Clint Eastwood's grim account of war in the Pacific—and on the homefront—is more about the famous photograph of the flag-raising on Mount Suribachi than the battle for Iwo Jima itself. And more than that, it's about the propaganda effort launched by that picture, which is revealed in the story to be more of an inconsequential afterthought than the symbol of hard-fought victory it became.
Six men appear in that photograph; shortly thereafter only three of them are alive, hastily shipped home and sent out on a fundraising tour and billed as the "Heroes of Iwo Jima." That the three feel they are nothing of the sort is of little concern to the man in charge (a feisty John Slattery), who informs them that the war effort is bankrupt and without this bond drive their surviving comrades back on Iwo Jima—the real "heroes"—might well have to swim home.
It's the cynical little white lie behind the fundraising effort that Eastwood is interested in and all the glory and pain that flow from it. Freedom isn't free, as they say, and Eastwood has a canny eye for the butcher's bill: broken lives and shrouded bodies lined up on beaches, and "heroes" both ill-prepared for notoriety and forced by circumstance and conscience to make a casualty of the truth.
All good war films ought to be antiwar films at heart, and Flags succeeds in this regard, as a necessary civics lesson—and a testament to the rebuking of the power of propaganda. The technical details, too, are impressive; the battle scenes are vivid and visceral. Eastwood's staging of the struggle over this particular pile of black rock is presented with frightening clarity, a terrible beauty to be sure.
Where Flags falters is in the homestretch; as unsentimental as Eastwood might be at heart, on the surface his story gets as manipulatively weepy as his subject is jingoistic. By the end, we know more than enough about the men who survived but not enough about the ones who didn't. And the postwar coda lingers on, with Eastwood determined to give his subjects their due, apparently unaware that he already has. Someone tell Clint the war is over: He won.