'Letters' outshines 'Flags'

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In Letters from Iwo Jima, we're shown that iconic moment when the American flag is raised atop Mount Suribachi. This time, though, it's from hundreds of yards away, and it lasts just a few seconds.

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Ken Watanabe and Hiroshi Watanabe star in the war film Letters from Iwo Jima, the companion piece to Flags of Our Fathers.  Warner Bros. Pictures
Warner Bros. Pictures
Ken Watanabe and Hiroshi Watanabe star in the war film Letters from Iwo Jima, the companion piece to Flags of Our Fathers.

It's a telling moment in this film, Clint Eastwood's companion piece to Flags of Our Fathers, which told the story of the battle for Iwo Jima from the American perspective. In Letters from Iwo Jima, he shifts to the viewpoint of the doomed, outmanned Japanese soldiers stuck on that island, starving, ridden with dysentery, with no reinforcements coming. There's no chance of winning, but, as one officer tells them, they're not allowed to die until they kill 10 of the enemy.

Some strategy that is!

The story is told through four key characters (a fifth is introduced, to great effect, later). The leader is Lt. Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe) whose letters home, found buried on Iwo Jima, inspired the film. He's in charge of this suicide mission, and his disgust with it is evident - though that doesn't mean he will back down from his job. Then there's the dashing Baron Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara), an equestrian champion who competed in the Los Angeles Olympics in 1932. He has fond memories of L.A., and even reminisces about it with a wounded, captured G.I.

Most memorable is a young baker, Saigo (wonderfully played by Kazunari Ninomiya), who functions as an Everyman soldier who would rather get home to his wife and baby than die for his country.

Though they're humane individuals, the film argues that the war culture of the Japanese was rotten to the core. That's represented by Lt. Ito (Shidou Nakamura), who prefers the death of his men - by suicide, if necessary - to the dishonor of retreat or surrender.

Flags of Our Fathers underperformed at the box office, despite all its strengths. That doesn't bode well for Letters, which is told in Japanese (with English subtitles) and has little chance for happy endings. That's a shame, for as remarkable as Flags was, Letters is an even stronger work of art. It's a more focused story, with only a few telling flashbacks to civilian life. It's smaller in scale and claustrophobic; there's no way out, a point Mr. Eastwood makes quite clear.

The colors in Tom Stern's cinematography, heavy with shadows, are so muted, the film is practically black-and-white. This lonely hunk of volcanic rock looks haunted - bleak and chilly, a horrible place to die.

Though it's almost 2 hours long, it never lags.

Mr. Eastwood is in control of the film, keeping a grip on its foreboding, its sentimentality, its action scenes, its grotesqueness.

He's a man with a story he wants told, his way; he's 76, and his work is more vital than most filmmakers a third of his age..

'Letters from Iwo Jima'

THE VERDICT: **** out of ****


WHO'S IT FOR?: Serious movie fans


CREDITS: Kazunari Ninomiya, Ken Watanabe and Tsuyoshi Ihara; directed by Clint Eastwood; based on the book by Tadamichi Kuribayashi


RUNNING TIME: Two hours, 21 minutes


FAMILY GUIDE: R for graphic war violence; subtitles

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