The elderly photographer interviewed in Flags of Our Fathers muses that a single image can make or break a war. For instance, he says, Vietnam was lost when the image of a South Vietnamese police chief executing a man in the street hit the wires. And in February 1945, as the war in the Pacific raged on, one photo would prove key -- not just as an immediate rallying point for the weary homefront, but as an indelible image of American victory in World War II. That photo was the raising of the American flag on the island of Iwo Jima. Flags, directed by Clint Eastwood, is the surprisingly layered account of how it got there, what it cost and what it really meant.
After the photo was published, the brass tapped three men believed to have been flag-raisers -- two Marines (played by Adam Beach and Jesse Bradford) and a Navy corpsman (Ryan Phillippe) -- and returned them to the United States for a rousing PR and bond-buying campaign. Even as the three protested that they weren't in the photo or had done little, they were packaged as "heroes." These brave young Americans, the story went, had snatched victory from that hellhole island. In fact, the photo just looked like victory: The battle for Iwo Jima lasted 31 more days, and five of the 11 flag-raisers died there.
Flags is most interesting when it follows the lesser-known story of the photo's PR campaign. The war scenes, shot to resemble newsreels, are effective enough. But this war-is-hell material, complete with explosions, men dropping by the hundreds and limbs flying, is standard fare. It does serve as a useful backdrop when Eastwood rolls out his bigger questions: What constitutes a hero? Is it a specific action, or simply surviving? Is living a "heroic" lie for the greater good an admirable sacrifice?
The film jumps around in time, often inelegantly, and the last reel, designed for maximum heart-wringing, drags when it should thump. Regardless, Flags is affecting, managing to be both downbeat and stirring (it sides with the grunts).
Flags is also something of a stealth message film: Those who turn up at the megaplex expecting a gung-ho flag-waver, as advertised, may find Flags more provocative than they expected. It's a worthy WWII story, yet highlighted by easy parallels to today's Iraq war, particularly in its cynical depiction of front-office spin. (Remember the Jessica Lynch "hero" narrative and how it unraveled when Lynch protested?)
If, as Flags reminds us, an offhand photo can make or break a war, test the theory on Iraq. It should have been the shot of Saddam Hussein's statue tumbling while Iraqis cheered. Instead, the defining photo, decidedly not valorous, is likely to be a snapshot taken one night at Abu Ghraib.
Starts Fri., Oct. 20.