In February, 1945, one of the fiercest battles of the Pacific theater of World War II occurs on the tiny island of Iwo Jima. Thousands of Marines attack the stronghold maintained by thousands of Japanese, and the slaughter on both sides is horrific. Early in the battle, an American flag is raised atop the high point, Mount Suribachi, and a photograph of the raising becomes an American cause célèbre. As a powerful inspiration to war-sick Americans, the photo becomes a symbol of the Allied cause. The three surviving flag raisers, Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford), John "Doc" Bradley (Ryan Phillippe), and Ira Hayes (Adam Beach), are whisked back to civilization to help raise funds for the war effort. But the accolades for heroism heaped upon the three men are at odds with their own personal realizations that thousands of real heroes lie dead on Iwo Jima, and that their own contributions to the fight are only symbolic and not deserving of the singling out they are experiencing. Each of the three must come to terms with the honors, exploitation, and grief that they face simply for being in a photograph.