It's hard to explain exactly why Clint Eastwood's Letters From Iwo Jima is so much better than its companion World War II film Flags Of Our Fathers, except to say that Flags tries too hard to emphasize the ironies of selling a war, while Letters deals with the ins and outs of the war itself. Aside from a short modern framing device and a handful of flashbacks, Letters From Iwo Jima starts just before the U.S. invasion of a tactically significant Japanese island, and ends with the U.S. victory. All of this is shown exclusively from the Japanese military perspective, as they dig tunnels, lay in supplies, and prepare to fight off the Americans with almost no resources save their own discipline. And as the battle wears on, even that breaks down.
Eastwood and co-screenwriters Paul Haggis and Iris Yamashita (working from a book by Tadamichi Kuribayashi) finesse the trick of making the historical bad guys into sympathetic characters by dividing them into blinkered, remorseless traditionalists and homesick grunts. Splitting the difference is Ken Watanabe, playing the mission commander, an American-schooled Lt. General more interested in keeping his troops alive for a sustained attack than sacrificing them for some nebulous sense of honor. To some extent, Letters From Iwo Jima is cheap in the way it manipulates audience sentiment, and the few scenes where the Japanese soldiers learn how much they resemble their enemy are way too on-the-nose.
At the same time, Eastwood and company capture what it must have been like for a simple baker like Kazunari Ninomiya, dealing with conflicting orders and a nationalist philosophy that values martyrdom over success. Those looking for contemporary relevance in Letters From Iwo Jima could find it all over the sociopolitical map, from the insanity of terrorist suicide bombers to the frustrations of a "stay the course" foreign policy. The most significant moment in the film is one of its least strident: an unsparing scene where American soldiers execute a handful of prisoners rather than risking their own lives to transport them. It's hard to argue with those soldiers from a strategic point of view, but in the context of Letters, their choice convinces the Japanese to fight to the death rather than surrendering, which ultimately costs even more American lives. Eastwood handles that kind of minute study of human darkness best, showing how people make impossible choices with dreadful repercussions.