Memo to Clint Eastwood: Quit hanging around with Paul Haggis. I'm serious. The man is ruining your shine.
"Flags of Our Fathers" would be a better, even outstanding movie if it weren't for the weak characterizations, trite dialogue and self-important sloppiness provided by co-screenwriter Haggis, who brings the same to everything he does.
But Eastwood, directing his 26th film, is ever the trouper. As he did with Haggis' script for his Oscar-winning "Million Dollar Baby," Eastwood plays down the inferior stuff to get to what the story is really about: the scarred, conflicted souls of everyday warriors. You have to give him props for squeezing genuine humanity out of something that could have been unbearably schmaltzy.
The film takes its inspiration from the book of the same name, which tells the life stories behind the iconic image of five Marines and one Navy corpsman raising the flag on Iwo Jima. Eastwood exposes the hypocrisy, public ignorance and false idol-worship attached to every war. During World War II, three of the military men in that famous photo -- John "Doc" Bradley (Ryan Phillippe), Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford) and Ira Hayes (Adam Beach) -- come back home to receive heroes' welcomes and tour the country to encourage patriotic Americans to buy war bonds. Unfortunately, the three other men who raised the flag with them can't be there -- they died in battle. Even more unfortunate, this group wasn't the first to plant the flag on that island. It seems the shot consists of a second crew that was ordered to raise the flag.
With co-screenwriter William Broyles Jr. ("Apollo 13," "Jarhead") manning up some of the material (I'm pretty sure all those ferocious battle scenes are his), cinematographer Tom Stern keeping things nice and cynically murky, and producer Steven Spielberg having his back, Eastwood creates a vulnerable meditation on heroism and discontent. He bounces back and forth in time to show how even the Greatest Generation produced veterans more haunted by their pasts than proud of their accomplishments.
Other young-turk actors (Jamie Bell, Paul Walker, Joseph Cross) and war-movie mainstay Barry Pepper fill out the archetypal soldier roles Haggis comes up with, but Eastwood keeps the focus on the core trio. Bradford and Beach admirably mine distinctiveness from their stereotypical characters (a cocky yes man and a tortured, mostly drunk American Indian, respectively) while Phillippe effectively remains the movie's moral center. I was shocked and impressed with his performance, since he has a flair for exerting an arrogant snottiness. Humble and sincere, this is perhaps the first Phillippe performance that didn't make me want to hit him with a brick. But that's neither here nor there.
Flawed yet resilient, "Flags of Our Fathers" is a bruising, durable man show. It's also part one in Eastwood's World War II saga. In February, we'll get to see the Japanese side of it in "Letters from Iwo Jima." I hear Haggis came up with the story, but the script was eventually written by a Japanese-American scribe. Maybe Clint doesn't need my advice after all.
Staff writer Craig D. Lindsey can be reached at 829-4760, firstname.lastname@example.org or blogs.newsobserver.com/unclecrizzle.