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January 17, 2007 |

By John Williams | Film | January 17, 2007 |

“Do not expect to return home alive.”

This line rings out in the middle of Letters from Iwo Jima as a summation of both the movie’s plot and its assaultive effect on an audience. It’s spoken by General Kuribayashi (played brilliantly by Ken Watanabe), who was charged with leading the doomed Japanese resistance against U.S. Marines at the titular island. At that point in World War II, early in 1945, with many of its forces — including all air support — tied up, Japan’s only hope at Iwo Jima was to delay the American advance. Even for a military culture steeped in unthinking self-sacrifice, it was an unusually clear case of a suicide mission.

Featuring a Japanese cast (and almost entirely in that language), Letters from Iwo Jima is most notable for the way it upends the typical American treatment of the war. Even a movie like Saving Private Ryan, for all its praised verisimilitude, was still essentially about our triumph, however sad and costly. And that is, without doubt, part of the story. But here, director Clint Eastwood bravely, and with incredible sensitivity, tells the other side.

Being of the opinion that Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby, also directed by Eastwood, were two of the most overrated movies of recent years, I approached Iwo Jima with trepidation, despite the advance raves.

It starts with a very brief current-day scene before flashing back; not nearly as egregious as the leap-in-time gimmick that opens, say, Titanic, but, in my experience, normally a bad sign. Once back in the ’40s, we meet Kuribayashi, a polished, aristocratic type who once briefly lived in America, as he lands at Iwo Jima and, despite the hot weather, immediately surveys the eight-square-mile island on foot. He knows he’s in for a struggle, but he’s yet to learn just how futile his assignment is, and he clearly thrives on challenges. He is polite, has great posture, and is ready to dig his heels in until death. Think Barack Obama with more than a dash of Patton.

The movie’s other primary character is a common soldier named Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya), a very young baker who leaves a pregnant wife at home when called on to fight. He lacks the fevered patriotism of his fellow soldiers, and his apathy earns him a lashing or two from his superiors. He knows his side can’t win, and he’d rather return home than live up to his country’s chilling code of conduct.

The opening scenes, in which we get to know the people preparing to defend the island, drag a bit, not least because there’s no sense of ultimate drama. We know what’s coming. But when the American forces do arrive, the movie shifts into another gear. The first scene of surprise aerial bombardment is a mini-masterpiece in itself, a visually poetic series of concussive explosions that makes it perfectly clear what kind of mismatch is at hand.

Because the battle (and the movie) from there is less about open engagement than the entrenched futility of the defense effort, and because much of it takes place underground in intricate tunnels dreamed up by Kuribayashi, things become increasingly and excruciatingly claustrophobic. Shot in not-quite black and white, everything appears to be a shade of gray or brown, and the cinematography is flawless throughout. But no amount of beautiful technique can change what we’re watching, which is the rapid transformation of a volcanic island into a charnel house. It’s difficult to imagine a work of art as simultaneously easy to marvel at and as difficult to enjoy as this one.

The Axis forces had no misconceptions about their odds for survival. Instead, each man was simply counseled to try to kill at least 10 American troops before falling himself. Of the 22,000 Japanese soldiers there, barely more than a thousand survived. It didn’t help that surrender was not an option. Eastwood doesn’t recoil from the brutal (and, to Westerners, crazy) ethos of abnegation that runs through the Japanese army. One moment, deep in the tunnels, is as harrowing as anything I’ve ever seen. Given word that the area they were sworn to defend, Mount Suribachi, is all but lost, a group of troops is told they must die with honor rather than retreating to another part of the island. One by one, they begin unpinning their grenades and clutching them to their chests, the cave soon looking like a Francis Bacon canvas.

Given the surpassingly grim nature of scenes like that one, Eastwood has to provide some kind of emotional investment to pull us through the wreckage, and he does this by making us care about Saigo and Kuribayashi. Thank God he does, and both actors deserve whatever praise they get. But even though the movie is based on a true story involving the retrieval of Kuribayashi’s personal letters, the emphasis on these two is, ironically, the one element that rings false. Without giving away anyone’s ultimate fate, there are times when the main characters cross paths in a way that feels too manufactured when contrasted with the merciless, nameless nature of the carnage around them. They maneuver around that carnage, in part, because Eastwood needs them to, but he’s already shown us that war doesn’t work that way. Authors and filmmakers play shepherd to their characters, a service sorely lacking for real-life soldiers. For nearly all of Letters from Iwo Jima, this truth is made plainly, painfully clear. You leave the theater feeling shell-shocked and messy, and that’s the point.

John Williams lives in Brooklyn. He’s an editor at Harper Perennial and a freelance writer. He blogs at A Special Way of Being Afraid.

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