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When we were the enemy Eastwood retells the Battle of Iwo Jima, from a Japanese perspective

Clint Eastwood's "Letters from Iwo Jima" is a historic American film. That is, it's about history -- and it makes history, too.

Not since the beginning of our movies has there been anything like Eastwood's "Flags of Our Fathers" and, now, "Letters from Iwo Jima" -- two revisionist films about one of the bloodiest and most decisive battles of World War II, our "last good war." "Flags of Our Fathers," which I still think the better and more haunting one, is about heroism and what happened to the men whom the late Joe Rosenthal photographed raising the American flag on Mt. Suribashi.

"Letters from Iwo Jima" -- astonishingly -- is about the battle as seen from the Japanese side, where the number of casualties almost tripled the number of American dead. The film is in Japanese, with subtitles. Even more than "Flags of Our Fathers," it so mutes its colors that, for long stretches, the film is virtually in black and white.

Color, generally, is reserved for the fierce orange of explosions, and the red of blood. It's a tale of men whose job it is to "fight and die" and they know it. The island is hot. And smells. And is virtually without water.

And yet it's crucially strategic, which is why the Japanese soldiers are charged with holding off the massive American onslaught for as long as possible. As they dig trenches, even a grunt can joke, "Am I digging my own grave?"

And Clint Eastwood is there telling these men's story for a simple reason -- that they are men exactly like those they are fighting. They're scared, worried they'll never see their lives again and the wives and children they love. One guy's wife is pregnant and trying to run their family bakery back home.

And they're in the middle of hell, dying of dysentery when not preparing to fight and dodging fire. They deliberately target American medics to increase the number of American casualties. And, when captured, their American captors are by no means likely to treat them with any more humanity or concern (one scene of casual American cruelty is, in fact, unforgettable.)

That is what Clint Eastwood, at 76, is telling us about war, in a "mission accomplished" era.

Which is: Hell comes first. Heroism, when it exists, is a distant second.

Clint Eastwood, for pity's sake -- who used to play Rowdy Yates on TV's "Rawhide." And who used to be called by an old colleague of ours "the whispering fascist" when he was making films like "Dirty Harry," "Magnum Force" and "The Enforcer." And who used to co-star in comedies with an orangutan.

Eastwood, too, has become historic. At 76, he has climbed up to the current version of Hollywood's Rushmore to stay. It's no matter that "Flags of Our Fathers" -- as good as it was -- was a massive box office disappointment. There are some films important to do just to do them, something that Eastwood's producing partner Steven Spielberg understands.

Who but a tandem like that would have been likely to get away with making "Letters from Iwo Jima" in the era of "Code Name: The Cleaner" and "Primeval?"

"Letters from Iwo Jima" is the most important -- if by no means the best -- of the movies opening tomorrow on what might be called "Golden Globe Weekend," i.e., the weekend in which long-delayed movies of worrisome box office open wide after scoring predictably well in the Golden Globes.

"Letters from Iwo Jima" won (let the irony sink in and marinate for a while) the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film. And Forest Whitaker won the Best Actor Golden Globe for his powerful turn as Idi Amin Dada in "The Last King of Scotland." The third amazing film tomorrow is Guillermo del Toro's war fantasy "Pan's Labyrinth."

Significantly, two of those films -- "Letters" and "Last King" -- are the culmination of a process begun 19 years ago on an Eastwood film called "Bird," a misfired film biography of pivotal jazz genius Charlie Parker.

The film wasn't very good but it served notice on two things: 1) that Clint Eastwood was going his own maverick way as an American moviemaker, no matter where it took him, and anyone who didn't like it could stuff it. And 2) that when he got his act completely together his star as Parker, Forest Whitaker, would one day give a performance on film that would take the top of your head off.

"Letters" is based on fact, specifically a cache of real letters home written on Iwo Jima by Lt. Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi, who is played by the great Japanese actor Ken Watanabe ("The Last Samurai" among many better, if lesser known, movies). Watanabe, all by himself, has enough gravitas for three films (and would still have enough left over to outpoint the presidential news conference of your choice.)

They were letters to his family -- wife, son, daughter. They were, by no stretch of the imagination, the letters of an "enemy" but rather a decent, large-hearted soul who missed his family terribly and who'd once been an envoy in America.

None of his fellow soldiers is a cliche. One fellow officer, in fact, is an Olympic equestrian, a dashing and surreal cavalry figure for a hellish island full of infantry grunts.

Kuribayashi proved himself a resourceful leader on Iwo Jima's black sands, with the result that he and everyone else knew long before the battle even began.

Which was a certain loss at the hands of an overwhelming and powerful "enemy."

Who, by history's happenstance, happened to be us.

Clint Eastwood knows better. At 76, he refuses to be any soldier's enemy.

He's just their admiring and mournful elegist.

It's not, as I said, a great film. But taken together with its companion film "Flags of Our Fathers", it's a very great and historic film gesture.

e-mail: jsimon@buffnews.com

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>Movie Review

Letters from Iwo Jima

Review: 3 stars (Out of 4)
Ken Watanabe and Ryo Kase in Clint Eastwood's much-praised and awarded story of the Battle of Iwo Jima as seen from the Japanese side. In Japanese with subtitles, rated R and opening tomorrow at area theaters.

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