By Tom Charity
Special to CNN
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(CNN) -- Clint Eastwood was 14 when Battle of Iwo Jima took place in 1945, old enough to know how Joe Rosenthal's famous picture vouched for victory and -- with a little help from John Wayne's "Sands of Iwo Jima" -- endowed the Marine Corps with a mythic luster that persists to this day.
As we now realize, the photo was not everything it seemed to be. The flag had already been raised on Mount Suribachi earlier that morning; the moment Rosenthal immortalized was a substitute flag going up. According to one story, a military bigwig required the original as a souvenir; other sources suggest the first flag was deemed too small.
Either way, the battle was far from over. In fact, it would rage on for another month.
Eastwood's new film, "Flags of Our Fathers," counterpoints the bloody fight for the eight square miles of Iwo Jima with the hollow hoopla that accompanied the three men brought home to conduct a last-ditch war bonds appeal. And John "Doc" Bradley (Ryan Phillippe), Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford) and Ira Hayes (Adam Beach) are acutely aware that they have been designated heroes for no better reason than they were snapped in the right place at the right time.
While Rene seems happy enough to capitalize on his good fortune, and Doc is persuaded that stumping for cash is also a vital contribution to the war effort, Hayes is consumed with guilt and starts drinking excessively. The other three men in the photo died at Iwo Jima, and one of them has been misidentified, a grievous error the authorities immediately cover up.
Are the survivors heroes? That's what they hear. But they wonder.
For all his conservative associations, Eastwood has been questioning notions of heroism ever since Sergio Leone made him a movie star. In the '60s and '70s that revisionism mostly consisted of debunking old myths and insisting on a cynical, mercenary pragmatism. But "Flags" doesn't take the easy way out. Like "Saving Private Ryan" and "Band of Brothers," Eastwood's film doesn't want for examples of courage under fire or the horrors of war. The only color in Tom Stern's desaturated battle palette is splash of blood or the flash of an exploding shell. ("Flags" was produced by Steven Spielberg, who directed "Ryan" and produced "Brothers.")
The film also refrains from easy potshots at the political propaganda machine into which Hayes and the others are fed. Though, at times, there is something distasteful and insensitive (as well as dishonest) about this publicity drive -- at one point the men are ordered to reconstruct the event on a papier maché mount in Chicago's Soldier Field, with fireworks echoing artillery blasts and brass bands in attendance -- there's no question that the cause is just. (John B. Hickey is eminently dignified and nicely understated as the trio's military minder.)
Hayes at the center
All the same, even as the picture seeks to honor the fallen and make peace with the past, there is a nagging undertow of regret and shame here that eventually finds its focus in the tragic figure of Ira Hayes.
A Pima Indian, inevitably nicknamed "Chief," Hayes suffers a barrage of racist condescension throughout his tour, but the epithet that really rankles is "hero." He's the only one to appreciate the disservice such a distortion inflicts on the living and the dead; how close meaningless acclaim might be to disdain. Adam Beach's agonized performance as Hayes is the film's standout.
Though much of the script by Paul Haggis and William Broyles, based on the book by James Bradley and Ron Powers, feels overly familiar and unduly repetitive, the movie accumulates its power over time.
A framing device features scenes of Doc Bradley shortly before his death, still troubled by dreams of the battle, and his son (Tom McCarthy) interviewing survivors for the book. It's an old-fashioned device, and coupled with the extensive narration for the movie's last 15 minutes, it shouldn't work. Yet this epilogue is where the film's emotion feels most heartfelt and true.
As for Eastwood, age has only sharpened his craft. He was 62 when he made "Unforgiven" back in 1992, and he's directed a dozen films since -- including "Letters from Iwo Jima," which tells the "Flags" story from a Japanese perspective and is already in the can, merely awaiting a release date.
What's most interesting about these later works is how they make no bones about being an old man's films. That's not always a positive: some of his crime thrillers have taken on a hackneyed feel that feels lazy and complacent, or just plain tired.
But "Flags of Our Fathers" is an old man's movie in the best sense. The full weight of a lifetime's experience has been brought to bear in the unobtrusive staging, the delicate score (by Eastwood himself), and a thoughtful, honest accounting of World War II's bloodiest and most iconic battle. If it unfurls at a deliberate pace, you can be sure it is worth the wait.
"Flags of Our Fathers" runs 131 minutes and is rated R.
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The raising of the flag on Iwo Jima is only the beginning in "Flags of Our Fathers."