U.S. Release Date: October 20, 2006
Distributor: Paramount (DreamWorks)
Director: Clint Eastwood
Writer: Paul Haggis
Producer: Clint Eastwood, Robert Lorenz, Steven Spielberg
Composer: Clint Eastwood
Cast: Ryan Phillippe, Jesse Bradford, Adam Beach, John Slattery, Barry Pepper, Jamie Bell, Paul Walker, Robert Patrick, Neal McDonough
Running Time: 2 hours and 12 minutes
MPAA Rating: R (sequences of graphic war violence and carnage, and for language)

Iwo Jima War Movie All Over Map
by Scott Holleran

Director Clint Eastwood spins a new morally ambiguous yarn in Flags of Our Fathers based on the bestseller by James Bradley and Ron Powers. If it has a point, it is that there is no point.

Flinging us into World War 2 without benefit of historical outline, Mr. Eastwood starts with ordinary Americans locked in a battle—the battle of Iwo Jima—against an undefined enemy. Never mind that they had allied with Nazi Germany, had attacked Hawaii at dawn, or that their island outpost was undercutting the U.S. air offense, warning targeted positions in advance. Mr. Eastwood barely mentions that they're Japanese (whose side of the story he plans to illustrate in a companion movie next year).

Iwo Jima's lack of context is one of several mistakes in this chaotic picture. The first hour is an incomprehensible series of half-stories and partial images of Marines in battle, present-day fathers and sons and the dreaded middle class American homefront, which Mr. Eastwood depicts as almost worse than the battlefield. An unceasing assault on the senses fails to provide firm footing.

Flags of Our Fathers offers more anti-heroism from one of the screen's earliest anti-heroes, the actor turned director whose protagonists, from A Perfect World to Unforgiven, are dubious characters. In Joe Rosenthal's famous photograph of six Americans raising of the flag at Iwo Jima's Mount Suribachi, Mr. Eastwood finds a symbol of moral uncertainty.

Described by the New York Times as a triumphant portrait of America's first seizure of Japanese territory, the patriotic symbol is an easy mark. There is more to the story of the flag-raising, in which members of the Marines' fifth division and a Navy Corpsman grabbed an old water pipe and hoisted the Stars and Stripes, than the image might suggest. Such is always the case with historical snapshots, but Flags unfolds as though it discovers something awful about the United States.

After an endless introduction of several dozen characters—good luck trying to keep them straight—the movie finally settles into the lives of three flag-raising survivors; the upstanding Navy Corpsman (Ryan Phillippe), the publicity hound (Jesse Bradford) and a Marine who's also an Indian (Adam Beach). In an effort to flesh out what really happened, they are spotted in battle scene flashbacks, present-day epilogues and a prolonged propaganda tour that makes middle class America look racist and idiotic. No doubt there were instances like those portrayed, but this movie makes it look like the nation that defeated Japan and Germany did so purely by accident.

Mr. Eastwood, whose 1986 Grenada invasion movie, Heartbreak Ridge, trudged similar ground, knows his turf. He recreates the black sands of Iwo Jima, cleverly substituting Iceland and planting us right in the South Pacific. But he's all over the map with subplots and he continually gravitates toward the anti-hero—a disturbed, alcoholic Indian (the subject of a 1961 movie starring Tony Curtis called The Outsider)—to irritating distraction.

The magnitude of the grueling invasion of Iwo Jima, which lasted over a month and claimed 6,821 Americans and over 20,000 Japanese lives, is lost. So are strong performances by Barry Pepper, Paul Walker, Jamie Bell and others—so brief they almost disappear. Of the main three characters, only Ryan Phillippe's medic makes a sympathetic impression.

An abrupt change of tone toward the end shifts emphasis from the Indian to the father-son bond, unveiling a sudden closeness that feels forced, though it leads into a graceful ending that begs to remember our fallen fathers as they sought to live—not as they died. But its buildup is mawkish and, by then, we are exhausted from trying to figure out who's who, what's what, and why the flag, the fathers, and the photograph are of any significance.

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