Since stories of battlefield heroics are the myths that fuel the war machine, it really doesn't matter if they're precisely true–or even invented from whole cloth–as long as they contribute to the cause. The flag-raising at Iwo Jima, perhaps the most iconic snapshot of American struggle and triumph in World War II, shows that a picture can say a thousand words, but those words don't necessarily tell the story. On its face, Clint Eastwood's Flags Of Our Fathers seems like a potent piece of revisionist history, boldly examining what heroism really means and how it can be manufactured for the "greater good." But somewhere along the way, the film loses its moxie and becomes the very thing the flag-raisers would have detested–another bronze-cast tribute to bravery and self-sacrifice, destined to fill out a three-hour slot in a Memorial Day TV marathon.
Beautifully structured, save for a heavy-handed framing device (one of several traits, good and bad, it shares with Saving Private Ryan), the script cuts between the propagandistic tour of three soldiers featured in the picture and the cruel details of the battle itself. On day five of a monthlong siege aimed at taking Iwo Jima from the Japanese, a group of Marines planted the flag on top of Mount Suribachi to rouse their fellow troops. It was then taken down and replaced by another flag, which is the one that made the famous photograph. Half the flag-raisers died in combat, but the other half–in Flags, a field medic (Ryan Phillippe), a "runner" (Jesse Bradford) who never fired a shot, and a troubled warrior (Adam Beach) of Native American heritage–returned home for speeches and photo ops. They feel varying degrees of guilt about their new roles, but find some consolation in the fact that their stumping will sell the war bonds necessary to finish the campaign.
At its most devastatingly effective, Flags Of Our Fathers follows these three men as they're trotted in front of roaring crowds at places like Soldier Field and Times Square, knowing that this charade is keeping them from their friends on the front lines. (Whenever they're introduced as "the heroes of Iwo Jima," they all but shrink in embarrassment.) As with Saving Private Ryan, the battle sequences strike a nice balance between old-fashioned derring-do and contemporary viscera, with the barren island sometimes turning into a nightmarish lunar landscape. Yet what begins as a sophisticated meditation on the meaning of heroism gradually slumps into leaden repetition in the second half, as the point gets watered down and belabored. After such provocative beginnings, the film finally, dutifully raises its hand in salute.