After directing two of the most powerful movies of the past decade — 2003’s “Mystic River” and 2004’s “Million Dollar Baby” — it is no longer surprising when Dirty Harry shoots a visually effective film. It is surprising, however, when he fails to craft a story and characters to match the quality of the cinematography, as is the case in Clint Eastwood’s latest effort, “Flags of Our Fathers.”

The majority of the 132-minute film is composed of beautifully-shot battle scenes that are undoubtedly well-executed but do little to advance the narrative. The scenes are nothing we haven’t already seen in “Saving Private Ryan” or “Jarhead,” and — though occasionally intercut with scenes of the characters’ post-war lives — they become an exercise in the ways that a harrowing scene can conclude with a close-up of Ryan Phillippe looking distressed and haunted. The chilling effect the scenes have at first is dampened by repetition. If Eastwood is trying to convey how relentless war can be, he has succeeded: You can’t help but wonder if the battle scenes will ever stop.

Based on a best-selling book of the same name, “Flags” follows the experiences of the servicemen famously photographed raising the American flag over Iwo Jima. After the picture galvanizes the nation’s support for the faltering war effort, the trio is sent home on a campaign to urge Americans to buy war bonds. The rest of the film examines the effect an image can have on the public psyche. The men are hailed as the “heroes of Iwo Jima,” although they did little except raise a flag, while their friends died in battle.

By the time the credits are rolling, it is impossible to miss the central point Eastwood is trying to make — the title of “war hero” is often undeserved and is used to ease public guilt about the sacrifices soldiers make for their country. We know this not only because it is hammered into our heads during almost every post-war scene, but also because it is neatly recited in a voice-over at the end for those who had fallen asleep. Eastwood’s argument is intriguing, but it is so overwrought that it loses the freshness it might have brought to the played-out war genre.

The three main characters each represent an extreme reaction to the title of “hero.” Adam Beach (Private Ben Yahzee from “Windtalkers”) shines as American-Indian soldier Ira Hayes, the type of troubled character that we have come to expect from Eastwood. Ryan Phillippe (from the Oscar-winning “Crash”) has the film’s largest role as John Bradley, who avoids confronting his ever-building guilt. Jesse Bradford (the male lead in the abominable “Swimfan”) finishes out the trio as Rene Gagnon, the only one of the three who embraces his undeserved status, although he is ultimately let down by its perks.

The principle shortcoming of the film is the lack of interest generated by the bland Phillippe and Bradford. Too often the filmmakers treat the characters as case studies rather than as people in whom the audience should invest its emotions.

John Bradley is a weak protagonist portrayed by a weaker actor. Writers Paul Haggis and William Broyles give us no reason to care about Bradley more than we would any other soldier. Philippe plays a caricature of the typical movie soldier — restrained and distant. Instead of inspiring sympathy, Phillippe reminds us why he’s better suited to playing the annoying guy brooding in the background of pictures of Reese Witherspoon.

The film is voiced-over by Bradley’s son (played by Thomas McCarthy) whose research we discover has been the basis for the film. He also narrates the last 20 minutes of the movie — a slow, chronological recap of the rest of the characters’ lives — essentially uninterrupted. After nearly two hours devoted to the relationship between Hayes, Bradley and Gagnon, the final scenes are devoted to the brand new relationship between Bradley as an old man (George Grizzard) and his son, which fails to do much except appear out of place and explain the title of the movie.

In the end, more than anything “Flags” proves yet again that there is no formula for making a good movie. With Clint Eastwood, Paul Haggis and producer Steven Spielberg on board, the film looked as good on paper as it did on screen. Unfortunately, the story has little substance beneath the armor.

Flags of Our Fathers

Dir: Clint Eastwood

Warner Brothers