Letters from Iwo Jima

First-rate drama from a unique point of view

"War is a beastly business, it is true, but one proof we are human is our ability to learn, even from it, how better to exist." M.F.K. Fisher

General Tommy Franks could not withstand the biographical scrutiny Clint Eastwood gives to General Tadamichi Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe), the commander of the 20,000 Japanese soldiers who perished defending Iwo Jima against the invading Allies, who lost some 6000. The ill-conceived preparations for the Iraq War pale next to the care the Japanese general took at Iwo. He used his understanding of America from his visit here and his love of his men to hold off the Americans for 36 days, in a fight that was supposed to last five. Factor in the Japanese tradition of honor at all costs and Letters from Iwo Jima has the ingredients for first-rate drama from a unique point of view: the enemy's.

Eastwood has always excelled at telling the small story to explain larger issues, for example in Million Dollar Baby and Mystic River. Letters is far superior to its companion, Flags of Our Fathers (the American point of view), because Eastwood scaled it back to a few soldiers we get to know well. In Flags the parade of heroes leaves a blur that takes an entire film to sort out; in Letters the lives of the few soldiers are carefully laid out so that when they are defeated, sorrow and pride are fitting for the characters Eastwood has developed, especially the general.

The stark black and white serves both the dark sand of the beaches and the shadowy world of caves the Japanese ingeniously dug. Though the outcome of the battle was preordained (by February of 1945 the Japanese war machine was pretty much depleted), Eastwood suffuses the network of 5000 caves with a light that symbolizes the Japanese soldiers' essential love of country and belief in its destiny.

At 140 minutes, Letters is longer than it needs to be, a statement I could make about many films up for Oscar consideration. (These directors are out of control.) Yet Letters' slow pace does accentuate the impending doom for those somberly writing their last letters from Iwo Jima. It may not be the Oscar winner for this year, but it is another first-rate film the director has slipped in at the end of the year in an apparent strategy to get us to notice his film. He had my attention at Mystic River.