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Photo fight

Movies | Eastwood film examines the anguish of the men who raised the flag at Iwo Jima

Issue: "Demsnami," Nov. 4, 2006

Most moviegoers who catch the television previews of Flags of Our Fathers will falsely assume that Clint Eastwood created the Iwo Jima film as a Pacific theater version of Saving Private Ryan. For the 40 or so minutes that the bullets fly in Eastwood's film, Flags indeed resembles Saving Private Ryan for gory carnage that, along with some harsh language, ultimately nets the movie an R rating. The look-alike quality can't be by accident: Eastwood hired Ryan director Steven Spielberg to help reconstruct the battle scene on the Pacific island where in 1945 more than 6,800 Marines died taking the small piece of rock.

The Iwo Jima victory cleared the path for a more effective bombing campaign of the Japanese homeland, but the real spoils came via war photographer Joe Rosenthal's camera. At the moment five Marines and one Navy corpsman replaced the original American flag from atop the Mount Suribachi stronghold, Rosenthal clicked and captured an image that has become an American icon.

Based on a book of the same name, Eastwood's film follows the three survivors of the famous "Flag Raising" photograph as they wind across the United States on a promotional tour to raise money for the war effort. The movie's setting oscillates between a battlefield where Marines seek to make sense of the ubiquitous brutality and a homefront where the three survivors in Rosenthal's photo must confront the unseemly task of shilling for dollars while their war buddies fight on.

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Like Eastwood's previous efforts (Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby), Flags is grimly honest in ways that previous Iwo Jima flicks like John Wayne's Sands of Iwo Jima (1949) don't even approach. While making Flags of Our Fathers, Eastwood even produced and directed Letters from Iwo Jima, a film from the Japanese perspective of the battle; it's set to premiere next February.

If Flags lacks the same emotional tug as Saving Private Ryan, that's because the film's point is less pathos than logos. Eastwood argues that Rosenthal's famous photograph saved the war effort by giving hope to a war-weary homefront. And perhaps that's why the film has a certain currency. As Michael Fumento has shown, U.S. reporters in Iraq mostly hang out in hotels and, without firsthand knowledge of what's going on, deliver anti-Bush propaganda. America's present war effort in Iraq could use a Rosenthal-like photograph to give the other side: that victory is still attainable.

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