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Flags of Our Fathers

Sometimes a picture isn't worth a couple of hours.

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Watching the previews of "Flags of Our Fathers," you wouldn't be blamed for mistaking it for "Saving Private Ryan From the Japs." Based on them, most audiences will show up for the assault and capture of the Japanese island of Iwo Jima. Won't they be disappointed when they learn that those scenes are only brief intermissions between bond drives? Yep, bond drives.

Clint Eastwood's "Flags" is the latest full-scale invasion to storm the beaches of the local cineplex, and audiences uninitiated in James Bradley's book are likely to think it's about selling war bonds. It's supposed to be about heroism, in the process tackling race, bravery, propaganda and a slew of other issues during its more than two hours of running time. It does make statements on heroism, some intelligent and some mystifying. But torture me in a P.O.W. camp and I still wouldn't be able to tell you for sure what it's all supposed to mean.

To show how convoluted "Flags" became on its way to the movies, it's necessary to explain how war bonds and the battle of Iwo Jima are related in the first place. The tagline pinned to the movie's breast reads, "A single shot can save the war." It refers not to a sniper's bullet but to a photographer's picture, the historic photograph by Joe Rosenthal of a handful of Marines, backs to the camera, raising an American flag over the desolate landscape of Iwo Jima. In the rare expository scenes that don't get caught up in barbed wire, we learn how the picture that inspired the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington thrilled the public and rejuvenated their morale when it first splashed across the nation's newspapers.

In the film, American leaders decide to seize the moment, inviting the boys in the photo home for a national tour of parades and public appearances. Only a few of the six have survived the month-plus battle, including Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford), Native American Ira Hayes (Adam Beach) and John "Doc" Bradley (Ryan Phillippe), a medic. The trio are mostly hesitant heroes, not least because they feel the real heroes are all dead, but also because there was another flag-raising, with other men, moments before the one being celebrated. The revelation means that the famous photograph, though not staged, was not of the original moment. To some people, it didn't have the same import either.

It's a question involving authenticity, reality and truth, and it's a pretty good one. Which meaning is more important: What the photograph looks like it means or what it really depicts? Should the young Marines stand up before the American public and explain that this was not the first moment of heroism, but a replacement flag-raising so their commanding officer could keep the original? Would this hurt the war effort even though it meant telling the truth? To put it bluntly, do the ends justify the lie?

The point is worth exploring, especially today, but it proves too much to handle for Eastwood and his team. The screenplay was written in part by Paul Haggis, and similar to "Crash," the story jumps around a lot, through time, space and point of view, often cutting short an interesting scene to go back and reiterate a tired point. The way it's put together is unnecessarily convoluted and confusing, often relying on hackneyed devices to bail itself out of bad positions caused by other hackneyed devices.

The entire final quarter of the movie is a lengthy closing sequence of explanatory bludgeoning, taking us into the modern day by the hand of a new character — James Bradley (Tom McCarthy) — who narrates us home.

Perhaps a natural and unavoidable result of the subject, there are moments in the movie of naked intensity. In one especially moving sequence, we witness the deaths of the other flag-raisers — admirably played by Barry Pepper, Paul Walker and Joseph Cross — attended by Phillippe's Doc, who vigorously treats these fatally wounded buddies even though he knows he has no chance to save them. Most of the film does not achieve this combination of quiet power.

The battle scenes, gimmes in even bad war pictures, are often clumsy and unoriginal. Whole chunks are ripped from "Saving Private Ryan" and "The Thin Red Line," but rarely with their significance intact. For example, Eastwood shows us the enemy right before battle, from their point of view as the American troops advance, a device borrowed from both of these movies. But in his version they don't have the trembling weight of determined, doomed defenders. Their guns slither into view as if aimed by serpents. Strange imagery in a movie about heroism, unless that's a trait Eastwood believes is unique to Americans. "Flags" is at war with a multitude of ideas, and it's a losing battle. (R) 132 min. **S

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