Flags of Our Fathers (R)
Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Tinseltown
Like wine, Clint Eastwood films are supposed to get better with age.
Tackling what is arguably his most epic story ever, the 76-year-old director whose Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby Oscars are still glistening on his mantle returns to the awards debate with Flags of Our Fathers, a patriotic look at America's need for heroes and villains when perhaps none exist.
The story, from a screenplay by William Broyles Jr. and Paul Haggis, winner of the past two Best Original Screenplay Oscars for Million Dollar Baby and Crash, concerns the famous photograph taken by AP photographer Joe Rosenthal of the six servicemen who raised Old Glory at the Battle of Iwo Jima during World War II.
As the national pride resulting from this shot begins to swell across the country, we're introduced to three of those servicemen: Navy man John "Doc" Bradley (Ryan Phillippe) and Marines Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford) and Ira Hayes (Adam Beach). They're recovering from the war during a public relations tour designed to exploit their heroism and inspire Americans to buy military bonds.
What's fascinating is how these three men the other three wind up killed in action are elevated to the status of legendary American heroes by the media and a public desperate to believe that such heroes exist. Meanwhile, director Eastwood argues that there are no such things there are only people who perform heroic, unselfish acts.
Phillippe builds on his stellar turn in last year's Crash with another impressive performance, but Beach clearly is the standout here. His character, an American Indian toeing the line of hero and pariah, is the only one in whom we become emotionally invested. His moody, understated performance transcends the heavy-handed material; one tearful and heartfelt monologue makes for the film's best scene.
Despite the strong performances from the cast, Eastwood and editor Joel Cox get a little too carried away at times. They toy too much with the film's structure, alternating back and forth between the war and the public relations tour with alarming regularity and interspersing it with a voice-over narration that, while well-written, veers too closely to cheesiness.
This, when coupled with the poorly defined characters, keep the film from becoming the genre classic that it so aspires to be. The battle scenes deserve due praise cinematographer Tom Stern should be proud but you have to wonder how much credit should go to the clear inspiration, Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan.
Flags doesn't always feel like the whole story behind the bloodiest battle in American history, and that's because it's not. In an unprecedented move, Eastwood directed a companion piece, Letters from Iwo Jima, which tells the same story from the perspective of the Japanese, to be released on Feb. 9. You have to wonder, though, if this separation did more damage than good; Flags has trouble standing on its own.
Flags of Our Fathers will earn its box office, however, based solely on two facts: 1) It's a historical war piece and 2) it's a Clint Eastwood film. Given that the story isn't all there, the real draw for moviegoers might be related to a different kind of history: Is it time to start seeing Eastwood's movies just because we can't be certain how many more are left?