The toll is almost beyond comprehension. In the waning days of World War II, after years of bloody, island-hopping beach assaults, the Marines made their first landing on actual Japanese soil. The island of Iwo Jima was about eight square miles of volcanic sand and rock, home to some 22,000 Japanese troops. After 40 days of savage fighting, almost 7,000 Americans were dead, and only a bare handful of Japanese survived, many having taken their own lives. The American public wasn't aware of much of this; all they knew was that one day the front page of their daily newspaper carried an instantly iconic photo showing six soldiers straining to raise a U.S. flag atop the highest point on the island, and suddenly it seemed like the war was almost over. It soon became one of the most reproduced images in history, even showing up on a postage stamp. Every picture has a story, of course, and this picture's story, as related in Clint Eastwood's film Flags of Our Fathers, is that a single image can have history-changing importance, but only after it's been put through the reality-mutilating machine that is a wartime propaganda effort.

Flags of Our Fathers is an unlikely war film in that it isn't so much about the battle itself, or even the significance-correct or not-of that photo, but about the men who raised it and what happened to them. Before the end of the fighting, three of the six men were dead, and the survivors-Marines Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford) and Ira Hayes (Adam Beach), and Navy Corpsman Doc Bradley (Ryan Phillippe)-were whisked off the island and sent touring around the U.S., raising money for a war effort quickly going broke. While the William Broyles, Jr. and Paul Haggis script, based on the book by Bradley's son James, is often pedestrian in its depiction of these men's inner struggles, it comes through in depicting the baldly cynical manipulations of the war effort's propaganda machine.

At one especially absurd point, the men are made to climb a papier-mâché model of Mt. Suribachi that had been built in Soldier Field and re-enact the flag-raising for a cheering, patriotic crowd-a moment made all the more surreal because, as the film makes clear early on, the famous photo wasn't even of the real flag, one that had been raised earlier, and nobody's even clear about which six men were actually involved. But the scene that may register most with viewers is one in which the soldiers, grumbling over being called heroes just for surviving and mocking the whole campaign, are lectured by one of their minders about the necessity of it all: The county is practically out of money for the war effort, can't borrow anymore, and an increasingly jaded public won't pony up anything more without a big spectacle. Given all the "Greatest Generation" nostalgia of the past decade or two, it comes as a worthy reminder that, yes, even during the Great Crusade of World War II, somebody had to pay for the bullets.

Having little interest in a standard A-B-C narrative, the film flits back and forth from the present day, when the survivors are aged and frail, to the battle of Iwo Jima itself, and the publicity tour. It's a disarming tactic--one that Eastwood used to great effect in his time-skipping 1988 Charlie Parker biopic Bird--keeping viewers from getting too wrapped up in the excitement of battle or the highs and lows of the tour. Memories of combat keep erupting unbidden into the soldiers' minds at dramatically inappropriate times, fracturing the film in a uniquely chaotic anti-rhythm that convincingly mimics the manner in which a war is never quite over for any veteran.

The bulk of the battle footage itself (the black sands of Iceland standing in nicely for Iwo Jima) is used at the film's start, following the bruising initial beach assault in which the Marines fight tooth-and-nail to claw their way off a beach carpeted with corpses. Spielberg's role as producer is especially obvious here, with the smoothly rendered, but perhaps too enthusiastically employed, CGI reminiscent of Band of Brothers. (A companion Eastwood/Spielberg film, Letters from Iwo Jima, depicting the Japanese side of the battle and starring Ken Watanabe, is to be released sometime in 2007.) Eastwood's hand is more evident in the post-battle scenes, tracking the steady disillusionment of the men as they grow to despise the mantle of hero thrust upon them.

Although working here with lower-star-power actors than used in his last two films, Eastwood nevertheless gets good work out of actors like Phillippe and Bradford, pretty boys with a sharp smile who haven't previously been given a chance to show much more than their pearly whites. Playing a Native American whose wartime trauma sends him into a self-destructive spiral, Beach has the hardest role, with a character who too easily could have fallen prey to one of many readily available stereotypes. The film does his character justice, though, never straining too hard to explain his story (by far the film's saddest), giving him the gift of human mystery and, thusly, dignity. Perhaps the best thing one can say about Eastwood's work here is that he understands that no film can ever truly impart what it means to have fought in a war, that these men remain to the end of their days a breed apart from the rest of us.

Although there are numerous small matters one can quibble with in Flags of Our Fathers, it remains a worthy war film, the rare one that affords its soldiers a quiet grace without turning them into bronze statues.