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Men of Letters

Movies | Eastwood film packs a brutal, emotional punch

Issue: "Faith-based campaigning," Jan. 27, 2007

Letters from Iwo Jima's Golden Globe victory for best foreign language film does not begin to tell how powerful a film director Clint Eastwood has made. Originally set to be the Japanese companion piece to Eastwood's American portrayal of the battle for Iwo Jima (Flags of Our Fathers), Letters easily surpasses Flags in terms of storytelling and emotional depth.

The film (which is in Japanese with English subtitles) primarily follows two heroes: Western-educated Japanese Lt. General Tadamichi Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe), whose real-life letters about the battle help form both a personal and historical perspective, and young baker-turned-soldier Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya), who tries to keep a promise to return to his wife despite cultural pressures to die fighting or commit suicide.

Whereas Eastwood's Flags meanders, Letters stays focused on the story, rarely straying from action on the island. While Flags portrays the battle in short bursts, Eastwood's camera in Letters fixes on the gore, especially when the battle seems lost for the Japanese. And by not turning away from brutal suicide scenes, in which Japanese soldiers commit ritual suicide by detonating grenades just over their hearts, Eastwood helps an American audience understand Japan's warrior culture as perhaps never before. Eastwood's unflinching eye earns the film an R rating for graphic violence.

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Some patriotic-minded theatergoers may object to Eastwood's efforts to humanize Japanese soldiers, whom most Americans at the time considered savage monsters. Chinese and American prisoners can attest to widespread Japanese atrocities during the war. But that argument is not against Letters but rather against the idea that a movie should be made from the Japanese perspective. Most will be happy Eastwood took the time.

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