Lots of famous actors go on to become directors later in life, but have ANY in most of our lifetimes done so with the grand success that Clint Eastwood has? Here is a man who had already become a Hollywood legend twice over when he first began directing, and since that point has delivered a portfolio of work that would easily have made him a titan of his art even if there'd never been a "Dirty Harry" or Spagehtti Westerns.
"Flags of Our Fathers" has been called, incorrectly, a work of "de-mythologizing" WWII and Iwo Jima. In fact, it's more simply a work of examination: The legend of WWII as recalled by movies, photos, etc. and the reality as remembered but seldom spoken about by the men who fought it. The subject matter at hand just about writes itself: The famous flag-raising over Iwo Jima re-galvanized the homefront and turned it's surviving raisers into bond-rally celebrities... but the psychological whiplash of having endured horrible combat and then being asked to pitch a hopeful, sanitized version of it to the public drains them emotionally and (the film and history would argue) ultimately destroys at least one of them.
The film is structured, at first disconcertingly-so, as a time-skipping stream of consciousness narrative; leaping back and forth in chronology between the wartime events before, during and after the battle, the homefront tour AND the present, where the son of one of the three unwitting icons researches the history of the famous photo as part of a book (the film is based on the resulting text.) As such, there really isn't much in the way of a beginning, middle and end through-line to follow which, eventually, has the effect of letting us experience the strained psyches of the men we follow. Adam Beach, late of "Windtalkers," has the "showiest" part as Ira Hayes, a Pima Indian who takes the tour the hardest, while Ryan Philippe gives a performance of powerful restraint in the nominal lead.
The scenes of combat on Iwo Jima itself are excellently-mounted but sparse, here used primarily as flashbacks. Those hoping for a full-on battle film, though, will get their wish: While shooting this film, Eastwood and company shot a second feature covering the battle from the perspective of the dug-in Japanese troops. Titled "Letters from Iwo Jima," this parallel film to "Flags" is due out in February.
Like much of Eastwood's recent output, the film is both quietly powerful and free of heavy-handedness in terms of message. There's been some controversy over the film's supposed function as an anti-war film, but it's not as simple as all that. Those looking for a condemnation of war will find it, as will those looking for a celebration of the Greatest Generation. Those looking for a good movie... ditto.
FINAL RATING: 8/10