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 WWII epic landed with a muted thud, with the director's usual close-to-the-vest sentiment—so devastating in Million Dollar Baby and Mystic River—replaced by out-and-out sentimentality.
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. 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 into 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. 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 gives time to a number of other soldiers, but as rewarding as these other threads often are, 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.
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. 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 in the memory for a good long while. The faceless hordes are no longer faceless.