This review was originally published at Christianity Today.

War is hell,” they say. So is war propaganda.

Both of these observations are powerfully illustrated in Clint Eastwood’s new film Flags of Our Fathers, which is based on James Bradley’s book about the lives of the six U.S. Marines who appear in the ubiquitous photo called “Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima.”

As the film opens, we watch three servicemen—John Bradley (Ryan Philippe), Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford), and Ira Hayes (Adam Beach)—climb a steep slope. When they reach the peak, they triumphantly lift an American flag.

But this is not the moment in that famous 1945 photo taken by AP reporter Joe Rosenthal atop Mt. Surabachi on a small Japanese island. No, this is a recreation on a peak made of papier-mâché, staged for a cheering crowd.

The Marines are standing in Chicago’s Soldier Field, under a sky full of festive fireworks, waving to the Americans who have taken such comfort from that dramatic black-and-white portrait. They’re taking part in a vigorous military propaganda effort, persuading patriotic Americans to purchase war bonds. And it works—the cheering people open their wallets to show their support for those troops still fighting against Germany and Japan.

Rosenthal’s image captured America’s imagination. It inspired us to strive for victory, and brought comfort to the worried families of Marines. Thus, it was printed, imitated, and reenacted to keep spirits high—and to keep the dollars coming in. “The country was tired of war,” says a retired captain (Harve Presnell) as he thinks back. “One photo, almost all on its own, turned that around.”

Ira Hayes , John ‘Doc’ Bradley and Rene Gagnon are greeted as heroes upon returning home from the war

Thus, we see Bradley, Gagnon, and Hayes, the three from the photograph who survived, welcomed as heroes for surviving the greatest siege in American military history. But as they wave and smile, they are haunted by the fact that Soldier Field is nothing like Mt. Surabachi at all. Their own flag-raising was not the glorious moment that everyone seems to believe it was. And, in their opinion, the real heroes were killed on the island.

All told, about 26,000 lives—almost 7,000 Americans and over 19,000 Japanese—died on and around Iwo Jima. (The Japanese perspective will be revealed in Eastwood’s companion sequel,Letters from Iwo Jima, in February.) And the suffering didn’t end when the Marines came home. The horrors continued, playing like a highlight reel in their heads—driving them to silence, depression, and worse.

The subject of violence preoccupies Eastwood in film after film. Having played a heroic gunslinger so many times, the 76-year-old Hollywood legend seems determined to de-glamorize violence and revise our definition of heroes. As in his masterpiece—Unforgiven—his characters often employ violence for the best intentions, but then carry burdens of doubt and damage afterward.=

Flags of Our Fathers is ultimately about war heroes—why we need them, how poorly we misunderstand them, and what it’s like for Marines branded as heroes. Eastwood shows us that there is often a vast chasm between what happens in combat and what is communicated to the nation via the media and the government.

It’s a timely reminder. But it is not, as some might fear, an indictment of the government as manipulative and dishonest. Clearly, the campaign to represent Iwo Jima’s “heroes” was a masterful work of public relations and spin. And yet, Eastwood leads us to wonder if some degree of deliberate misrepresentation might have been worth it after all, considering how many lives the exploitation of that photograph may have saved.

Doc Bradley, with Walter Gust (Stark Sands, right), recovers from wounds after the battle

Eastwood’s film succeeds more fully in asking profound questions than providing any satisfying answers. But unfortunately, the film falls short of translating the power of that memorable book penned by James Bradley (with Ron Powers).

To be fair, a lot can be accomplished in 400 pages that cannot be achieved in two hours of screen time. Bradley’s Flags recounts his investigation into the experience of the one man in the famous photo whose face can be seen in profile—his father, Navy Corpsman John Bradley. According to James Bradley, John refused to speak of that nightmare, and it wasn’t until after the veteran’s death that James unearthed not only his father’s story, but the stories of all six Marines.

It’s just too much for one film. Eastwood seems to understand this, so he focuses his attention on coverage of the battle and the PR tour, foregoing detailed portraits of the Marines.

And, with the help of producer Steven Spielberg, he delivers a galvanizing vision of the war, empowered by Tom Stern’s fantastic cinematography and further innovations in the special effects that made Saving Private Ryan so memorable. The spectacle and sound design inspire awe even as they make us flinch and turn away from the screen. And the film’s muted colors give it the feel of archival footage.

The famous moment is re-enacted in the film

Yet, while the re-creation is utterly convincing—an end-credit montage of archival war photos show us that Eastwood did his research—the characters get lost. The film might have worked better if it had focused on contrasting two of the Marines’ experiences—the way Chariots of Fire juxtaposes the tales of two Olympians—or if it had been expanded into a miniseries to detail these lives more fully. The memorable biographies contained in Bradley’s book are reduced to sketchy impressions here. The cast of talented young actors—especially Philippe, King Kong’s Jamie Bell and Saving Private Ryan’s Barry Pepper—do the best they can with characterizations that border on the bland. Eastwood takes us deep into the thick of the battle, but not far enough into the lives of the characters fighting it.

The only character who really comes to life is Ira Hayes, a Native American, formerly portrayed by Tony Curtis in 1961’s The Outsider. During the tour, Hayes suffers derision and persecution at home for his ethnicity, easily inspiring our sympathy. But we get more than his bouts of misery and drunkenness; we get glimpses of his confusion at being an Indian and an American hero, and some saddening pictures of his life after the war. Adam Beach (Windtalkers) gives Hayes dimension, and it may be enough to earn him some acting honors.

On the other hand, some of the peripheral characters are little more than annoying caricatures, the most grating of which is Pauline (Melanie Lynskey), Gagnon’s spotlight-seeking fiancée.

The film’s other weakness is its structure. Penned by William Broyles Jr. and Paul Haggis, the script constantly yanks us from the maelstrom of bullets and blood, to the troubling public relations tour back home, to the veterans’ present-day storytelling, and back again. In doing so, it keeps the viewers constantly off-balance. And after a while, it seems like the sequences are spelling out redundant, and obvious, points.

“The right picture can win or lose a war,” says the veteran. Will Eastwood’s picture have lasting significance? Many war films have shown us that “war is hell,” but the greatest—films like All Quiet on the Western Front, Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, Grave of the Fireflies, Saving Private Ryan, and The Thin Red Line—tell memorable stories through the eyes of unique and unforgettable characters. It’s unlikely that Flags will be ranked among the great films about combat.

It is likely to be remembered instead for its nagging questions about the ethical compromises that often seem necessary in order to reinforce a nation during wartime. Like The Manchurian CandidateThe Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and Three Kings, Eastwood’s film might increase our reluctance to trust what our media and government tell us is happening. But it might also make us more patient and understanding if events are sensationalized for the greater good.

When the sequel—Letters from Iwo Jima—opens in February, Eastwood will show us the same battle through the eyes of the island’s Japanese defenders. When we can compare and contrast the two films, we may discover that they cohere into a monumental cinematic achievement and a profound meditation on war, virtue, and human nature.

It will be interesting to see if American moviegoers will be as willing to buy tickets for a movie about the enemy as they are to watch a film about their own heroic Marines. Christ encouraged us to consider our enemies and—what is more—to love them and pray for them. It is an act of humility and compassion to remember the fallen on both sides of the war, and art is one of the most powerful avenues for that sort of contemplation. Thus, Eastwood should be applauded for embarking on such an ambitious two-part project.