

And because it is a movie about flags and "symbols," Eastwood showcases those -- from "Gold Star" mothers of fallen military men to an iconic statue based on the famous photo. Symbols are why you need to stay to the very end of the credits to get the full emotional impact of the movie.

Eastwood was also very astute in casting. David Patrick Kelly, probably best known as Luther so long ago in The Warriors, has aged into a perfectly acceptable Harry Truman. Paul Walker and combat-film vet Barry Pepper (Saving Private Ryan) make believable Marines.

If there's a flaw to Eastwood's approach, it's in his reluctance to show anybody in a truly bad light. Rough edges are buffed off most of the characters even as the cynicism of politicians and the officer class are derided.

Eastwood is finishing a second film now, Letters from Iwo Jima, telling the story of the battle from the Japanese perspective. But for now we just have one of the best movies of the year, and one last history lesson from the "Greatest Generation," not just about sacrifice and blood, but of wariness. Symbols can be moving and powerful summations of feelings. But they should never take the place of the truth.

FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS © 2006 Warner Bros. Pictures International.
All Rights Reserved

Review © 2009 Alternate Reality, Inc.

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