Clint Eastwood is 76, near the age of the veterans who survived the battle for Iwo Jima in 1945.
Yet here he is, fat with as much praise as any actor turned auteur could dream of, directing two epic features back-to-back from both sides of the conflict.
Had he failed, or met with middling success, the ambition alone would have impressed.
But with “Letters From Iwo Jima,” Mr. Eastwood trumps last year’s spotty “Flags of Our Fathers” in both power and subtle beauty.
“Iwo Jima” drops us behind enemy lines, letting us meet the Japanese soldiers charged with securing Iwo Jima.
It’s an ugly slab of land, but one rich in strategic and nationalistic value.
Through its defense, Mr. Eastwood takes a multilayered look at both war and the men doomed to fight it. Not only is the color stripped nearly clean here, but so, too, is Mr. Eastwood’s penchant for cloying moments.
What’s left is as lean as it is novel. How many Americans itch to tell history from the opposing side?
Like “Flags,” “Letters” uses a modern-day framing device to enter the story. Here, it’s archaeologists digging up letters found at Iwo Jima.
The tale shifts backward from there, as we meet exhausted Japanese soldiers digging trenches near the island’s beaches. Enter Lt. Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe), chosen to lead the island’s defense. He’s a brilliant strategist as well as a humane one, shifting the troop’s positions away from the lapping water while imploring the officers to treat the men with some kindness.
The general also knows his enemy. He spent time in the U.S., a visit reflected in a too-brief flashback that still adds to his character’s sense of doubt.
His fellow soldiers know the feeling. They would rather be anywhere but on a suicidal last stand.
Young Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya) belongs back in basic training, not on the front lines, and his friend Shimizu (Ryo Kase) landed on Iwo Jima for failing to carry out cruel orders.
The impending rush of U.S. soldiers isn’t all the Japanese have to battle. The island’s foul water is killing off soldiers, who must defecate in a communal pot for fear of catching dysentery.
By the time the island is lit up by a steady Allied bombardment, it’s a wonder the troops have any will left to fight.
But fight they must, both for country and personal honor regardless of the odds. By midfilm, when weary soldiers are blowing themselves up with grenades to die with supposed dignity, it’s clear all hope is lost.
The battle rages on but mostly from a distance. When the opposing forces meet, “Letters” allows each side to show its best, and its worst.
We’d love to see more of the latter in “Letters.” Mr. Eastwood neglects to put the battle into the war’s context. There’s no trace of who instigated the war, nor of the horrific measures taken by Japanese troops against their enemy. To show that might endanger the audience’s affections for Saigo and company, something the kinder, gentler Clint Eastwood 2.0 won’t allow.
“Letters’ ” score, co-written by Mr. Eastwood’s son, Kyle, is so ethereal it fades into the charred soil, yet anything more would have marred the film’s tragic arc.
Much has been said of Mr. Eastwood’s evolution from Dirty Harry to anti-violence warrior. As a filmmaker, the shift has been fitful — remember “True Crime” (1999) or “Blood Work” (2002)?
With “Letters From Iwo Jima,” the director proves his curiosity is still leading him to places where Mr. Eastwood the leading man would rarely tread.
TITLE: “Letters From Iwo Jima”
RATING: R (Graphic war violence)
CREDITS: Directed by Clint Eastwood. Screenplay by Iris Yamashita, based on “Picture Letters From Commander in Chief” by Tadamichi Kuribayashi.
RUNNING TIME: 140 minutes
WEB SITE: https://iwojimathemovie.warnerbros.com/lettersofiwojima/framework/framework.htm
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS