Moving Pictures (Or, Fibs of Our Fathers) 

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Flags of Our Fathers
Dir. Clint Eastwood; writ. William Broyles, Jr., Paul Haggis, ; feat. Adam Beach, Ryan Phillippe, Jesse Bradford, Barry Pepper, John Benjamin Hickey, Jamie Bell, Paul Walker (R)
In Flags of Our Fathers, Clint Eastwood has a high purpose: to tear down false notions of heroism, while still honoring the real people who do astounding things for the good of others. He’s certainly not the first filmmaker with this goal, but the position he occupies in the popular consciousness gives his take on the matter particular weight.

The movie succeeds on a number of fronts, especially the one that seems nearest to Eastwood’s heart: It conveys the distaste, bordering on physical revulsion, that those who have survived battles feel for being praised or for recalling their exploits. In Eastwood’s world, those most worthy of our praise are the ones made most uneasy by it.

In following the three survivors of the iconic Iwo Jima flag-raising photo, Eastwood finds one (Rene Gagnon) who embraced the limelight despite having done nothing special, one model of sacrifice (Navy Corpsman “Doc” Bradley) who resented being used as a marketing tool but endured it for his country, and one (American-Indian soldier Ira Hayes) who simply could not stomach the contradictions between truth and manufactured legend. Bradley’s story served as the film’s starting point — his son, James, researched and wrote the book — but Hayes, as portrayed movingly by Adam Beach, is the film’s soul.

We meet all three, alongside their fellow Marines, in roundabout fashion. The film introduces some of its themes — in present-day scenes and in flashbacks showing the impact of the flag-raising photo — before working around to the Battle of Iwo Jima itself. Once there, Eastwood and company spend a good deal of time (perhaps more than is necessary, for their purposes) in familiar war-movie mode, establishing interpersonal dynamics and depicting the action itself.

The battlefield offers startlingly gory images, but Eastwood doesn’t seem to be trying to one-up his predecessors. He makes things just frightening enough for us to sympathize with what comes next for his three protagonists.

When a photojournalist’s image strikes a chord with a war-weary nation, the government decides to send the men in the photo (of six, only three survived the battle) out on a PR campaign — manufactured celebrities hawking war bonds for a bankrupt military.

As it moves back home from Iwo Jima, Flags finds its moral footing, even as its structure may test some viewers’ patience. It may not be immediately apparent why we leap back and forth through time, but the blender-style structure has a purpose: The reality of war is ever-present with these men, and every time some civilian (backslapping senators, especially) tries to glamorize it, it’s that much harder for an honest man to speak about the experience.

More than once, the filmmakers give us dialogue that spells out the moral: The very concept of heroism is flawed. It’s a word more suited to make-believe and marketing than to the character of human beings. Men and women have an astounding capacity for self-sacrifice, but we do damage by treating them as something more than human — and that’s the case whether our motives are cynical or borne of heartfelt awe.

More by John DeFore

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