The poor devils, rocked with ceaseless explosions, hunker down in their darkened cave, awaiting an end that is inevitable and yet seems to be inevitably postponed. You might be thinking of the Japanese soldiers in Clint Eastwood's "Letters From Iwo Jima," but the scene could just as easily be of the people in the theater watching it. What is lost and gained in this latest cinematic battle? War is hell. Honor and duty can be both necessary and dubious. Battles are made senseless at the level of the individual.
Set aside the legions of similar stories that have come before. Didn't Eastwood say all this in his last war movie?
For many, "Letters," a follow-up to Eastwood's "Flags of Our Fathers," will be an intriguing concept: a big-budget Hollywood war picture from the perspective of the enemy, in this case the Japanese soldiers who fought almost to the last man defending the island of Iwo Jima against the invading American forces during the last stages of World War II. They are humanized, or you might say "characterized," much in the way soldiers have been in many an American war movie, with an individual or two from each class and rank plucked out of the mass and given a background. As is often the case, the life stories come from letters and flashbacks, read and remembered with painstaking seriousness.
The main characters include island commander Lt. Gen. Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe); his friend Baron Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara), a former Olympic champion; a former baker named Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya); and Shimizu (Ryu Kase), sent to the island after being discharged from an elite corps. Kuribayashi and Nishi, who both studied in America, represent the Japanese nobility sent off to fight, while the other two men and their companions are used to reflect the thinking and heroics of the common soldier.
"Letters" tries hard to be a thoughtful and sensitive portrait of men at war, but its steadfast allegiance to the tropes of the genre only demonstrates Eastwood's limitations. And for Eastwood, those limitations can be glaring. For every wise general who must tangle with his inferior advisers, there's a bedeviled soldier learning a valuable lesson amid the slaughter. And if I'm ever sent to war, please make it one in which the bullets zip and zing with this kind of staged regularity. In one instance, Baron Nishi, who has tried to save an injured GI, reads aloud in peaceful silence a letter found on the soldier after he dies. "Love, Mom," the letter ends. There's a moment of contemplation, then on cue the bombs return, as if they, too, had paused just long enough to give somber weight to Mom's words.
From the moment "Letters" opens, it's disappointing to find that this so-called other point of view will be seen in the same muted tones Eastwood used for Part 1. Likewise, he never fully sides with the Japanese. Flashbacks often center on America, in part to show that friendly relations existed before the war; but also, one might suspect, to provide the relief of some English-speaking scenes. Most egregiously, during battles Eastwood constantly cuts over to the Americans, close up, to show what happens to the GIs under fire, as if we've never seen "Sands of Iwo Jima" or, for that matter, "Flags of Our Fathers." In his two war pictures Eastwood has shown a surprisingly deficient talent for perspective. It says something when the fewest scenes in a movie like this are from the island looking out.
Forget who is observing whom from the hills and sands or from the director's chair. The idea that we can climb inside the uniforms of our enemies is a minefield this movie isn't nimble enough to cross. Doubtless many daughters and grandsons of Pearl Harbor survivors will watch this film. It may even be seen by an heir of Nanking or two. What are they supposed to feel? That war was hell for GI and Jap alike? That we're all in this together, and that nationality, honor and duty are all bogus?
There are traces of those sentiments here, and they are good ones to talk about. But it's difficult to say whether they are intended or simply the filmgoer's own prejudices projected on the sand and waves. "Letters" isn't clear about anything. As on so many Eastwood landscapes, we must probe like amateur archaeologists, trying to guess at the thoughts behind the artifacts as best we can. (R) 141 min. ** S