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The Big Movie: 'Flags of Our Fathers' (R)

Weekend!Movies: Heroism has its costs, and revelations
by: COURTESY OF PARAMOUNT PICTURES, Ryan Phillippe plays John Bradley of the U.S. Army  in a Clint Eastwood film about the six soldiers who raised the flag on Iwo Jima.

Remember Audie Murphy? His heroism as the most decorated soldier of World War II led to postwar movie stardom, including playing himself in 'To Hell and Back.'

You surely know Clint Eastwood, the antiheroic star who forged an impressive directorial career re-evaluating his image and the mythologies it sprang from. Now in his filmmaking prime at 76, Eastwood takes heroism itself as his subject in the ambitious and moving 'Flags of Our Fathers.'

It's a story Audie Murphy (who lived troubled and died bankrupt) probably could appreciate about real heroes playing themselves. To hell, but never really back.

Based on a book by James Bradley and Ron Powers, the film is inspired by World War II's - perhaps American history's - most famous visual image: The photograph of six soldiers raising the flag on Iwo Jima galvanized failing national spirits in the war's final months.

But the six men (three of whom soon died in the monthlong island battle) were assured what the book calls 'faceless immortality' while the instantly iconic image 'became everything except the salvation of the boys who formed it.'

The three surviving flag raisers starred as fundraisers in a national war bond campaign that paid dividends for the government but cost the trio dearly.

In playing themselves, Navy corpsman John Bradley (Ryan Phillippe) and Marines Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford) and Ira Hayes (Adam Beach) lost themselves somewhere between the reality of their dead comrades and the heroic illusion manufactured by government publicists.

For the tortured Pima Indian Hayes especially, the historic photo is a picture worth a thousand wounds.

Eastwood intercuts the military and promotional campaigns, adding occasional glimpses of the soldiers grown old, for an appropriate state of fragmented consciousness that proves more complete and rewarding in filmic terms than a straightforward chronology.

The monochromatic imagery seems filtered through the black Iwo Jima sand, creating a nightmare landscape that awakens in memory like a tripped land mine.

Without ever sacrificing compassion, Eastwood captures the terrible randomness of survival in combat as he questions the way truth is merchandised (and so made disposable).

In this aspect, 'Flags of Our Fathers' couldn't be more timely. But the way it lends both inspiration and isolation to the celebrated photo - sinking that hallowed flagpole even deeper into home ground - makes it timeless.

- Pat Holmes

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