If irony weren't wasted on Clint Eastwood he might make better movies. His new release, Flags of Our Fathers (adapted from a non-fiction book by James Bradley and Ron Powers), shows the effect of the famous photograph on the soldiers who raised the American flag over Iwo Jima in February 1945. The photo, caught by Joe Rosenthal without looking through his viewfinder, becomes such a patriotic sensation that the three surviving soldiers are brought home for a bond-selling tour with the goal of raising some billions of dollars towards the national war debt.
The three boys are John "Doc" Bradley (Ryan Phillippe), a Navy hospital corpsman; Ira Hayes (Adam Beach), a Marine from the Pima Indian tribe; and Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford), a Marine runner. Doc and Ira find it distasteful to be fêted as "heroes" on a deluxe cross-country junket while their buddies, both the living and the dead, remain on the island.
Only Rene (pronounced "rainy") — whom his officers did not consider up to front-line service — understands that it's just another facet of the war effort, and finally one he has a talent for, as well as a taste. The best sequence focuses on Rene, who steps up to the first microphone put in front of him and, without faltering, figures out what needs to be said. He even incorporates in real time a disparaging remark that Ira makes about him under his breath. (He pays Ira back afterwards.)
The irony of the situation is that the two idealistic, unassuming boys more naturally adjust to the exigencies of battle than to the soft life of promoting the war effort. In other words, it's easy for them to be heroes, just don't call them one. At the same time, of course, this is the American notion of martial heroism — no vaunting for us. And it's pretty much the same as in a World War II-era movie, such as Preston Sturges's Hail the Conquering Hero (1944), which, however, starts with an ironic protagonist pressed into passing himself off as a war hero and expands from there. By contrast, Flags of Our Fathers is as unleavened as Eastwood's Mystic River, in which Sean Penn's character — a neighborhood warlord so emotional and hotheaded that when his daughter is killed he takes injustice into his own hands — is presented as a tragic hero rather than a killer buffoon.
If Eastwood and his screenwriters William Broyles, Jr. and Paul Haggis (the latter wrote the script for Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby  and co-wrote and directed Crash ) were intent on their skeptical view of the war-bond junket, they needed to structure the story better. There is one sequence that suggests what such a movie might have been. The boys are asked to ascend a scale model of Mt. Suribachi and to re-enact the flag-raising in a sports stadium for a cheering crowd. (The recreational fireworks resemble combat flares and rockets.) As they turn to help each other up the tacky stage-set, Doc flashes back to the deaths of the three other men who appeared in the photo. It's the most rhythmic moviemaking Eastwood has ever pulled off, but it would be more powerful as the climax of the movie, which doesn't have one. It's only at the end that we understand that the movie has been the research project of Doc's son. This "understanding," however, is not meaningfully dramatic because the son is not otherwise an important character.
Lacking an integral narrative structure, Eastwood uses a non-chronological sequencing that cuts among the troops before the landing on Iwo Jima, the landing and month-long battle, the bond tour, the "present" when the veterans are old men, and some scattered, baldly informational fill-ins. This technique at least keeps his overladen wagon rolling on its groaning axles. The emphasis shifts, however, from narrative to the moviemakers' attitudes toward the war, heroism, the photo, and the junket, and those attitudes are simplistic when not incoherent.
Toward the beginning, for instance, one elderly veteran says that the Iwo Jima photo won the war just as Eddie Adams's 1968 photo "General Nguyen Ngoc Loan executing a Viet Cong prisoner in Saigon" lost that later war for the U.S. Isn't it at least as plausible to say that Adams's photo would not have had the impact it had if the Viet Nam war hadn't already been lost in some sense? And Adams himself later wrote in Time magazine, "People believe them, but photographs do lie, even without manipulation. They are only half-truths…. What the photograph didn't say was, 'What would you do if you were the general at that time and place on that hot day, and you caught the so-called bad guy after he blew away one, two or three American soldiers?' How do you know you wouldn't have pulled the trigger yourself?" Flags of Our Fathers shows none of the thoughtfulness of this comment.
The movie, like all of Eastwood's so-called masterpieces, is literal-minded without being grounded in naturalism, and so the characters, like failed attempts at optical illusions, never attain full dimensionality. Thus, although Rene is potentially the most complex character (and Bradford gives the best performance), Eastwood presents him as a fake and a creep, just the kind of guy who would make a good tout. Rene then gets his comeuppance when, after the war, none of the big-shots who handed him cards during the tour gives him a job, or even returns his calls (as the illustrated narration tells us). He finished his days as a janitor, which is supposed to make us pity his smallness but is also imparted as a definitive judgment on him — i.e., he believed his own publicity! (The movie's hypocrisy about publicity tours is matched by its snobbery: especially in a small institution, such as a grade school or a church, a good janitor is a godsend.)
Ira is the one who's destroyed — he can't get over his survivor's guilt that better marines than he died on the island. He drinks so heavily he's kicked off the tour and sent back to fight. Later, we learn, he becomes a farm laborer (whom tourists drive out of their way to be photographed with in the fields) and dies of drink. Ira is the heart of the picture, but his story is simultaneously overdone and underdeveloped.
I wish that nearly every person he engages with didn't make a tactless or taunting comment about his race. Ira may respond as a Native American of his day would have (it can't be the first time he's been called "Chief," after all), but the 2006 audience doesn't hear it that way. (This is part of the larger problem, that every character is always displaying his personality. The treatment of character is hackneyed in the way it has been in American war movies since the silent era, though it usually includes a healthier dose of comedy than you get in Flags of Our Fathers.) Then the fact that Ira becomes a falling-down drunk on the bond tour changes the subject, although the moviemakers apparently don't realize it. Are they suggesting that the war-bond tour caused his alcoholism? Do they think that alcoholics aren't capable of creating their own problems, even in what from the outside seem like ideal circumstances?
Rene is the character we're meant to like least, and Ira the one we're meant to feel for most; the literal Goldilocks of the trio is Doc — the gorgeous, kissy-lipped blond Phillippe — who represents the moviemakers' "just-right" image of themselves. Doc is disgusted but not destroyed by the experience of turning blood-and-guts battle into homefront P.R. He returns to the family business, refuses all later publicity, and raises the son who writes the book the movie is based on. That son tells his dying father that he's the best father a son could have had, although any basis for this comment is outside the scope of the movie and so we either have to take it on faith or ignore it.
Finally, Flags of Our Fathers seems to be stretching for a summary of the heroism of the servicemen in World War II, as well as a broader application of the difference between fighting the war overseas and winning it at home. The narrative structure, however, does not have the necessary reach. How could it with only three boys at the center? That's like expecting How to Marry a Millionaire to summarize what American women wanted circa 1953.
There's something contradictory about the critical view that Flags of Our Fathers adopts towards the government's appropriation of the reluctant heroes' experiences. Eastwood implicitly counters that they're just boys doing what's required; they're men, not monuments. But then the movie takes Doc and Ira, and even Rene, and presents them as perfect representatives of understated American heroism in the first place and of how non-combatants don't understand, and the government unfeelingly exploits, soldiers in the second. The movie thus debunks the use of the boys as symbols and then turns them back into symbols, though of something else. There's not a fully realized personality in 132 minutes.
Though it's based on a non-fiction book, Flags of Our Fathers is too thinly imagined for naturalism, and when Eastwood squeezes the material for greater significance, it crumbles. The movie thus has the same failings as such life-of-the-company World War II movies as The Story of GI Joe (1945), which presented the everyday heroes as the essence of what-we're-fighting-for and reduced everything, men and ideals, to clichés. There is nothing in Flags of Our Fathers that feels as unsententiously lived as what we see the men undergoing in Pierre Schoendoerffer's The 317th Platoon (1965) or John Irvin's Hamburger Hill (1987), combat pictures about the French and American experiences in Viet Nam in the '50s and '60s, respectively.
Under the apparent tutelage of Steven Spielberg (who co-produced this picture), Eastwood gives his battle scenes more immediacy than any action scenes have ever had in his other movies. (The special effects are superb and judiciously used.) But he blands it all out with his pedestrian storytelling, much as Spielberg tends to do in his "big" pictures. I grew up on my father's traumatized memories of being a teenaged combatant in the South Pacific during World War II and Eastwood's movie still left me cold. For this son of a bewildered ex-marine, the National World War II Memorial in Washington better expresses the traditionalist combination of awe and restraint that Eastwood misses here. It has on repeated visits provided a far more moving aesthetic experience than Flags of Our Fathers.