A single photograph, we’re told early on in Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers, can win or lose a war. But sometimes, that photo shows us only part of the story, whether it’s the part we don’t want to see — slaughtered villagers at My Lai, tortured prisoners at Abu Ghraib — or the part we do, with heroes front and center and the carnage carefully framed out of view.

In Flags, the image under scrutiny is one of the most iconic in the history of American photojournalism: five U.S. Marines and one Navy corpsman planting Old Glory atop Mount Suribachi on the island of Iwo Jima during the fifth day of the 35-day battle there between Allied and Japanese forces. That picture, Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima, helped rally American support for the war effort, won a Pulitzer Prize for its shooter (AP photographer Joe Rosenthal) and made overnight celebrities out of its subjects. But the soldiers on Mount Suribachi didn’t feel like heroes, and with good reason.

Based on the best-selling book by James Bradley, whose father, John “Doc” Bradley, was the Navy corpsman in Rosenthal’s photo, Flags of Our Fathers is about the three flag raisers who survived Iwo Jima — Bradley (Ryan Phillippe), the dashing and mildly pompous Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford) and the proud Pima Indian Ira Hayes (Adam Beach) — and how their moment in the spotlight irrevocably altered (and, in one case, destroyed) their lives. For these men were not the first to fly the Stars and Stripes over Iwo Jima, but rather a secondary team, assembled after the smaller flag, erected earlier in the day by an entirely different group of soldiers, was claimed as a souvenir by a high-ranking naval officer. It was this second flag, though, that was seen around the world, its raisers the ones plucked from duty and ferried hither and yon by wily politicians who saw in these fresh-faced lads the makings of an inspired PR campaign. It was not the first time — nor would it be the last — that perception trumped reality where the selling of wars to the American public is concerned.

According to the press notes for Flags of Our Fathers, in his later years John Bradley was plagued by hallucinations and night terrors stemming from his World War II experience, and Eastwood’s movie unfolds as if it were one of them, jaggedly flashing back and forth between the charcoal sands of Iwo Jima and the clinking banquet rooms where the flag raisers shill for the war-bond effort before crowds of patriotic well-wishers. Executed by Eastwood in stark wide-screen compositions all but drained of color, the battle scenes are as visceral and nerve-fraying as anything in Saving Private Ryan, which is no small feat given that Eastwood is 76 this year and has never before directed a film of this enormous physical scale. The landing on Iwo Jima alone is a master class in controlled chaos, as machine-gun bullets stream out of camouflaged Japanese pillboxes and mortar fire turns human bodies into sizzling piles of flesh and bone and ash. But the most surreal, unsettling images in Flags come later, when Bradley, Gagnon and Hayes are pressed into re-enacting their storied feat as a crass vaudeville spectacle before a cheering crowd at Chicago’s Soldier Field, and when, at a celebratory dinner, they see the huddled likeness of themselves and their fallen brothers transformed into an ice-cream sculpture. Your choice of syrup: chocolate or strawberry.

It would be easy to say that Flags of Our Fathers is to the World War II movie what Eastwood’s Unforgiven was to the Western — a dedicated stripping away of mythology until only a harsher, uncomfortable reality remains, and to an extent, it is. It’s a movie about how the savagery of combat, even in the “good” wars, has been papered over by tales of brave young men upholding American virtue in the face of an ignoble enemy. But what Eastwood is really doing here is calling into question an entire way of reading history, by which the vast and incomprehensible are reduced to easily digestible symbols and meanings — epic conflicts distilled into heroes and villains, winners and losers. In war, Eastwood offers us an all-too-timely reminder, who is just and unjust all depends on where you’re watching from. And to further the point, he has directed another movie, Letters From Iwo Jima, that promises to tell the Iwo Jima story from the perspective of the Japanese, and which will follow Flags into theaters early next year.

In the meantime, with Flags, Eastwood has made one of his best films — a conflicted, searching and morally complex deconstruction of the Greatest Generation that is nevertheless rich in the sensitivity to human frailty that has become, through movies like The Bridges of Madison County, Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby, the signature of a filmmaker originally celebrated as a strong and silent movie tough guy. You feel this most of all in the characterization of Hayes, whose postwar descent into alcoholism and near madness has been told many times before, in song (“The Ballad of Ira Hayes,” covered by Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash) and onscreen (1961’s The Outsider, starring Tony Curtis), but never quite with the haunted intensity that Eastwood and Beach (who has never registered this ?powerfully onscreen) bring to it. Theirs is an agonizing portrait of a man unable to readjust to civilian life, tormented by the recognition he felt he didn’t deserve. And it is made all the more poignant by Eastwood’s revelation, late in the film, that Hayes, like all of the men who raised the second flag over Iwo Jima, did show extraordinary bravery on the battlefield, just not in the way for which he was remembered. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but for men like John Bradley, Rene Gagnon and Ira Hayes, there were thousands more that went unspoken.

FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS | Directed by CLINT EASTWOOD | Written by WILLIAM BROYLES JR. and PAUL HAGGIS, based on the book by JAMES BRADLEY with RON POWERS | Produced by EASTWOOD, STEVEN SPIELBERG and ROBERT LORENZ | Released by DreamWorks Pictures | Citywide

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