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With: Ryan Phillippe, Jesse Bradford, Adam Beach, Barry Pepper, Jamie Bell, Paul Walker, Robert Patrick, Neal McDonough, Melanie Lynskey, David Patrick Kelly, Jon Polito
Written by: William Broyles Jr., Paul Haggis, based on the book by James Bradley, Ron Powers
Directed by: Clint Eastwood
MPAA Rating: R for sequences of graphic war violence and carnage, and for language
Running Time: 132
Date: 10/20/2006

Flags of Our Fathers (2006)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

A Brand New Flag

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Clint Eastwood made his last war film Heartbreak Ridge (1986), right smack in the middle of the Reagan-Rambo era, and it's amazing how much things have changed in 20 years. That film was a gung-ho popcorn-muncher, full of testosterone and swagger, and Eastwood's new Flags of Our Fathers is so gravely, reverently respectful that it's almost afraid to breathe.

But at 76 years of age, Eastwood is nothing if not one of our most masterful filmmakers, and he makes Flags of Our Fathers a powerful experience nonetheless. If he can't escape the genre's chilly, humorless tone, it's more a side effect of our times than a question of his talent.

Based on a book by James Bradley and Ron Powers, Flags of Our Fathers concerns itself with the famous photo of the flag-raising atop Iwo Jima, a photo that came to symbolize victory for the U.S. But the film's story is far more complex and anti-climactic. The flag raising was the second one of that day, and it took place early in a battle that waged on for over a month. Only three of the men in the photo survived.

Behind the scenes, the U.S. government is too strapped to continue the war, and desperate for more citizens to buy war bonds. The three "heroes," John "Doc" Bradley (Ryan Phillippe), Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford) and Ira Hayes (Adam Beach) are whisked back to the states for a goodwill, fundraising tour. Between speeches and hotels, Eastwood flashes back to their time on Iwo Jima, trying to sort out the differences between horror and heroism, bravery and death, or if any difference exists at all.

Eastwood's greatest achievement here is in questioning the status quo without accusation or insult. He respects the military ego and the individual soldiers' feelings, but also the intelligence of the audience and our capacity to handle the sad truth. Indeed, his concern for correct representation has led Eastwood to make a second film, Letters from Iwo Jima (due out next year), told from the point of view of the Japanese.

But it's the war footage that drags the film down. While technically accomplished and bearing Eastwood's singular mark, it's also steeped in a kind of official Saving Private Ryan nobility. In Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby, Eastwood was able to cut loose and move into dangerous territory. Here, he takes the material as far as he can -- his effort is very impressive -- but can't reach all the way to the edge.

Steven Spielberg co-produced both this and Letters from Iwo Jima.

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