The film keeps the audience wondering the whole time.
By CHRISTY LEMIRE
AP MOVIE CRITIC
The battle scenes are harrowing in "Flags of Our Fathers," the black-sand beaches exploding again and again with artillery fire, filling the gray sky and forming an even darker vision of hell.
But it's what happens to the men after they've come home from Iwo Jima -- and been hailed as heroes, whether they deserve it or not -- that can be just as devastating in a more intimate, internal way.
With its awesome scope, "Flags" is by far the most ambitious picture Clint Eastwood has made in his 35 years as a director. Yet in following up his Oscar-winning "Mystic River" and "Million Dollar Baby," he balances the quiet intensity of those films with sequences that are breathtaking in their epic proportions.
Comparisons to the virtuoso storming of Normandy at the opening of "Saving Private Ryan" are inevitable: same World War II, different theater, with "Ryan" director Steven Spielberg serving here as a producer. "Flags" is just as brutal and gritty, just as technically impressive, immersing you just as deeply into the action. But by jumping back and forth in time, and in and out of the battle itself, "Flags" features its own unique brand of chaos and confusion.
Raising the flag
Working from a script by William Broyles Jr. and Paul Haggis, based on the book by James Bradley and Ron Powers, Eastwood follows the men featured in the iconic Associated Press flag-raising photograph and those who grapple with the guilt of being linked to that shot, even though they might not have been there.
This is a visceral war movie and a moving drama, raising themes that resonate today as Americans are fighting an unpopular war in Iraq. But it's also a complex mystery as the government, the worried mothers at homes across America, even the servicemen themselves try to figure out who planted the flag on that mountaintop and who didn't.
In the haze of battle, it's hard to tell. And that's the point. Broyles ("Jarhead") and Haggis (who also wrote "Million Dollar Baby" before directing and co-writing this year's best-picture winner, "Crash") keep us wondering the whole time. They alternate between the Japanese island and the handful of surviving Marines and a Navy corpsman, who go on tour once they return to the United States.
Superficially, the tour is intended as a celebration of courage, of national pride. In reality, it's also an effort to drum up support for the war, an extended infomercial for government bonds. Either way the tour events are pure propaganda, and they function as a crucible for the shaken, reluctant heroes.
Ryan Phillippe, Adam Beach and Jesse Bradford lead the excellent ensemble cast of military men, with John Slattery among the standouts back home as the cynical Treasury Department official urging them to milk the inspirational worth of that photo for as long as they can.
Phillippe stars as John "Doc" Bradley, an earnest, steadfast Navy medic trying to maintain a grasp on who he is amid the hoopla. (Turns out it's Bradley's son, Jim, conducting the present-day interviews which are interspersed throughout the film, trying to solve the puzzle of who really appears in that picture.)
Beach plays Ira Hayes, a Native American and Marine who's managed to keep his alcoholism at bay during the war, but falls completely and irreparably off the wagon as he lurches from one city to the next, still rattled by what he's seen and done in Japan. Beach gets arguably the showiest role of all, and his anguish is palpable.
Then there's Bradford as pretty-boy Marine Rene Gagnon, who not only doesn't mind the attention he's receiving back in the States, he thrives upon it -- as does his girlfriend (Melanie Lynskey) who shamelessly inserts herself into the campaign. Bradford makes you want to dislike his character and root for his redemption at the same time, a difficult task.
Broyles and Haggis keep us off guard for much of the film, right alongside the characters, which does make "Flags" slightly difficult to get into at first, until you realize what they're doing with this structure. And the film drags on a bit at the end, the epilogues that trace the main characters' final paths winding on more than they should.
But consistently the film is, while not exactly patriotic, at least respectful. And even though it focuses on a battle and a war that took place some 60 years ago, it remains all too resonant and relevant today.
Copyright 2006 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.