Los Angeles Times

Movie review: 'Letters from Iwo Jima'

4 stars (out of four)

The word masterpiece costs nothing to write and means less than nothing in an age when every third picture and each new Clint Eastwood project is proclaimed as such.

After two viewings, however, "Letters From Iwo Jima" strikes me as the peak achievement in Eastwood's hallowed career. I say this as someone who has not previously used the M-word to describe an Eastwood film. But something is different here, and it's not simply the language being spoken.

The director made this picture back-to-back with "Flags of Our Fathers," which in its blurry way looked in on the young Americans who raised the second flag on the Pacific i sland of Iwo Jima in February 1945. Eastwood had to wrestle with that inchoate first film in order to get to the quiet anguish of the second. He was inspired, he says, by his desire to honor the other side of a particularly bloody conflict.

"Letters From Iwo Jima" transcends its companion film in every facet, from narrative structure on forward, but its crucial virtue is both simple and enormous. For the first time in Eastwood's directorial career, the man behind the camera has freed himself of all genre restrictions and expectations. He and his steady collaborators, among them cinematographer Tom Stern (nearly draining the images of all color except maroon) respond with a wise, sad and moving film about the ways men kill each other and the stoic resolve even the worst battles can inspire.

Like so many other World War II sagas, this one begins in modern times and then takes you back. A brief prologue set in 2005 shows Japanese excavators digging in the labyrinthine caves of the sulfurous, inky-sand island, looking for artifacts. (The film is mostly in Japanese with English subtitles.) A stash of letters is discovered, and in a typically unfussy transition Eastwood fades out on one man digging and fades in on a young soldier pitching into the same black sand on the same island 61 years earlier, in 1944, preparing for the imminent American attack.

Whereas "Flags" canvassed a vexing number of characters and only partly resolved its tangled feelings about the exploitation of heroism, "Letters" screenwriter Iris Yamashita (who co-created the story with Paul Haggis) narrows the scope to two contrasting character studies, plus a handful of other portraits. Lt. Gen. Kuribayashi, played by a calmly magisterial Ken Watanabe, is seen here as an exemplar of the Imperial forces, yet firmly outside of its most fanatical excesses. His societal opposite is Saigo, reluctant soldier and baker by trade, with a pregnant wife at home. He is played by skinny, sweet Kazunari Ninomiya, and while there's nothing radical in the way Yamashita and Eastwood deploy young Saigo--through his eyes we witness all manner of horror--"Letters" allows his experience to become our own.

"Am I digging my own grave?" Saigo writes to his wife. He knows his odds of survival are terrible, as does Kuribayashi, whose tactical maneuver to create a hidden warren of tunnels on Iwo Jima baffles many of his comrades. "You must not expect my survival," the commander writes to his wife early on. Eastwood's tone is that of matter-of-fact mourning, before the fact.

In many ways Eastwood's Iwo Jima films speak directly to each other. In "Flags" the Navy corpsman played by Ryan Phillippe ventures into a cave littered with the corpses of Japanese soldiers. Eastwood reveals only Phillippe's dumbstruck face, not what he sees: the aftermath of a mass grenade-explosion suicide. In "Letters" you see it all in a scene of unerringly judged candor. It's graphic enough to matter, without getting flashy about it.

Many of the narrative devices found in "Flags" are utilized far more successfully here. "Letters" features several different characters heard in voiceover, writing home, and flashbacks drift in and out of the 1944-45 action. (Watanabe's courtly, subtly detailed Kuribayashi is shown, for example, in America years before the war.) You do wonder if "Letters" isn't whitewashing its depiction of the Imperial forces; at times, especially in the younger characters' skepticism and jocularity, the warriors act "just like us" in ways that may not be historically or culturally accurate.In the same vein a conciliatory scene between a Japanese officer and a wounded Oklahoma kid doesn't quite ring true. But the impulse behind such scenes is honorable. Like the World War I play "Journey's End," or Shakespeare's history plays, "Letters" eavesdrops on a full variety of common men caught in the eerie calm before the next assault.

It's a long way from John Wayne and "Sands of Iwo Jima" (1949). That film may not have been as racist in its trash-talk and depiction of the Japanese as the worst of the U.S. films made a few years earlier, during the war. Nonetheless, with Wayne referring to "those little lemon-colored characters," it is a painful film to watch today. "Letters" acts as a corrective, in addition to being a work of superb, plainspoken craftsmanship.

A generation behind Wayne, Eastwood's own ascendancy as a slaughter icon profited mightily from all manner of revenge fantasies, many of them entertaining (the Leone westerns), some pretty despicable ("Dirty Harry" and its progeny) and some absurd ("Heartbreak Ridge," Eastwood's cardboard drama culminating in the stirring U.S. invasion of Grenada). For decades now but especially since "Unforgiven," Eastwood's foursquare classicism has found more slavish admirers than metacritic.com can keep straight. I've admired several of his recent pictures, chiefly "Unforgiven" and "The Bridges of Madison County" (talk about elevating trash to its highest level), while finding "Million Dollar Baby" nothing but dour, well-acted corn. With "Letters," Eastwood isn't elevating trash, and he isn't playing into audience expectations. The subject, the technique and the maturity blend as one.

"That's war, boy," Forrest Tucker says in "Sands of Iwo Jima." "Tradin' real estate for men." In Eastwood's masterpiece, as fine and stern a war film as we've seen in years, the reality of that cornball observation is captured in a way that echoes through centuries of combat, whatever the countries involved, leaving behind centuries of young men wondering: Was the real estate worth it?



'Letters from Iwo Jima'

Directed by Clint Eastwood; screenplay by Iris Yamashita, based on Tadamichi Kuribayashi's book "Picture Letters from Commander in Chief"; cinematography by Tom Stern; edited by Joel Cox and Gary D. Roach; production design by Henry Bumstead and James J. Murakami; music by Kyle Eastwood and Michael Stevens; produced by Eastwood, Steven Spielberg and Robert Lorenz. A Warner Bros. Pictures release; opens Friday. Running time: 2:21. MPAA rating: R (for graphic war violence).

Gen. Kuribayashi - Ken Watanabe

Saigo - Kazunari Ninomiya

Baron Nishi - Tsuyoshi Ihara

Shimizu - Ryo Kase

Lt. Ito - Shidou Nakamura

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