One breathtaking shot haunts me above all others in Letters From Iwo Jima, Clint Eastwood’s profound, magisterial, and gripping companion piece to his ambitious meditation on wartime image and reality, Flags of Our Fathers. Where Flags chronicled the terrible battle for the Japanese island of Iwo Jima in February of 1945 from the American point of view (some 7,000 U.S. soldiers died), Letters looks at the same fight from the opposing side, where the losses topped 20,000. And so the POV shifts from that of Yanks mowed down as they stormed Iwo’s black sand to that of the Japanese soldiers holding those bunkers with a resourcefulness and discipline bred in the bone.
Committed to what may well be suicide on behalf of their emperor and country, the men known by Allied forces as ”the enemy” struggled with insufficient arms and supplies, with dysentery and thirst, with conflicting commands, and with simple human fear. And at one point deep into the fighting (meant to be a quick win for the Allies, the combat went on for 36 days), the camera casually looks over the shoulders of some exhausted, determined, probably doomed Japanese troops at what appears to be a large hill far in the distance. On the top of that hill is a tiny dot that appears to be a waving flag. It is of no consequence to the genial grunt soldier Saigo (J-pop star Kazunari Ninomiya, a charmer), or the elegant Olympic equestrian champ and fighting man Baron Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara), or the enlightened general Tadamichi Kuribayashi (The Last Samurai‘s dashing Ken Watanabe) charged with leading his men for the glory of Japan.
That’s it: all the hope, hype, and heartbreak signified by the iconic flag in Flags of Our Fathers compacted — dismissed! — with one glance. It takes a filmmaker of uncommon control and mature grace to say so much with so little superfluous movement, and Eastwood triumphs in the challenge. Letters From Iwo Jima enthralls in the audacity of its simplicity. Here is the West’s war, mirrored in the East, fought by soldiers also born of mothers who worried, and grieved.