Eastwood's cliche-riddled `Flags' doesn't rate a salute

review C-

October 20, 2006|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,Sun Movie Critic

Flags of Our Fathers purports to tell the story of Marines raising Old Glory on Iwo Jima and the iconic photo that was snapped of the event during the battle to take the island during World War II. The film has all the coherence and lucidity of a fragmentation bomb.

Attempting to replicate the war-is-hell but soldiers-are-honorable mode of Saving Private Ryan (Steven Spielberg is one of the producers), it spews out cliches about the ambiguous nature of heroism - failed cliches, at that - and they fatally wound any authentic character or artistic notion that it has. Using a time-hopping technique that kills any momentum to the taking of the island, the movie mostly focuses on three men. The three survivors from the photo - Navy medical corpsman Doc Bradley (Ryan Philippe), "runner" Joe Gagnon (Jesse Bradford) and Ira Hayes (Adam Beach), a Pima Indian - go on a war-bond tour to raise morale as well as money as the war in the Pacific drags on. Two of the leads have little to do except embody modest virtue (Philippe's Bradley) and would-be opportunism (Bradford's Gagnon), while Beach's Ira Hayes at least gets to face down U.S. racism as he blubbers and drinks his way to tragedy. What they share is a sense that the truest heroes in war are the men who die in action - the men they left behind.

FOR THE RECORD - In the review of the movie Flags of Our Fathers in yesterday's Movies Today section, one of the Marines who lifted the flag at Iwo Jima was misidentified. His name was Rene Gagnon.
The Sun regrets the error.

The movie is meant to show how the propaganda bazooka tore these three up inside almost as much as their war experience. Director Clint Eastwood and his screenwriters, William Broyles Jr. and Paul Haggis (who directed and co-wrote Crash and wrote Million Dollar Baby), say war is hard and real, selling it is hard and unreal. They hammer home the ironies of having the men perform the mounting of the flag on a football field and eat themselves as part of an ice-cream mold at a fundraiser.

The filmmakers are incredibly pompous about their "revelations." They make a big deal about two flags being raised on Mount Suribachi; when the first was lowered for safekeeping, photographer Joe Rosenthal took his historic photo of the second flag raising. Pop culture alert: That was never a secret. Even the specious 1949 smash, Sands of Iwo Jima, which won John Wayne an Oscar nomination, acknowledged in its opening credits that there was a previous flag.

Flags of Our Fathers makes an even bigger deal about the misidentification of the soldiers in the photograph. That would mean more to an audience if you could identify more people when they're not raising the flag. In this movie, you get to know too many good men only at the point of death. "Hey, Harlan!" Bang! Long close-up of Harlan's body. Oh, that was him.

Meanwhile, as if the film weren't already out of Eastwood's directorial control (or, worse yet, in it), there's a third strand of action involving Bradley's son, James (Tom McCarthy), interviewing witnesses to his father's wartime experiences. For all his ersatz realism and toughness, Eastwood uses this ploy to invoke the nostalgia for "the Greatest Generation" that permeated pre-Sept. 11 culture - and may now come back stronger than ever in the wake of disillusionment over the war in Iraq. Sure, Eastwood ups the ante with shots of carnage such as the remains of Japanese soldiers who've blown themselves up with grenades. But that makes our fighting men seem only more valorous.

Doubtless dozens of dime-store movie-critic philosophers are leaping at the chance to use their favorite quote from John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance to proclaim Eastwood's supposed brilliance: "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." But Flags of Our Fathers fails as fact or legend. It's woefully incompetent as narrative moviemaking. "If you can get a picture, the right picture, you can win a war," says a retired captain. Having already gotten a 21-gun salute from the newsweeklies and the trade papers, Flags of Our Fathers shows that if a revered director can get a subject, the right subject, he can win rave reviews without earning them.

michael.sragow@baltsun.com

>>>Flags of Our Fathers (Paramount) Starring Ryan Philippe, Jesse Bradford, Adam Beach. Directed by Clint Eastwood. Rated R. Time 132 minutes.

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