A beautifully crafted ‘Letter’

“Letters from Iwo Jima”Warner Bros. PicturesDirected by Clint EastwoodScreenplay by Iris Yamashita, based on the book, Picture Letters from Commander in Chief, by Tadamichi KuribayashiStarring: Ken Watanabe, Kazunari Ninomiya, Tsuyoshi Ihara, Ryo Kase, Shido Nakamura and Hiroshi WatanabeRated R/140 minutesOpens Jan. 19, 2007Four out of four stars

In watching “Letters from Iwo Jima,” it is easy to gain a great admiration for the entire thematic scope of Clint Eastwood’s two-part Iwo Jima saga, which began last October with “Flags of Our Fathers.” One doesn’t need to see the first film to understand the second (or vice versa), but seeing both, in any order, probably does Eastwood justice.

“Letters” is clearly the superior of the two films, but taken as a whole, the saga is a fascinating examination of the meaning of terms we throw around so loosely–patriotism, heroism, honor–and of the contexts in which we view and understand history. While not without its flaws, the Iwo Jima saga is an impressive achievement from one of the best directors in the world.

The characters in “Letters”–which was pushed up for Oscar contention and is now a leading contender in the major categories–cannot be mistaken for those in “Flags.” This film makes that point well enough, as one Japanese commander criticizes how American soldiers will sacrifice the lives of many to save one, while the Japanese officers are taught that dying for the emperor is an honor.

But then again, there are more similarities among the central characters in the two films than meets the eye. Both the American boys in “Flags” and the Japanese infantrymen in “Letters” reject the traditional (at least from our standpoint) definitions of heroism. Both are overwhelmed by the enormity of war itself, which cannot be understood in death counts and end results. Both are terrified, dignified, beleaguered.

The film, exquisitely shot with the soft, dark shadows that have become the director’s signature–and which are essential as a metaphor for his themes and characters–is both more viscerally engaging than its predecessor, and more intellectually and emotionally satisfying.

Eastwood isn’t concerned with the results of the war here. That has already been told countless times in history books and rah-rah-rah World War II movies. He is more concerned with the differences between the cultures and people fighting the war–and how they were used, and what it meant and what it all cost. We meet young and innocent-looking Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya), a baker with a pregnant wife who doesn’t particularly want to fight, and isn’t a particularly great fighter (despite others’ fervent and genuine congratulations on his “honor” at being chosen to fight), but who manages to face impending doom with dignity and even hope.

We meet Baron Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ishara), a former Olympic gold medalist who rubbed elbows with Hollywood stars before returning to fight for his country. (Baron is featured in the film’s best scene, when he and his men capture an injured American soldier and talk, not about military secrets, but about their respective hometowns.)

We meet Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe, in another example that he is one of the most effortlessly powerful actors around), an intelligent and headstrong commander who heads up the Japanese’s defense of Mount Suribachi in preparation for the pending arrival of the Americans. Kuribayashi embodies everything that Japanese honor stands for and captures the heart of the film.

What’s interesting about the character of the soldiers we get to know is that they seem to all know, be it consciously or subconsciously, that they are doomed (American soldiers outnumbered the Japanese at Iwo Jima nearly 5-to-1). But they are who they are, and they will die with honor.

The power of “Letters from Iwo Jima” might sneak up on you. For the most part, Eastwood doesn’t utilize melodramatic contrivances to draw us in. Rather, the characters’ collective experience builds to more subtle climaxes. But when they come, they pack quite a punch. “Flags of Our Fathers,” while solid, suffered a bit with a script that at times was formulaically melodramatic. With the exception of maybe one or two small (perhaps insignificant) scenes, “Letters” does not commit the same mistakes. The focus is deeper this time around; the humanity that is always present in Eastwood’s work is more devastating and heart-wrenching, and the result is a rich and powerful experience.

“Live by the sword, die by the?damn. How does it go, again?”