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Review: 'Letters From Iwo Jima' a masterpiece

Story Highlights

•'s Tom Charity: New Eastwood film "a masterpiece"
• "Letters From Iwo Jima" tells battle story from Japanese POV
• Film has strong performances, steady, reflective direction
By Tom Charity
Special to CNN
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(CNN) -- There aren't many examples of war films made from the vantage point of "the enemy," but perhaps there should be more.

Orson Welles told Sam Peckinpah that "Cross of Iron" (Peckinpah's 1977 film about Germans on World War II's Eastern Front) was the best antiwar film he had ever seen, and Lewis Milestone's 1930 best picture winner, "All Quiet on the Western Front," still holds up.

Clint Eastwood's reverse angle on the brutal battle for Iwo Jima is a remarkable companion piece to "Flags of Our Fathers," and the better of the two films. It is also the only American movie of the year I won't hesitate to call a masterpiece.

Shot almost entirely in Japanese, and even more monochromatic than its predecessor, the film has a more linear trajectory than "Flags," only leaving the barren Pacific island for a handful of brief flashbacks when a soldier swaps his rifle for a pen and reminisces to loved ones he never expects to see again.

The device is a good one, permitting Eastwood to strike the same rueful, reflective key he found in "Unforgiven," "Bridges of Madison County" and "Million Dollar Baby," even in the midst of nightmarish combat scenes. It also allows us access to fears and sentiments proud Japanese soldiers would be unlikely to express aloud. Indeed, the first time we see Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya), he is beaten by an officer for a casual defeatist remark.

Saigo's fatalism is more honest than that of the Imperial High Command, which neglects to advise General Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe) that the naval fleet has been destroyed and with it any hopes for victory. In any case, the general realizes that the best he can do is delay the Americans for as long as possible.

He orders miles of tunnels to be dug out of the island's volcanic rock, and draws up plans to consolidate his beleaguered forces through a series of strategic withdrawals. The plans outrage his subordinates, indoctrinated in Bushido ("way of the warrior"): death before dishonor.

None of the four characters we get to know best in Iris Yamashita's screenplay share this crazed militaristic mindset, but even the two relatively enlightened officers, Kuribayashi and Lt. Col Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara) cannot break free from its bonds. Ken Watanabe makes the general a shrewd and charismatic leader, but if the film has a hero, it's Saigo, the least conventionally heroic of the lot. He's an infantryman who still thinks of himself as a baker, and who is at greater risk from his own army's suicidal zeal than the American onslaught.

In a pivotal sequence, Nishi -- a horseman who competed in the Los Angeles Olympics of 1932 -- orders his medic to treat a mortally wounded American GI with what remains of their morphine. Later he translates a letter from the dead man's mother for the benefit of his men. They are surprised and touched by its simple, heartfelt sentiments, and what they reveal of the enemy their rulers have systematically demonized: "Come home safe; do the right thing because it is right ...," she writes.

"My mother said the same things to me," Shimizu (Ryo Kase), a disgraced military policeman, admits to Saigo. He deserts, but in the midst of battle, even surrender is dangerous. He sits, oblivious, with another POW, while two GIs callously decide their fate over a smoke.

The Pacific campaign was tremendously hard-fought, culminating in the firebombing of Tokyo and the atomic blasts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Twenty-one thousand Japanese troops died in the intense fighting on Iwo Jima, a volcanic island a mere eight square miles in area.

Eastwood's spare, fluid, eloquent movie shows atrocities on both sides, squarely attributes the worst of these to Japan's military-Imperial dictatorship, and gently sifts the black sands of Iwo Jima for moments of solace, grace and mercy.

"Letters From Iwo Jima" runs 141 minutes and is rated R. For Entertainment Weekly's take, click hereexternal link.

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Ken Watanabe plays Gen. Kuribayashi in "Letters From Iwo Jima," Clint Eastwood's telling of the Battle of Iwo Jima from the Japanese point of view.

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