Thursday, February 08, 2007

'Flags' doesn't do heroes justice

You've seen it a million times. The six men stretch, bend, hurry and scramble to plant the flag atop the mount. Once it's raised, you stand in awe, full of patriotism and star-spangled optimism.

But what you may not know is that famous flag wasn't the first one raised at Iwo Jima that day. And the six men who did raise it? Nearly all of the survivors met tragedy later in life.

Director Clint Eastwood tells their story in the disjointed "Flags of our Fathers," a movie that never quite hits its stride, despite the first-rate subject matter. This film could have been a masterpiece. As it is, it's a two hour trip that doesn't stay with you after the ride is over.

The film alternates between the fighting on Iwo Jima and the story of the three soldiers—Doc (Ryan Phillippe), Rene (Jesse Bradford) and Ira (Adam Beach)—who are sent home to raise morale and money for war bonds after the famous photograph becomes a rallying symbol on the home front.

But the lesson we first learned in "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" is true here, too—the legend and the reality are often two different stories. One dead soldier wasn't really pictured in the photograph. He raised the first flag on the island. The Army, and at first, the participants, lie to his grieving mother.

The soldiers themselves, particularly Ira, also known as the Chief for his Native American ancestry, are uncomfortable with this "hero" moniker everyone keeps throwing at them. Ira gets drunk. He obsesses over his fallen comrades. He goes crazy when he doesn't receive service at a bar because of his ethnicity.

Ira's story, in fact, is the most moving part of "Flags" and it's too bad Eastwood didn't exploit this more, didn't play around with the whole notion of heroism and myth the way John Ford did so memorably in "Liberty Valance."

The technique of switching back and forth between the fighting and the U.S. tour is ineffective. Just when you become engrossed in one story, the narrative shifts. It becomes distracting to the point that you're finally glad when the credits roll.

"Flags of our Fathers" is the first part of Eastwood's Iwo Jima saga. The second film, "Letters from Iwo Jima," about the Japanese experience on the island, is currently playing to rave reviews. Here's hoping that film has a subtlety and a slicker editing that "Flags" lacks.

It's too bad. This story deserves a better telling.

"Flags of our Fathers" is now available on DVD. It is rated R for adult language and violence.

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