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‘Flags of Our Fathers’ deserves a salute

Few movies manage to capture a national mood as well as Clint Eastwood’s engrossing and melancholy World War epic.

Few movies manage to capture a national mood as well as Clint Eastwood’s engrossing and melancholy World War epic, “Flags of Our Fathers.” It begins with a monologue that will be read as anti-war by some, war-justifying by others. But mostly it reflects a state of widespread exhaustion and exasperation with the status quo.

The year could be 2006, but it’s 1945. The American government is running out of money and war equipment, voters have tired of World War II, bonds aren’t selling well, and a new infusion of hope is needed. When a photographer takes a dramatic picture of a flag-raising during a bloody battle on the Pacific island, Iwo Jima, three of the men who raised it are singled out as war heroes.

John H. Bradley (Ryan Phillippe) is a Navy man. The others are Marines: Rene A. Gagnon (Jesse Bradford) and Ira Hamilton Hayes (Adam Beach), a Pima Indian who is so reluctant to be designated a hero that at first he denies that he participated in putting up the flag. The other flag-raisers died soon after the event, and there’s some confusion about who actually appeared in the photo.

But the survivors are needed immediately to go on a U.S. tour designed to boost morale back home. Their qualms (and a few inconvenient facts) are ignored as they’re introduced to cheering crowds who need an outlet for their desire to support the troops.

Eastwood and his writers, Paul Haggis (“Crash”) and William Broyles Jr. (“Jarhead”), use this situation to create a rich portrait of war as an endless propaganda machine. The enemy may have its Tokyo Rose, but American officials can be just as ruthless in their attempts to distort the truth for the cause.

Broadly satirical and even cynical at times, “Flags of Our Fathers” mostly looks back in sadness at the exploitation of the soldiers — and the post-war problems they faced as “yesterday’s heroes.” Bradley is haunted by nightmares (and one vivid memory of military camaraderie), Gagnon spends the rest of his life as a janitor, while the hard-drinking Hayes dies young on the reservation.

As usual with Eastwood, the casting is impeccable. Phillippe has the biggest role (Bradley’s son, James, co-wrote the book that inspired the film), and he does a smooth job of balancing the character’s fears and fixations. Bradford is convincing as the hopeful one-time hero who felt most rejected by his country after he’d served his purpose.

Beach gives the most wrenching performance. Hayes is a troubled character from the beginning; his battles with alcohol, racism and depression are all too understandable. When even his closest Marine friends call him “chief” and make wigwam and squaw jokes, he suppresses his anger, and you know it won’t stay hidden. The character as written lacks much variety, but that’s not Beach’s fault.

Several familiar faces turn up in minor roles. Barry Pepper makes the most of a small but crucial role, and Jamie Bell is briefly visible as a buddy Bradley loses on the battlefield. Paul Walker is ferocious as a barking Marine, and Joseph Cross (the star of “Running With Scissors”) is charming as a naïve but spirited young soldier. Although women’s roles are underdeveloped, Judith Ivey has several strong moments as a soldier’s memorably stubborn mother.

Right from the beginning, the script abandons a chronological approach, preferring instead to mix dreams, memories and flashbacks with key scenes that are repeated from a slightly different angle. Joel Cox, who cut most of Eastwood’s films, is the careful editor.

The first time we see the three heroes being saluted at a stadium, we don’t know them well, and it’s a rousing moment. A rerun of the scene, much later in the film, is laced with irony. That’s because we’ve since been through hell with these boys, and the sight of a roaring audience just doesn’t compensate for the horrors they’ve experienced.

Eastwood’s battle scenes are bound to be compared to the similar beach-attack scenes in Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan” (Spielberg and Eastwood co-produced “Flags of Our Fathers”). The color is drained from Tom Stern’s cinematography, time seems suspended, expressive sound effects tell us more than we want to know; the glimpses of severed heads and grenade-exploded stomachs are quite graphic.

The movie goes over some of the same territory as “Sands of Iwo Jima,” a jingoistic 1949 John Wayne drama featuring Hayes, Gagnon and Bradley in bit parts as themselves, and “The Outsider,” a more downbeat 1961 drama starring Tony Curtis as Hayes and James Franciscus as the doomed buddy he mourns.

“The Outsider,” which was for a time the only film to focus on what happened to the survivors, was written by Stewart Stern, just a few years after he’d written “Rebel Without a Cause.” (Ray Daley played Gagnon and Forrest Compton was Bradley, though they’re seen only briefly.)

In Eastwood’s project, there’s also an echo of “Tora! Tora! Tora!,” the 1970 epic that tried to tell the Pearl Harbor story from both the Japanese and the American viewpoints. When Akira Kurosawa bowed out as co-director, the attempt at balance was mostly derailed, though the finished film has moments when the original concept is honored.

Eastwood has chosen to direct two versions of the Iowa Jima story by himself — and to release them as separate features. “Flags of Our Fathers” is the first to go into release. The Japanese edition, “Letters From Iwo Jima,” written by Iris Yamashita and starring Ken Watanabe, will open in theaters next year. If it’s anything like its predecessor, it will be a must.

“Flags of Our Fathers” may seem a bit distant from its subject, and even somewhat conventional at moments (the flag-raising episode in “The Outsider,” treated almost as an accident, is more arresting than the one in “Flags,” which presents it as a Major Historical Event). Yet just when you’re wondering if the picture lacks heart, it breaks through with a finale that’s deeply satisfying.