"Letters From Iwo Jima" starts and stops on "Sulphur Island," that flyspeck of volcanic ash where on Feb. 19, 1945, two divisions of Marines came ashore in what would be one of the bloodiest battles of the war. The figures tell the story: More than 6,000 Americans and more than 21,000 Japanese died in 35 days of fighting. About a thousand Japanese were captured.
The first major film made by an American -- Clint Eastwood -- to tell the story of the war in the Pacific from the Japanese point of view, it's most valuable as a massive correction. Like his "Flags of Our Fathers," it isn't really a history of a battle, and it frankly could have used both a timeline and a few topographic indexes. To Eastwood, it's mostly men in tunnels hoping they don't get killed today, even if they know they will tomorrow.
It helps that the Japanese command staff on Iwo Jima was unusually colorful. The general in charge was Tadamichi Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe), and, like a cliche from a '40s war movie, he'd actually spent five years in the United States before the war and knew it well. The director depicts another colorful character, Japanese Lt. Col. Baron Takeichi Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara), also with American connections: He won a gold medal in the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics in a riding event and socialized with the Hollywood equestrian set.
But the more moving stories are those of the reluctant infantrymen. Though a few noncommissioned officers are portrayed with the samurai zeal to throw themselves before the treads of an American tank and blow it to smithereens with a mine clutched to their bosom, the more common rank and file are just boys who'd rather be somewhere else.
In the last half-hour, the story, like the Japanese, loses its way; lacking any clear-cut goals except survival, the film becomes repetitive. "Letters From Iwo Jima" is a necessary movie; too bad it's not a great movie.
-- Stephen Hunter (Jan. 12, 2007)
Contains extremely graphic battle carnage. In Japanese with subtitles.