So here's the story, as I know it: Originally, Letters from Iwo Jima – Eastwood's follow-up to Flags of Our Fathers and the second of his two films dealing with World War II's critical Battle of Iwo Jima – was meant to be released in the spring of 2007. I suspect the hope was that Flags of Our Fathers, released in October 2006, would win the Best Picture Oscar in February 2007, and thus Letters would ride into theaters on the wave of accolades for its predecessor.
But although it was pretty good, Flags of Our Fathers wasn't the instant classic that Warner Bros. had hoped for. Due to lackluster box office and warm but not spectacular critical response, it was clearly not going to be the frontrunner at Oscar time. The worried studio realized that the super-efficient Eastwood was already finishing up Letters in time to qualify for the Oscars before the end of 2006, and soon early reviews started claiming that it was the better film. So now this film has become the great white hope for the studio.
Or, if you'll pardon the racist pun, the great yellow hope. For Letters tells the story of the Battle of Iwo Jima entirely from the Japanese point of view. Mel Gibson's dead-language fantasias aside, this makes Letters the first Hollywood picture to be filmed in a foreign tongue. This adds great authenticity to the film, which is otherwise your basic war movie, albeit a well-made one.
The characters – some historical, most fictional – are appealing, likable people. People you don't want to see get killed. People who, sixty years ago, were depicted in American propaganda campaigns as buck-toothed, bat-winged monsters, flying out of the sky to rape our women. It's a pity that this film couldn't have come out in 1943; can you imagine the response it would have gotten, displaying our Japanese enemies as introspective, soft-spoken human beings?
Leave it to Hollywood's Mr. "Racial Sensitivity" himself, Paul Haggis, to come up with the story (although the screenplay itself is solely credited to Japanese-American researcher Iris Yamashita). It's hip to dismiss his previous Oscar winner Crash these days as sanctimonious junk, but Haggis is still a crack writer – his script for Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby is wonderful – and there is very little cloying about Letters from Iwo Jima, save for one scene that pushes the brothers-in-arms theme just a little too far. (Without revealing details, it involves the reading of a letter to an American soldier from his mother.)
Letters is a fine film, definitely worthwhile – and, for some, even important – viewing during these modern days of war.