HEROES AND POSTER BOYS; A Masterful Examination of Combat, Sacrifice and Modern-Day Mythology

Article excerpt

Byline: MATT SOERGEL

'Flags of our Fathers'

**** (4 stars) out of 4

Flags of Our Fathers is a knockout film for Clint Eastwood, who at 76 tackles his most ambitious story yet - the bloody battle for Iwo Jima and the public-relations battle over the men who raised the flag atop Mount Suribachi in that iconic Joe Rosenthal photo.

Five Marines and a Navy corpsman were caught in the picture as they strained to plant the flag, the second one put up to mark the taking of the mountain that day. A politician wanted the first as a souvenir, and the Marines, rightfully, grumbled about taking it down before putting the new one up - just in time for that famous photo.

It became a sensation when it hit the papers back home: Here, in those bloody, war-weary times, was something to rally around.

So now, in 1945, with the war still going on, three of the men in the photograph have been yanked back to the States, and they're in Chicago's Soldier Field, where a large-scale replica of Mount Suribachi has been built. A huge crowd is cheering, and the three men are expected to trek up the fake mountain and plant another flag.

A couple of them balk.

"Pretend the other guys are with you," a savvy public relations guy tells them.

Marine Ira Hayes gives him a withering look: "The dead guys?"

Yes, those dead guys, their three flag-raising comrades who died bloody deaths on Iwo Jima.

Flags of Our Fathers is a story of heroism and sacrifice on the battlefield, but it's also bracingly cynical in its way that those qualities can be exploited, often by those with little or no firsthand knowledge of war.

His film works on the biggest, splashiest level, with battle scenes that for cogency and brutality rival those of Saving Private Ryan (Steven Spielberg is a co-producer here).

And it works on that quiet, human level where Eastwood is so strong, where people are flawed, good and bad. Real. One powerful scene: the sight of Hayes, at an official function, collapsing in the arms of the mother of a Marine he watched die, and just sobbing inconsolably.

Even the people running the PR campaign at home aren't craven or buffoons: The country badly needs the money from the bonds to continue the war, and these Iwo Jima "heroes" they're selling can help do that.

There's plenty of sentiment here, but not a moment feels forced. In a larger sense, the film is about the group that's been dubbed the Greatest Generation, but not once do Eastwood and his writers bludgeon you by insisting they're the greatest; instead they show you persuasive proof of that. …