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MOVIE REVIEW

The photo and the facts

Clint Eastwood focuses on too many elements in epic story of World War II image

There's a famous line from the 1962 John Ford movie ``The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" : ``When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." That sentiment goes to the heart of our national propensity for mythmaking, and it applies as much to war as to westerns.

In ``Flags of Our Fathers," his new film about the 1945 battle of Iwo Jima and its legendary flag-raising photo, Clint Eastwood simultaneously tries to honor the legend and lay bare the facts behind it. If that sounds confused, well, so is the movie.

``Flags" is also brutal, elegiac, caustic, noble, sentimental -- a World War II film that tries to be all things to all Americans. That may be a fine way to win elections but it's hard on good filmmaking. You come out of the theater impressed by the scope of Eastwood's reach and frustrated by how little remains in his grasp. As gifted as this filmmaker is, this isn't the sort of thing he does best.

The chief flaw of the film is structural: ``Flags" intercuts between the grueling 35-day battle itself, the ensuing US tour of three of the supposed flag-raisers, and modern-day sequences in which the son of one of the men interviews his late father's fellow servicemen, sifting their memories for the truth.

There are three movies here, in other words, and two of them are ``Saving Private Ryan. "

``Flags of Our Fathers" is based on the 2000 book by James Bradley , son of John ``Doc" Bradley, and at one time it was intended to be directed by Steven Spielberg , who commissioned a script by William Broyles Jr . Spielberg is still credited as producer, but when the directorial reins passed to Eastwood, he brought in his house screenwriter, Paul Haggis (``Million Dollar Baby" ), to fine-tune the script. That's a lot of cooks.

There are even more in the movie. As is now known, that iconic Joe Rosenthal photo of six men raising a US flag atop Mount Suribachi wasn't quite what it seemed. The flag had already been raised by members of Easy Company early on the morning of Feb. 23 , 1945, as American forces took control of the beachhead. Told that one of the Navy brass wanted it as a souvenir, a battalion commander ordered a switcheroo -- no one but the Marines should have the glory of the memento, in his opinion -- and sent another group up to replace the first flag.

That's the image that went into the newspapers and the history books: an accidental fraud that doubled as a booster shot for an exhausted and nearly bankrupt America. Only three of that second group were alive by the end of the long battle -- Navy corpsman Bradley (Ryan Phillippe ) and Marines Ira Hayes (Adam Beach ) and Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford ) -- and ``Flags" re-creates the months-long whistle-stop tour on which the US government sent them.

It's an orgy of patriotic overkill meant to sell war bonds (and it does, to the tune of $23.3 billion), but the effect of the hoopla on the psyches of the men is ruinous. Asked to climb papier-mâché replicas of Suribachi in stadiums across the country -- to fireworks and Sousa marches, no less -- they mostly retreat further into themselves. The slick, naive Gagnon is happy to play the war hero; he certainly looks the part. The taciturn ``Doc" Bradley, a medic who risked his life dozens of times a day to aid the wounded, constantly drifts back into bloody memories of the battle.

The movie presents Hayes as the primary victim. A Pima Indian trained as a Marine paratrooper , Hayes wants no part of the glory, but every time he steps away from the limelight, there's some racist fool to put him in his place. Crippled by survivor guilt, Hayes turns increasingly to alcohol. ``I can't take them calling me a hero," he moans to his government minder (John Benjamin Hickey ). ``All I did was try not to get shot."

It's a solid, unsettling point: What really makes a hero? ``Flags of Our Fathers" tries to answer by constantly returning to the battle for the tiny Pacific island one character likens to ``a burnt pork chop." We see good men die horrible deaths, and Eastwood memorializes as much military bungling as individual bravery.

These are harrowing sequences and bloody as hell, but they use the same cinematic vocabulary as the D-Day scenes in ``Saving Private Ryan" without establishing their own emotional beachhead. Desaturating the colors from Tom Stern's cinematography so that everything is olive drab and deep crimson, Eastwood thrusts dozens of helmeted young men at us and asks us to keep them all straight. You appreciate their actions even as you're sorting them out.

The Japanese, dug into caves, remain unseen except for an occasional detonated corpse. Anyway, Eastwood is giving them their own film: ``Letters From Iwo Jima," told from the Japanese perspective and due in February . The battle in ``Flags of Our Fathers" is between dueling notions of valor: the simpleminded kind used to sell war on the home front and the bitter, endlessly compromised sort found in the trenches themselves.

The relevance to current events is there for the taking; the director doesn't force the issue. He's more interested in the young warriors who get caught between the legend and the facts -- between what we want from them and what they endure for us. It's a monumental subject, and this heartsick but diffuse movie only occasionally glimpses its entirety.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com.

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