- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 19, 2006

In what might be called the revisionist stage of his long career, filmmaker Clint Eastwood has scrutinized masculine violence and found it a poisonous defect of human DNA. In his Oscar-winning Western “Unforgiven” (1992), Mr. Eastwood attempted to dismantle the romantic underpinnings of America’s frontier history. Next, “Mystic River” (2003) put demonic testosterone in the petri dish of a contemporary city. Most recently, “Million Dollar Baby” (2004), which earned Mr. Eastwood a second best director Oscar, somewhat oddly transposed this penchant for ambitious violence onto a female boxer.

What’s left?

Why, a World War II epic, of course.

With “Flags of Our Fathers” (see review), Mr. Eastwood tackles the mother of all American applications of violence. The movie, which opens today in area theaters, is based on a 2000 best-selling book by James Bradley, son of one of the six men whom photographer Joe Rosenthal famously snapped hoisting an American flag atop Iwo Jima’s Mount Suribachi.

It’s not just “war is hell” that “Flags” preaches; that’s been Hollywood’s “profound” revelation of choice for something like the last 25 years. Mr. Eastwood and screenwriters Paul Haggis and William Broyles Jr. have found a more conveniently soft target — the unsurprisingly crude and provisional attempt by the federal government to turn the three surviving flag-hoisters into domestic war bond celebrities immediately after the 1945 battle.

Wouldn’t you know it, the late Mr. Rosenthal’s photograph was not as magically spontaneous as we’d like to imagine (another flag had been raised earlier that day, only to be pocketed for posterity by a higher-ranking officer). It was manufactured iconography, and, what’s worse, the survivors — two Marines and a Navy medic (Ira Hayes, Rene Gagnon and John Bradley, respectively) — were pressed into propagandistic fundraising service they neither sought nor felt comfortable performing.

Timber. Down goes another pillar of American national self-regard.

Except it’s not that simple.

In splashing the book’s personal narratives onto such a panoramic, Spielbergian canvas, “Flags” unfairly maligns the federal government’s monumental wartime propaganda efforts, which marshaled some of the greatest Hollywood talent of its era.

Director Frank Capra, to use the most famous example, helmed the documentary series “Why We Fight” with the goal of explaining the threat of European fascism and Japanese militarism for isolationist-minded Americans. Manipulative? Sure. Justified? Without question.

Incidentally, Mr. Bradley’s (and co-author Ron Powers’) meticulously researched book isn’t nearly as tough on the military’s public information apparatus as Mr. Eastwood and company are. War movie buffs were right to worry about the influence particularly of Mr. Haggis, whose thumb-sucking multiculti liberalism was just right for the urban racial fable “Crash” but spectacularly glib in this context.

Sandra Schulberg has spent the better part of the last year promoting a cache of postwar propaganda films that were shown across Western Europe as part of the Marshall Plan reconstruction effort. (The 25-film series, “Selling Democracy,” concludes tonight at the National Archives William G. McGowan Theater.)

She knows better than most how the mere mention of “propaganda” is as hackle-raising as an ethnic slur — and not without some justification. “Americans do well to look on government propaganda with a wary eye,” she says.

And yet, Ms. Schulberg adds, do we instinctively know propaganda when we see it? The Marshall Plan films “trumpeted their policy goals loudly, usually to the tune of jaunty music.”

Consider a rather more inconspicuous Cold War effort: the Central Intelligence Agency’s covert funding of literary journals including Encounter and Der Monat in the 1950s. “Would the authors have agreed to have their work appear if they had known of the CIA’s backing?” Ms. Schulberg asks. “Probably not.”

She goes on: “Would subscribers have turned against the magazines? Probably so. But while the Defense Department and international security apparatus were funding more swords, the CIA was placing a small side bet on pens. It may have been the best money they ever spent.”

In moral terms, wartime propaganda is intrinsically value-neutral — it is no better or worse than the cause that it serves.

To approve of propaganda necessarily involves choosing sides. Could that be the source of Mr. Eastwood and Mr. Haggis’ apparent cynicism about U.S. wartime propaganda efforts? It would have meant their acquiescence in the fusty notion of moral inequality on the battlefield.

It might be worth recalling here “Saving Private Ryan,” directed by “Flags’” executive producer Steven Spielberg. Even that acclaimed tribute to the battlefield heroism of U.S. servicemen in World War II retained a position of moral detachment vis-a-vis the war in which they fought.

In a column for the Los Angeles Times earlier this year, crime novelist Andrew Klavan called on Hollywood heavies to throw their collective weight behind the war on terrorism. The idea was quixotic at best, but his analysis of the industry’s high-minded reticence was spot-on: “With this counterfeit wisdom,” he wrote, “they imagine themselves above the need for patriotism; they fantasize they grasp a truth beyond good and evil, and they preen themselves on a higher calling than the protection of our way of life.”

As it turns out, Clint Eastwood already has shot a beyond-good-and-evil sequel of sorts to “Flags of Our Fathers.” It’s called “Letters From Iwo Jima,” and it’s told from the perspective of the Imperial Japanese army.

If, as is currently being touted, Mr. Eastwood wins the best-director prize at next year’s Academy Awards, he would join the elite company of three-time winners William Wyler and — wait for the full-circle irony — Frank Capra. (Only John Ford has won four.)

Stuff a few more movies like “Flags of Our Fathers” down the throat of popular culture, and we’ll need a new regimen of “Why We Fight”-type fare.

It will shatter the conventional wisdom of a wised-up generation. It’ll be called “Why We Fought.”

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