Key Points:

Herald rating: * * * *

Joe Rosenthal's photo of six troops raising the American flag on the Japanese island of Iwo Jima on February 23, 1945, is one of the most famous images of war.

In contrast to Robert Capa's Spanish Civil War shot of the falling loyalist militiaman, whose death is sudden and inglorious, Rosenthal's frame was formally perfect: its diagonal composition, the facelessness of its everyman subjects, its classical frieze shape, its dynamic movement, its promise of triumph.

It was the perfect propaganda shot and that's what it became.

The three men in the picture who survived the bloody battle for the island became dupes of the war that killed their mates. Rushed home, they were cheerleaders for a fundraising campaign to boost the flagging war effort.

Working from a superb adaptation of a 2000 book written by one of the men's sons, Eastwood, in his 25th outing as director, has made a sober and sobering epic movie that keenly evokes the historical events while asking pointed, topical questions about the men who wage wars - and the (other) men who fight them.

Eastwood, 76, who made his reputation playing characters devoid of moral uncertainty - Dirty Harry slept easy at night - is in a searching mode here. Certainly, the film has a lumpen determination to underline The Big Ideas in case we miss them, but it's a piercingly moving study of how war's casualties don't always fall on the field of battle.

The three survivors of the flag-raising - Navy medic John Bradley (Phillippe) and Marines Rene Gagnon (Bradford) and Ira Hayes (Beach) - react to the carefully engineered adulation in strikingly different ways: one embraces it, one tolerates it and one - a Native American and national hero who can't get served in a bar - cracks up.

On these three sensitive and nuanced performances Eastwood inscribes the film's ideas about courage and companionship (a journey undertaken by Hayes is a sequence worthy of John Ford) but much of the overall effect derives from telling leaps back and forth in time between the battlefield, the aftermath, and the present day.

This elliptical structure demands and rewards close attention for the powerful ironies it illuminates: seeing actions lionised before we see the actions themselves, we confront the contrast between heroism's reality and its hokey facsimiles.

The banality reaches its nadir when, at a gala dinner, the boys are served for dessert a moulded icecream model of their feat.

Shooting mainly on the black-sand beaches of Iceland, Eastwood and cinematographer Tom Stern create fantastic battle sequences, perhaps not as explicitly harrowing as those of Saving Private Ryan but equally dramatic.

Finally, though, it eschews Saving Private Ryan's neatly rounded moral shape because Eastwood, sensibly, asks more questions than he answers.

He has made a flawed movie, but it has the seeds of greatness in it.

New Zealander Melanie Lynskey has a small but substantial role. Eastwood's Letters from Iwo Jima, which tells the story from a Japanese perspective, comes out in January.

Cast: Ryan Phillippe, Jesse Bradford, Adam Beach
Director: Clint Eastwood
Running time: 135 minutes
Rating: R15 (graphic war scenes)
Screening: Everywhere
Verdict: Veteran director Eastwood looks behind the famous flag-raising on Iwo Jima to craft a flawed but powerful film about heroism and propaganda.