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Living - January 26, 2007

Movie review: Letters From Iwo Jima *** 1/2

Rating: R for graphic war violence. In Japanese with English subtitles; 2 hours, 20 minutes.

The second of Clint Eastwood's World War II sagas is clearly superior to his flat companion piece, "Flags of Our Fathers." Unspooling from the perspective of the Japanese, the battle scenes against U.S. troops for control of the volcanic island are searing. And images are as caked with beauty as with blood.

The present-day discovery of a cache of letters triggers the flashback to 1944. Iris Yamashita's first script, developed from a story co-authored with "Million Dollar Baby" and "Crash" scribe Paul Haggis, quickly establishes Iwo Jima as part of Japan's sacred homeland and a key strategic position in the Pacific Theater. Embodying the honor and warrior code of the Imperial forces, Gen. Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe of "The Last Samurai") plans a do-or-die defense. He and his troops write letters to loved ones at home, which serve as first-person accounts of the preparations and doomed attempt to stem the American attack in February of 1945.

A gunmetal-gray palette sets the somber tone, perfect for what will amount to a suicide mission inside the maze of caves and tunnels dug deep into the slopes of Mount Suribachi and its surrounding area. Typical of the war genre, the slice-of-life Imperial Army includes a smart and brave leader (the elegant Watanabe), a brutal officer who rules by the whip instead of the brain (Hiroshi Watanabe), an upper-class celebrity (Tsuyoshi Ihara), and the lucky grunt Saigo (J-pop star Kazunari Ninomiya).

They face dysentery, claustrophobia, dwindling supplies and eventually the awareness that the Imperial government has deceived and abandoned them - as U.S. Marines storm the black-sand beach. Fear and grace under pressure define the men, giving this war drama its grave tone. Sporadic comic attempts to lighten the mood ring false.

Bursts of battle horror punctuate the austerity of Eastwood's vision. Palo Alto-born cinematographer Tom Stern replicates the chaos of combat with his handheld camera, often situating the viewer inside pillboxes unexpectedly torched by flames or tight passageways rocked by artillery and aerial bombardment.

War is hell.

Eastwood triumphs in making you understand and identify with the Japanese entrenched in a no-win situation, instead of caring more about those raising the flags of our fathers.

--Susan Tavernetti

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