Looking back on the highs and lows of the previous movie year (out, out, damned Eragon), one of the biggest eyebrow raisers comes from Clint Eastwood's Flags of Our Fathers. Lauded in advance as a film that would shed new light on one of the most famous events in American history, Eastwood's sprawling, ambitious epic landed with a muted thud, with a hard-to-reconcile gap between the (admittedly impressive) battle scenes and maudlin bits of stateside coping. To make matters worse, the weightiness of the subject matter (or possibly just the gargantuan size of the project) found the director's usual brand of close-to-the-vest sentiment—so devastating in character pieces such as Million Dollar Baby and Mystic River—replaced by out-and-out sentimentality. Although it has its share of defenders, Eastwood's film seems to have had an unusually limited sell-by date; scant months after its release, it already feels like an old movie, the kind that gets dutifully trotted out on basic cable during national holidays.
Letters from Iwo Jima, Eastwood's smaller, subtitled, Japanese-centered companion piece, thankfully finds the filmmaker on much firmer ground. Although not without its share of warts—mainly due to an occasionally pokey flashback structure—there's an intimate, feverish immediacy to it that the previous film lacked. Respectful without being overly reverent, it provides the new perspective on WWII that the earlier film promised, with a look into another culture that goes far beyond mere outsider novelty or politically correct lip service. (To get an idea of how it could have all gone wrong, look no further than Michael Bay's Pearl Harbor, where the Japanese commanders are depicted as inscrutable, poetry-spouting androids of honor.) Here is a different take on the battlefield, one that provides a long-overdue illumination of the Greatest Generation's opposing image, as well as a compelling examination of the meaning of sacrifice and service when fighting an unwinnable war. Relevant in these times? Possibly.
Shot in striking near-sepia tones by Eastwood regular Tom Stern, the narrative begins in the months before the Iwo Jima invasion, as the American-educated General Tadamichi Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe) begins digging tunnels in preparation for the assault surely soon to come. As dysentery and lack of supplies ravage his already depleted men, he prepares for his moment of duty, knowing full well the odds. Newcomer Iris Yamashita's script, which draws heavily on the general's actual correspondence, gives time to a number of other soldiers, among them a pessimistic, morally conflicted baker (a terrific turn by former boy-band member Kazunari Ninomiya), and a fiercely nationalistic lieutenant whose overly gung-ho nature provides the film's few moments of black comedy. Rewarding as these other threads often are, however, Eastwood's attentions keep circling back to the general, a figure who, as depicted in Watanabe's towering performance, registers as both mythic and wonderfully, terribly human. Together, director and actor capture the essential wartime dichotomy of a decent, caring man who can also instruct his men to shoot first at the enemy's medics.
Said dichotomy may not sit well with all viewers. Although Letters from Iwo Jima has been receiving mostly rapturous reviews, there have been critical grumblings here and there (most notably by Salon.com's usually right-on Stephanie Zacharek) which accuse the film of sugarcoating the viciousness of the Japanese style of warfare in order to make its characters more empathetic. To my mind, at least, such criticisms miss the nonjudgmental essence of the film. (A scene where a cache of defeated soldiers consider ritual suicide is utterly horrifying, mostly because of its matter-of-factness.) While Letters from Iwo Jima certainly doesn't hold back on the brutalities of combat—here notably inflicted by both sides—what registers most strongly is a sense of doomy, predestined inevitability, an inglorious exploration of the universal rigors of serving your respective country that's missing from so many other war films. "You're not allowed to die until you kill at least 10 other soldiers," the general instructs his men, and it is to the film's very real credit that it considers all the ramifications of that statement equally. Whatever your conclusions about the ultimate success or failure of Eastwood's grand experiment in dual perspective, Watanabe's noble, tormented gravitas in the face of certain defeat ensures that, at the very least, Letters from Iwo Jima will stick fresh in the memory for a good long while. The faceless hordes are no longer faceless.