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With so many movies nowadays nothing more than predictable, formulaic hash, originality is something to be practically worshipped. And the new release LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA is nothing if not original - not only does it tell a pivotal battle of World War Two from a unique perspective, that of the Japanese "enemy", but it does so in the Japanese language itself (something which just allowed LETTERS to win the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film).

Directed by Clint Eastwood and written by Iris Yamashita, LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA tells the story of the brave but ultimately futile defense by Japanese forces of the island of Iwo Jima against the numerically superior armies of the United States. Purely as a cinematic experience, LETTERS does many things right. As mentioned, approaching the subject of World War Two from a novel angle, the Japanese POV, freshens what could be just another stale war movie. And portraying the Japanese soldiers as three-dimensional human beings (i.e. with both good and bad points as well as diverse, conflicting traits) instead of the usual one-note, sneering villains makes them more real to the audience, and their plight more emotionally affecting. The performances are uniformly splendid as well, with Ken Watanabe's turn as the battle-hardened but profoundly humane General Kuribayashi a standout. Eastwood's direction is just as good, as he adroitly combines the various moments of action, suspense, horror and pathos into one seamless whole.

Of course, nobody's perfect, not even Clint, and LETTERS does have its drawbacks. At well over two hours, it's about twenty minutes too long - we know the Japanese soldiers are doomed from the start, so there's really no need to drag out their fate the way the film does.

But the biggest issue with the movie may be its own decency. Certainly it's true, as LETTERS shows, that Japanese soldiers were as heroic as their American counterparts, while both sides just as certainly committed atrocities against the other during the heat of battle. But the danger of a movie like Eastwood's is that it loses sight of the bigger picture, giving both sides a moral equivalency that really doesn't exist. America didn't invade other countries during World War Two (unless she was attacked/declared war on first), nor did she systematically treat her prisoners of war as murderously as the Axis Powers.

LETTERS may be an estimable film, but it is not the whole story of World War Two wrapped up into one tidy moral bundle, and shouldn't be considered such. Seeing LETTERS in the context of another war film, 2005's THE GREAT RAID would be helpful here.

THE GREAT RAID is based on the true story of a group of Army Rangers who seek to rescue American soldiers from a Japanese POW camp in the Philippines during World War Two. Now aesthetically, THE GREAT RAID is everything LETTERS is not: meandering in its structure, flat in its acting, indifferent in its direction (except for a superb action climax when the Rangers free the Americans from the camp). But it does depict, often brutally so, a historical fact - that Allied POWs were allowed to die from hunger, disease or even out-and-out murder in Japanese camps, something that wouldn't be tolerated in American camps that followed the dictates of the Geneva Convention, and something that ultimately doesn't make the Japanese Empire a combatant of equal nobility to the United States, which LETTERS seems to suggest.

If you want to see the full picture of World War Two, don't just see LETTERS, which I certainly still recommend you do, but also see movies like THE GREAT RAID as well.

Responses, comments and general two-cents worth can be E-mailed to gillis662000@yahoo.com.

(Note: For all those who missed my past reviews, they're now archived on Hollywoodlitsales.com. Just click the link on the main page and it'll take you to the Inner Sanctum. Love them or Hate them at your leisure!)

A graduate of USC's School of Cinema-Television, Tom McCurrie has worked as a development executive, story analyst, screenwriter and teacher of screenwriting. He lives in Los Angeles and is finishing up (finally!) his first novel.


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