Having just won the Best Picture prize from the National Board of Review, Clint Eastwood's intimate epic Letters From Iwo Jima enters the Oscar race with banners flying, which is a good thing. The director's Flags of Our Fathers had to suffer the alleged indignity of being a box-office underperformer, as if that says anything about quality.
And Letters is quality from first frame to last, a war film that is almost a tone poem in how it reveals the minds and secret hearts of the Japanese soldiers defending the volcanic island of Iwo Jima against American forces over forty days of battle in 1945.
Working from a screenplay by Iris Yamashita (her first), Eastwood's companion film to Flags burrows deeply into Japanese culture, starting with Lt. Gen. Tadamichi (the soulful Ken Watanabe), once an envoy to the U.S., who led the defense and came up with the controversial plan to tunnel the island (eighteen miles' worth) and dig caves to take on the American forces that far outnumbered them.
Eastwood's direction here is a thing of beauty, blending the ferocity of the classic films of Akira Kurosawa (Seven Samurai) with the delicacy and unblinking gaze of Yasujiro Ozu (Tokyo Story). Characters are drawn with striking nuance and tender feeling, be they Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya), the baker who dreams of seeing his wife and baby, or Baron Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara), an Olympic equestrian who brings his horse to the island.
The scenes of combat, shot in desaturated color on the beaches of Iceland by the gifted Tom Stern and edited with grit and grace by Joel Cox and Gary D. Roach, gain in terror and complexity from what we learn of these men. We watch in horror as soldiers bang their helmets with live grenades, preferring suicide to surrender. Eastwood's film burns into the memory by striving for authentic detail. The result is unique and unforgettable.