Inside the Hero Factory

Clint Eastwood's tough, smart, achingly sad "Flags of Our Fathers" is about three anointed heroes of World War II--three of the men who appeared, backs to the camera, in the legendary Joe Rosenthal photograph of six soldiers hoisting the American flag on Iwo Jima. It was an image that electrified a nation at war. The military wanted these men to be larger than life to raise desperately needed money for the war effort by selling war bonds. So the government, sensing, as one character says in Eastwood's film, "that a picture can win or lose a war," plucked them off Iwo Jima, where the 35-day battle was still raging (and where the other three men in the photo had been killed), and paraded them in front of cheering crowds. It was all for a good cause, but it was pure PR, and it ate away at the insides of these media-proclaimed heroes, who believed that the men who deserved the glory were the ones who had given their lives.

Watching Eastwood's harrowing film, which raises pointed questions about how heroes, and wars, are packaged and sold, it's hard not to think his movie is a commentary on today. Images of Jessica Lynch pop into your brain. And when Sgt. Mike Strank (Barry Pepper), the unit's leader, is killed by friendly fire, your thoughts turn to Pat Tillman, the ex-football star whose death was initially rewritten to suit the mythical role the military, and the media, had decided he must play. "When people ask me if this movie is applicable to today," Eastwood told NEWSWEEK, "I say, 'Well, you know, everything is ... Everyone's distorting things, just as they distorted them then'."

Eastwood wasn't thinking about Lynch when he re-created Iwo Jima's brutal battles on the black sands of Iceland, but he acknowledges the aptness of the analogy. "That poor girl. She was just a teenager. The military and their publicity people decided she had to be Wonder Woman, gunning down tons of people with her machine gun, when she didn't fire a shot. They desperately wanted her to be that." Eastwood, the former Republican mayor of Carmel, Calif., is no dove, but he does question the premise behind the American undertaking in the Middle East. "I'm not one of those idealistic people who think democracy has to be for everyone," he says. "That's naive on our part. I don't know if they want democracy."

"Flags of Our Fathers," an epic both raw and contemplative, is neither a flag-waving war movie nor a debunking. It's an investigation into the nature of heroism, real and manufactured, and of our deep-seated need to avert our eyes from the horror of war by gazing up at the more comforting vision of the heroic. It ponders the way images are used to manipulate reality. (Eastwood's "Letters From Iwo Jima," which will be released in February, follows the Japanese side of the battle--largely in Japanese, with subtitles.) Working from an intricately structured screenplay by Paul Haggis and William Broyles, Eastwood crosscuts between the present, where the survivors are still haunted by the war's deadliest fight, to the battle for Iwo Jima itself, where more than 20,000 Japanese and 6,821 Americans died, to the banquet halls and football stadiums where Navy Corpsman John (Doc) Bradley (Ryan Phillippe), 19-year-old Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford) and Native American Ira Hayes (Adam Beach) are wined, dined, celebrated--and ultimately discarded.

The most famous member of the trio, Hayes (whose life was made into 1961's "The Outsider," with Tony Curtis), was the most tragic. Subjected to the constant, casual racism of the day, tormented by guilt at being singled out when he believed he should be fighting alongside his buddies, he descends into alcoholism and self-destructs before our eyes. Eastwood's movie arrives at a complex conclusion about the blurry intersection of war and propaganda. Perhaps Winston Churchill expressed the ambivalence best: "In wartime truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies."

The practice of turning wartime exploits into convenient fictions (or warriors into gods) is hardly a recent invention. There's the Iliad, for one. But Achilles, as far as we know, didn't have PR handlers. The great American country-boy celebrity of World War I, Alvin York, was a true hero, but his sharpshooting exploits were wildly embellished in serialized magazine articles. (It's no coincidence that when Gary Cooper immortalized him in 1941's "Sergeant York" we were on the brink of another war.) The deeper into the bloody century we went--as photography, film and television increasingly entered into the equation--the more inextricably the war machine and the public-relations machine became entwined. But if the wheels meshed smoothly in World War II, they ran off the tracks in Vietnam, where the pictures flooding in--self-immolated priests, a naked girl fleeing from a napalm attack--turned a country against the war. The great lesson the military learned was the importance of controlling the images of combat. Hence the heavily sanitized aerial-view depiction of the gulf war, an "impersonal" videogame war waged by mythical "smart bombs." Then came the strategy of "embedding" journalists with the troops in Iraq, which both controlled the reporters' access and made them feel part of the military effort. Images of returning coffins were initially banned.

After the embarrassing revelations of the fictions surrounding Private Lynch--and after the mother of Pat Tillman waged her angry fight against a recalcitrant Pentagon to find out the truth about her son's death--the administration has retreated from the business of selling heroes. The iconic images that were meant to stir a nation, such as the toppling of Saddam's statue, had short shelf lives. Or, in the case of the president's "Mission Accomplished" strut across a battle-ship, they have been used against him.

It hasn't been a conflict in which photographers or network-news producers have captured the "picture that can win or lose a war" in Iraq. It was a shutterbug soldier who thought it would be cool to document the fun and games at Abu Ghraib. What the Pentagon didn't foresee, and couldn't control, was the rise of new media--the unfiltered images popping up on the Web, the mini-DV cams put in the hands of soldiers that emerge in the recent documentary "The War Tapes." We don't see much of the real war on network TV, but the unauthorized documentaries--"The Ground Truth," "Gunner Palace" and many more--come pouring out. Just as more people think that they get a straighter story from Jon Stewart's mock news reports than from traditional outlets, it's been the "unofficial" media that have sabotaged the PR wizards in the Pentagon. The sophistication of the spinners has been matched by the sophistication of a media-savvy public.

It was easier to control the way we looked at war back in the days of "Flags of Our Fathers." Eastwood himself was "raised on '40s war movies," most of which were propaganda. But that was a fight that united us as a nation. Now an administration that seems to create its own reality is discovering that reality bites back.

CORRECTION:  In "Inside the Hero Factory" (Oct. 23), we said the flag raising at Iwo Jima was conducted by six soldiers, when in fact the flag was hoisted by five Marines and a Navy corpsman. Furthermore, President Bush's " 'Mission Accomplished' strut" was on an aircraft carrier, not a battleship. NEWSWEEK regrets the errors.