Clint Eastwood's "Letters From Iwo Jima" is his companion piece to "Flags of Our Fathers" and in almost every way is superior. That earlier movie had its powerful moments, but it was entangled by its complicated time structure, and its message – that patriotic propaganda is problematic even when fighting a "just" war – was tangled, too.
In "Letters," drawn from missives sent home by Japanese soldiers, he shows us the same battle from the Japanese perspective, and his intention is simpler: He wants us to recognize the humanity of the enemy. In order to achieve the utmost verity, he filmed the entire production using Japanese actors whose dialogue is subtitled in English.
It is not entirely unprecedented for an American director to make a war movie from the perspective of the enemy – the most famous example is "All Quiet on the Western Front." But that movie was made from a pacifist stance, whereas "Letters From Iwo Jima" never questions the rightness of the American cause. What it does do, extremely well, is humanize the Japanese soldiers as they make their last stand on Iwo Jima.
Unless you believe that enemy soldiers are altogether inhuman, it's difficult to argue with the film's moral tone, even as one recognizes the documented barbarism on the part of some Japanese in World War II. (The film shows a barbarous act by the Americans as well.) The focus here is on Iwo Jima, not, say, Bataan. Why should it be shocking to insist on the humanity of these soldiers? Would it not be offensive for Eastwood to insist on its opposite? Wars are made by men, not demons.
Unlike the bestial, gung-ho Japanese who have been portrayed in the standard WWII drama, the soldiers in this film are often scared – and rightly so. As the Americans bear down on the island, it becomes clear to Lt. General Tadamichi Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe) that they will all end up as martyrs. His combat strategy of digging miles of tunnels greatly extended the time it took for the Americans to take the island, but the Japanese defeat, as depicted here, always seems inevitable.
Nor do the soldiers uniformly believe it is their duty to die with dignity. "There's nothing sacred about this island," says one. "The Americans can have it." Eastwood, working from a script by a first-time Japanese-American screenwriter, Iris Yamashita, shows a broad panorama of types: from a fanatical officer (Shido Nakamura) who rebels against Kuribayashi to Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya), a baker who wants to live to see his newborn daughter and is as close to an everyman as this film provides. One character, who straps a grenade to his chest and waits and waits in vain for the Americans to detonate him, could have stepped right out of a Samuel Beckett play.
The longings on the part of Saigo and Kuribayashi and others for their families is sometimes too blandly rendered in flashback. And perhaps too much ideological weight is placed on those longings. Love of family, after all, is not in itself, a proof of goodness. (If it were, some of the biggest butchers in history would be exempt from blame.) WWII movies were often padded with scenes of American soldiers reciting letters to sweethearts and dear old Mom, and transposing that ploy to the Japanese side doesn't entirely eradicate its banality.
But in its emotional simplicity and straightforward narrative punch, "Letters" also harks back to what was best about those war movies. The fact that we are watching this battle from the enemy's perspective represents not a moral capitulation but a widening of our awareness of what it is like to fight and die in a war – any war. Grade: A–
• Rated R for graphic war violence.
Sex/Nudity: None. Violence: 22 scenes of war, often gory. Profanity: 7 expressions. Drugs/Alcohol/Tobacco: 4 scenes with smoking, 2 scenes with drinking.