Two of a kind 

A review of Letters from Iwo Jima (R)

click to enlarge That light at the end of the tunnel? Not such a good sign - in this one
  • That light at the end of the tunnel? Not such a good sign in this one

*Letters from Iwo Jima (R)

For years, we thought Clint Eastwood was a taciturn man of action until it turned out there was a sensitive ponytail tucked under the sombrero of the Man With No Name.

Oh, he had us fooled good, what with the spaghetti Westerns and punk-taunting Dirty Harry-isms. But once he got behind the camera, he started deconstructing vigilante justice (Unforgiven), embracing his romantic side (The Bridges of Madison County), questioning jingoistic propaganda (Flags of Our Fathers) and even gasp pondering the ethics of euthanasia (Million Dollar Baby).

It would be easy to see Letters from Iwo Jima creating yet another furor on the right side of the political spectrum. After all, it has the nerve to put a human face on all those Japanese soldiers we were bent on killing back in Dubya Dubya II. But in its sneaky way, Letters from Iwo Jima might actually be a Bill O'Reilly wet dream it's hard to imagine a more effective attack on the horrors of suicidal anti-American nationalism.

It's also not a half-bad little war movie. The principal narrative begins with Japanese troops in 1944 preparing for the anticipated American assault on Iwo Jima. Limited supplies and a wave of dysentery striking the soldiers have the prospects for holding the island looking bleak. Then commanding officer Gen. Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe) arrives, offering up some tactical ideas inspired by his years of studying in America maneuvers that inspire loyalty in grunts like Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya), but aren't nearly as popular with traditionalist commanders like Lt. Ito (Shidou Nakamura).

On the surface, Letters from Iwo Jima is almost a too-obvious attempt at we're-all-the-same-under-the-skin revisionist history. The film's title comes from the notes home that are narrated throughout (in Japanese with English subtitles), dealing with such universal matters as missing loved ones and trying to do the right thing. When the Japanese manage to capture a wounded American and read aloud a letter he has written to his mother, the similarities between the two cultures' deepest concerns are obvious only, apparently, they're not obvious enough. Later, a Japanese soldier hammers home the point by saying something like, "His letter is just like a letter I would have written to my own mother."

Fortunately, Eastwood and screenwriter Iris Yamashita have more to say, and less pedantic ways of saying it. Once the battle commences, Letters from Iwo Jima mostly becomes a study in the clash between two ideologies: the progressive, Western-influenced sensibilities of Kuribayashi, and the old-world ethic represented by Ito.

The performances are uniformly terrific, led by the gifted Watanabe but nearly matched by Ninomiya as the survival-driven Saigo. They lead us through a story that's less about pyrotechnics than it is about a plodding sense of almost certain doom, painted in chilly blues and grays.

Letters from Iwo Jima isn't nearly as focused as it could be, employing frequent flashbacks that are at times illustrative, and at other times redundant. But it's far more consistently compelling than Flags of Our Fathers, and far less wishy-washy than one might suspect about who the good and the bad guys in this scenario really are. The surprise is that, just as it often happens in our world, we can find ourselves fighting against both of them.


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