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A new generation takes up heroes' flag

Roger Moore
The Orlando Sentinel

There was a time when a young man hoping to become a movie star had to tick off items on a Hollywood list.

He had to do his gangster picture. He had to manage romances and romantic comedies. He had to look at home on a horse.

And he had to do his combat movie.

That time is very much the era of "Flags of Our Fathers," Clint Eastwood's new World War II drama. It's a history lesson, an eye-opener for a generation far removed from World War II or any notion of what Iwo Jima was. And it's a test for a generation of young actors, from Ryan Phillipe and Adam Beach to Jamie Bell and Jesse Bradford.

We've been watching Bell, 20, since 2000's "Billy Elliot," the British comedy about a boy who only wanted to dance ballet, no matter what the other kids think. And Bradford, 27, has been around since the `80s, first earning notice as a cheerleader's lovesick brother with the hots for Kirsten Dunst in 2000's "Bring It On."

Bradford plays Rene "Rainy" Gagnon, a Marine Corps "runner" who brought the replacement flag to the top of Mount Suribachi and helped raise it, a moment captured by Joe Rosenthal's famous Iwo Jima photograph. After Iwo Jima, Gagnon tried to "cash in" on the fame and died a bitter man when that didn't work out.

And Bell portrays Ralph Ignatowski, another member of the Marine Corps fighting on Iwo Jima, not a flag-raiser but part of their unit.

"The men who fought for 30-something days, we really can't know how bad that really was," Bell says. "But we shot this on Iceland, a volcanic island, like Iwo Jima, and experienced the ground conditions, to some degree. Sand and ash in everything. You can't dig foxholes, because the sand falls in on itself. There's no stability to it. It's like walking through 3 feet of water. It gets into everything.

"We got one one-hundredth of a percent of a taste of what they went through, shooting this on volcanic sand," Bradford says. "But the more we worked on this, the more I could see how that `Greatest Generation' label really fits. These were people who sacrificed. I wonder if anybody my age or younger can appreciate that. We don't sacrifice today."

"Flags," which arrives in theaters Friday, is already earning Oscar buzz, with Variety's Todd McCarthy praising this "pointed take on heroism" and director Eastwood's exploration of why members of "The Greatest Generation" "are, or were, reticent to speak much about what they did in the war, to boast or consider themselves heroes."

The actors confess that their big break, an Eastwood movie, came largely because they look like the men they portray on the screen. To that end, they learned as much as they could about these real-life Marines and the battle that was the defining moment in their lives.

"Clint wanted us to be fresh-faced and wide-eyed," Bell says. And there's a line in (James Bradley's) book about these guys, `Iggy was just a regular bicycle kid.'"

The "regular bicycle kid" was friends with one of the flag-raisers, something of a unit mascot. Bradford had the trickier role to play. History hasn't been kind to the way Gagnon responded to the war-bonds tour he and the other surviving flag-raisers went on in 1945. The other men, Ira Hayes and John "Doc" Bradley (played by Beach, 34, and Phillippe, 32) suffered "survivor's guilt." But not Gagnon. Bradford thinks he knows why.

"Say you or I are fighting in Iraq right now, and a sergeant comes up and says, `You and you are going home,'" Bradford says. "Who wouldn't take him up on that? So who can blame him for being relieved to be plucked out of one of the bloodiest battles of the war to go see his mom, his girlfriend, people he didn't think he'd ever get to see again?

"Rene's defining moment in the movie comes in Times Square, when he's giving a speech," Bradford adds. "He knows he was just a runner. He was straightforward about what his role was, and he makes it clear that it's not about him or the other two. It's about the guys still fighting, the guys who would never make it off that island."

Bradford thinks the story and movie's muted colors mirror the theme Eastwood and company sought, "a movie about Morality with a capital `M,' and morality that's a little more relative. A lot of people try to make every story black and white, the selling of this war or that one, this man is a hero, that one isn't. This is a war movie that finds the gray in that."



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