The Contenders

Release: Oct. 20

Distributor: Paramount

Oscar Alums: Clint Eastwood (picture, director, “Unforgiven,” “Million Dollar Baby”), Steven Spielberg (picture, director “Schindler’s List”; director, “Saving Private Ryan”), Paul Haggis (picture, screenplay, “Crash”), Joel Cox (editor, “Unforgiven”), Henry Bumstead (art direction, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “The Sting”)

One of the most exciting American filmmakers working today, 76-year-old Clint Eastwood — a fistful of Oscars already on his mantel — seemingly effortlessly puts himself in the running for more with his brutal and heartfelt dissection of the costs of war, the Iwo Jima saga “Flags of Our Fathers,” based on James Bradley and Ron Powers’ book recounting the story of the famous flag-raising moment that encapsulated for many World War II.

If critics haven’t been as unanimously behind this movie as they were “Unforgiven” (picture, 1992), “Mystic River” (picture nominee, 2003) and “Million Dollar Baby (picture, 2004), the consensus is that Eastwood has made an unquestionably serious, tough and affecting movie about war and the selling of war.

Ryan Phillippe, Jesse Bradford and Adam Beach play the soldiers plucked from the blood-drenched black sands of the Pacific island to tour the U.S. as iconic heroes, hailed because of a photo, privately scarred by experiences no one can fully understand.

The Academy track record of war movies is well established, from the first best pic winner, “Wings,” through “Flags” producer Steven Spielberg’s WWII saga, “Saving Private Ryan.”

Although “Flags” started slow out, it has the potential to be a staying force through Oscar season, due in no small part to the enormous goodwill Eastwood has engendered as a screen idol-turned-auteur with a penchant for pushing himself artistically.

(This subject matter so invigorated Eastwood, he made his next film — to be released next year — about Iwo Jima from the perspective of the Japanese.)

Pic’s complex, non-linear script is by William Broyles Jr. (nominated for “Apollo 13″) and last year’s Oscar darling, “Crash” writer-director Paul Haggis, who penned “Million Dollar Baby.”

Awards talk has already started in earnest about Beach, whose wrenching portrayal of Ira Hayes is becoming the stuff of war film acting legend. He is ably supported by the quiet dignity of Phillippe and the brashness of Bradford.

Technically, the film is a wonder, from Tom Stern’s crisp, rich monochromatic cinematography — like a charcoal-treated color film — to Joel Cox’s potent editing. Visual effects are top-drawer, too. Pic also reps the next-to-last work of the late, legendary production designer Henry Bumstead.

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