They used to say that only Richard Nixon could have opened up China. Only a president known for his anti-Communist fervor could reach out to our ideological enemies. And in that sense, perhaps only Clint Eastwood could have made Letters From Iwo Jima, his account of one of the most crucial battles of World War II, as told from the perspective of the Japanese soldiers who died there. As the famously conservative Eastwood continues to reinvent himself with each new film, we no longer know what to expect from him. And Letters From Iwo Jima is a stunning gesture, both ideologically and formalistically. Ideologically, it's the equivalent of a contemporary filmmaker, 50 years from now, releasing a film sympathetic to the Iraqi insurgents. Formalistically, it completes a set of bookends that, between them, attempts to understand how a battle, even a war, can mean such different things to the two sides that fought it.
Flags of Our Fathers, which came out last fall, took Joe Rosenthal's iconic photograph of the seven Marines raising a flag on Mount Suribachi and showed us how the soldiers captured in it got drafted into a massive publicity campaign, fighting the war by selling it to the American people. Personally, I don't really have a problem with a few soldiers who, though removed from harm's way, nevertheless helped raise $28 billion for a just cause. But Eastwood zeroed in on the survivor's guilt, which can spread through a soldier's body like a cancer. You fight for the guy who's next to you, and when he's no longer next to you, some of the fight goes out of you. Needless to say, John Wayne didn't used to see things that way, but Eastwood wasn't done sifting through the sands of Iwo Jima. As he researched the battle, he realized how little he/we knew about the Japanese soldiers trapped inside that mountain.
They'd been there for months, digging in for the long haul. But they must have known they were going to be outmanned, outgunned. And the word soon came from Tokyo that reinforcements would not be arriving, nor would air or naval support. So the tunnels they'd carved into the mountainside, from which they would shower the advancing Americans with bullets, were also freshly dug graves, their own. The battle was, for them, a suicide mission, a fight to the death. And Letters From Iwo Jima, which was inspired by a Japanese general's correspondence with his family back home, has an elegiac tone quite foreign to Flags of Our Fathers. Once again, cinematographer Tom Stern has bleached all the color out of the frame; just the blood bleeds through, as red as the rising sun. And we spend an awful lot of time inside those catacombs, crawling around like ants, longing for the light of day. Only when it's time to empty the shit bucket do we get a breath of fresh air.
The person with that chore is Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya), a baker without an ounce of samurai blood in him. The movie introduces us to a number of soldiers along the chain of command, from Saigo all the way up to Lt. Gen. Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe), who wrote all those letters. And each character represents a different take on the Japanese martial spirit. Saigo, who was drafted, has a peasant's instinct for survival, and Ninomiya brings a deft comic touch to the character's lack of banzai. As for Lt. Gen. Kuribayashi, he's one of those warrior-poet types who make war seem so...poetic. And Watanabe has just the right graceful elegance to put it over. (He's like Gregory Peck, only less wooden.) For the aristocratic Baron Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara), who arrives on the island with his horse, having won a gold medal at the 1932 Olympics, war is a grand adventure. And for the by-the-book Lieutenant Ito (Shidou Nakamura), it's a chance to die with honor, perhaps at his own hand.
Bushido, the Japanese military's code of conduct, wherein you would literally spill your guts rather than surrender, is the real subject of Letters From Iwo Jima, which can't seem to decide exactly how it feels about the whole thing. And that's fine, we don't have to be told how to feel. But the script, by Iris Yamashita, turns a little schematic at times, each character behaving exactly how we'd expect that type of character to behave. And everyone seems to get the deaths they deserve, if not the deaths they'd desired. Eastwood perhaps spends too long girding for battle, and the month-long battle itself can be a little confusing. But the movie's power is undeniable. And so is its sheer unlikelihood. Who would have thought that Dirty Harry would grow up and make a World War II combat movie (in Japanese!) that, spiritually speaking, sides with the enemy? If Oliver Stone had released this thing, he'd have been stripped of the two Purple Hearts he earned in Vietnam.