Unconventional path for Eastwood's 'Flags'

Unconventional path for Eastwood's 'Flags'

With its moody depiction of the iconic flag-raising atop Iwo Jima, the one-sheet for Clint Eastwood's "Flags of Our Fathers," opening today, promises a conventional exercise in wartime heroics. But as moviegoers are about to discover, when Eastwood hits the beach, the path he takes is anything but conventional.

Based on James Bradley's nonfiction best-seller, "Flags" isn't a simple celebration of men under fire but a more complicated study of the nature of heroism. And formally, the screenplay, which was begun by William Broyles Jr. ("Jarhead") and reworked by "Crash's" Paul Haggis, takes an even more unorthodox route.

Where Bradley's book begins with his own investigation into the wartime experiences of his father John "Doc" Bradley, one of the six figures in Joe Rosenthal's Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph, it then largely follows a straightforward, chronological line, accompanying the men into battle before then tracing their postwar experiences. But Eastwood's movie follows a different trail: From the beginning, aged warriors flash back to their memories of the battlefield; a seeming assault on Mount Suribachi dissolves into a climb up a papier-mache mountain as part of the flag-waving, fundraising efforts on behalf of the war.

Steven Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan," to which "Flags" inevitably will be compared, employs a much more straightforward structure -- it begins in the present but quickly shifts into a past that plays out in a linear fashion. "Flags," however, continually cuts back and forth among three time frames: the memory-filled present, the island assault in the distant past and then the postbattle homecoming that followed. It is a structure that is likely to frustrate some viewers even as it intrigues others.

"Flags" is hardly the first movie to fracture time. In the heady '60s, such movies as Alain Resnais' "Last Year at Marienbad" and Richard Lester's "Petulia" cross-cut among the past, present and future with sometimes puzzling abandon. More recently, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, in such films as "Amores Perros" and "21 Grams," has treated time more like a Gordian knot than a straight line.

Consciously or not, "Flags" appears to belong to a new paradigm in which past and present virtually co-exist. That also is the approach taken by such TV series as ABC's "Lost," on which the island-dwellers are continually playing out variations on their past behavior, and "The Nine," in which the survivors of a hostage-taking continually replay their experience like a never-ending loop as they try to get on with their lives.

The new model differs from the old Freudian convention, popularized in the '50s in such movies as Alfred Hitchcock's "Spellbound" and Nunnally Johnson's "The Three Faces of Eve." They treated traumatic events in the past as buried secrets that had to gradually be dug up before they could be successfully exorcised and then put to rest. But that old Freudian model now seems overly simplistic.

In the new paradigm, the past actually becomes part of the present as vivid memories color current realities. In "Flags," for example, there's no separating the experience of the soldiers as they are feted on the home front from the more complicated realities they endured on the battlefield.

As a way of storytelling, it also suggests one other influence that has come to pervade our lives: the Internet. Encountering such a movie as "21 Grams" or "Flags" is, in some ways, akin to surfing the Net. Although there is a seeming randomness in the way we click from one link to another, there also is an underlying order to the associations. The past, instead of being safely cordoned off somewhere behind us, becomes a series of embedded links we carry with us into the future.