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Flagging the truth

Clint Eastwood’s anti-heroic Fathers
By PETER KEOUGH  |  February 20, 2007
3.0 3.0 Stars

SEND HIM NO STEREOTYPES: Eastwood doesn’t sentimentalize notions of war or heroism.

His ongoing beatification notwithstanding, Clint Eastwood has never lined up behind traditional notions of the hero. In the ’60s, he was the anti-heroic Man with No Name. In the ’70s, right-wing icon though he might have been, Dirty Harry was still, well, dirty. And the protagonist of Eastwood’s first Oscar winner, Unforgiven was not only unforgivable but unapologetic.

So how would this malcontent handle the heroes of the good war and the greatest generation? Although not as irreverent as Kelly’s Heroes or even Heartbreak Ridge, Eastwood’s adaptation of James Bradley’s Flags of Our Fathers — the story of the men in the famous Iwo Jima flag-raising photo, one of whom was Bradley’s father — doesn’t turn his subjects into uplifting stereotypes. True, the film at times is a mess — neither Eastwood nor his screenwriters, Paul Haggis and William Broyles Jr., can quite figure out how to put together the puzzle of Bradley’s interviews with Iwo survivors, the combat experiences of the men on the island, their stint in the US after the photo made them celebrities, and their subsequent unheroic lives. Maybe it will all make sense when Letters from Iwo Jima, which tells the same story from the Japanese point of view, comes out in a few months.

For all that the narrative unravels, however, the focus on the nature of courage, the nature of chance, the vagaries of memory, and the power of the image remains sharp. Eastwood’s battle sequences may not have the near-unbearable intensity of Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, but unlike Spielberg he doesn’t sentimentalize the PR and politicking of war.

Like Ryan, Flags turns on a publicity stunt. Navy corpsman John Bradley (Ryan Phillippe) and five Marines raised a flag (the second; the first was taken by a general as a souvenir) on top of newly conquered Mount Suribachi. AP photographer Joe Rosenthal snapped a picture. It appeared in millions of newspapers and became a rallying symbol of the war. Planning a War Bond drive with a goal of raising $14 billion, Washington tracked down the flag raisers. Only three had survived: Bradley, Ira Hayes (a moving Adam Beach), and René Gagnon (Jesse Bradford).

Celebrated for a heroic deed that was in fact an accidental photo op, feeling unworthy of such honor when thousands of others had died, and participating in spectacles (their climbing of a mock Suribachi in Chicago’s Soldiers Field is one of the few times Eastwood uses flashbacks with eloquence and irony) that made a mockery of their experience, the men chose different ways of coping. Hayes, a Pima Indian racked with guilt and embittered by prejudice, drank himself to death. Gagnon, a weak man with a pushy wife, tried to cash in on his fame long after it had faded. Bradley pretended it didn’t happen and went on to lead a prosperous life as a funeral director.

None, so they would insist and Eastwood agrees, was a hero. Like the photo, that word simplifies and packages a complex and horrible reality, making it, for those who profit from such tragedies, easier to sell.

  Topics: Reviews , Clint Eastwood , James Bradley , Steven Spielberg ,  More more >
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Flagging the truth
I wouldn't go so far as to call the second flag raising on Iwo Jima a publicity stunt, but except for that I can't fault your review. You correctly identified the flag-raisers as a Navy Corpsman and five Marines. Just about every newspaper review of the movie, and articles prompted by the move, call the Marines "soldiers". Sometimes they started out calling them Marines, but then they lapse into "soldiers". (See e.g., last Friday's Portland Press Herald, Manchester Union Leader, and Concord [NH] Monitor. Marines should always be called "Marine" and never "soldier". If you need a more general term for style purposes, do what Mr. Keough has done and use "men" or "troops". John Boeckeler Hope, ME
By John Boeckeler on 10/23/2006 at 9:39:35

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