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Flags of Our Fathers ****

All right. Okay. So Clint Eastwood's Flags of Our Fathers is not as good as his last couple of films, Million Dollar Baby, going backwards in time, and Mystic River. Little birdies have told me so, and I don't disagree. The new film, to put a finer point on it, is not as good as either of the best American films of their respective years. Saying it like that is a way of saying that Eastwood has become one of those select filmmakers, so far above the pack, to be measured only against himself. And his not-as-good new film is nonetheless, with just two months to go, the best American film of its year thus far.

Admittedly, that's something of a collective judgment, a body-of-work judgment as distinct from an individual judgment. The director (and on this occasion nonactor), sorely trying the patience of anyone still hoping for a sixth installment of Dirty Harry, is not yet done paying penance for the casual, callous, and prolific violence of his earlier years. And Flags of Our Fathers rises in value as an essential, an unmissable, piece of the entire cycle, an extraordinary course of self-examination and self-reform, beginning in earnest with the aptly titled Unforgiven, continuing through A Perfect World and, yes, The Bridges of Madison County — the modern-day saddle tramp riding a pickup instead of a pony and shooting with a camera instead of a Colt — and, after slacking off for a few lesser efforts, carrying on with revived urgency through the three most recent.

This latest one shows, to begin with, that he has not taken the course too far, that he has not run the thing into the ground, not run out of new angles. An elegiac war film, it tells the story of the famous Joe Rosenthal flag-raising photograph from the Battle of Iwo Jima, the full story, how this flag was in actuality a larger replacement flag for one raised already, how the battle raged on for five more weeks afterwards (contrary to the 1949 Sands of Iwo Jima with John Wayne), how the three survivors among the six faceless flag-raisers (played with great restraint by Ryan Phillippe, Adam Beach, Jesse Bradford) were brought back home to be paraded around on a bond drive, how they squirmed under the banner of "the heroes of Iwo Jima" (the best-known of them, the American Indian Ira Hayes, later celebrated in song by Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan, drank himself into an irreversible skid), how they lived out their remaining days. It is distinctly a film of, and for, its own time, gripped with the conviction that the more you know about an event, the more tainted it will get. And let's remind ourselves, right about now, that Eastwood is still the only major filmmaker to have commemorated on screen the American conquest of Grenada. Surely some special penance was owed for that. Mark it down as paid in full.

There are unmistakable and somewhat regrettable echoes here of Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan — the reminiscing WWII vet of the present day, the CGI invasionary fleet, the jaws-of-death beach landing, a bit of that concussed camerawork in the thick of the action — and one wonders whether Spielberg's involvement in the project as a co-producer didn't influence the decision to drain the color from the image, sometimes, on the battlefield, all the way to virtual black-and-white, in conscious imitation (or as you prefer, self-conscious imitation) of the photojournalism of the day. I frankly didn't care for the look of the film. But then, I didn't much care for the dustily monochromatic color work of Unforgiven, either, though that didn't spoil it for me.

On the other hand, there are countering echoes of The Bridges of Madison County — the posthumous discovery of a secret box in the attic, the child's belated probe of a parent's hidden inner life, the still camera as a weapon of choice, mightier than the sword. ("A single shot," reads the sly ad line, "can end the war.") And the overall drift of the film, steady and unrushed, coming in at Eastwood's regulation running time of two and a quarter hours, goes very much against the burbling rapids of Spielberg: no sensationalizing, no shouting, no strong-arming, no tipping of the hand, playing it instead close to the vest, staying open to ambiguity and ambivalence (the theme music, composed once again by the director himself, sounds like a kind of stillborn "America the Beautiful," more of an "America the Doubtful"), refraining from point-making and axe-grinding en route, working towards a cumulative effect, and bringing it all together at the end in the touching epiphany of the soldiers at play in the Iwo surf, fighting men, warriors, reduced to their skivvies, their flesh, their humanness. And please remain seated through the slide show of authentic war photos during the closing credits, after which you will be rewarded with a haunting final shot, circling around a clifftop war memorial, without really looking at it, to get a clear, elevated view of the deserted beach today, a place that preserves no footprints. Eastwood there shows his heart, his humility, his awe, his reverence for life. He shows, also, the courage of understatement, the courage of the small statement. And in the unavoidable violence of the film, he has come up with some viable solutions to the eternal danger of glamorization: keeping it quick, avoiding the cliché of lingering slow-motion (is Spielberg taking notes?), isolating the worst of the gore, in the story's scrambled timeline, into mere fragments, divorcing it from dramatic sequence, subverting it as spectacle, consigning it to inerasable memory, the mental photo album of the battle-worn veteran. An even worse bit of gore, the fate of the likable "Iggy," is pointedly neither shown nor described. We can only imagine.

The central theme of the manufacture and marketing of "heroes," while timeless in its application to the everyday work of Hollywood, has a particular topicality in the post-9/11 world where no one in public service seems to be able to do his job anymore without being branded a hero. The point — that men are only men, that "heroes" are their creations, a label pinned on them like ribbons — is quietly and forcefully made. Yet despite its best efforts, or rather because of them, the film inescapably demonstrates the existence of heroes in the real world. One such, obviously, would be Eastwood himself, a shining example of the human capacity for growth and renewal. He, too, shoots with a camera.

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