The key moment in Clint Eastwood’s LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA is when General Kuribayashi, the commander of the doomed Japanese forces defending the eponymous island from Amercan invasion, stops the summary execution of two soldiers by their immediate commanding officer for having committed the crime of not dying at their post. Kuribayashi, played by Ken Watanabe, tells the sword-wielding officer/executioner that he does not see the point in wasting lives, especially in light of how decimated their fighting force has become. And yet, by continuing to demand that those forces fight to the death as Tokyo ordered, and honor demands, that is precisely what he is doing and on a much larger scale. So complete is his cognitive dissonance that neither he nor anyone around him sees the irony. It is the particular definitions of honor and of patriotism so deeply ingrained in all of them that it brooks no questioning. And it is who gets to define those terms that is the real villain of this piece. The soldiers on both sides who are caught up in acting on and, dying for, those definitions are the victims, some more innocent than others. This is the companion piece to Eastwood’s earlier film, FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS, filmed back-to-back with it, and if more fictionalized, its superior in every way. The story is told through the eyes of Kuribayashi and Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya) an ordinary soldier plucked from civilian life as a baker. It’s a classic device, but in this case, the characters are at an intellectual remove from their fellows. For different reasons, they have seen through the jingoistic propaganda foisted upon them by the military, though the revelation has not prevented each of them from being in the middle of the war, and in a battle that the commanders in Tokyo, as well as Kuribayashi and his officers, know will be lost. They are there to die for the glory of Japan and the defense of its sacred soil. It begins and end ends with an archeological expection to Iwo Jima in 2005 where letters from the Japanese troops who served there are unearthed. It’s a precious conceit that is the weakest part of the film, replaced quickly by the flashback and Kuribayashi, newly arrived on the island. Fretting about the unrepaird kitchen floor he was forced to leave behind, and knowing that he was the second choice for the assignment. He also knows, thanks to subordinate officers who are not shy about telling him, that his plans for defending the island from the expected attack by the American fleet flies in the face of standard military tactics and their understanding of the American character. Kuribayashi, unlike the others, has had the advantage of having lived in America, of understanding the country’s mechanization, and of counting American officers as friends. He also knows understands that he will be outnumbered. Trenches on the beach are replaced with tunnels under the hills with only a few pillboxes overlooking the beach as a concession to the other officers. Naturally, as he expected, the pillboxes fall almost immediately, reducing their already small numbers. What follows is the desperate wait for the inevitable as the massive forces of the Allies swarm over the island and the Japanese forces stage ever more desperate strategies for doing as much harm as possible before dying themselves rather than surrender. Using exposures and filters that remove most of the color from the screen, the people become like the ghosts of memory, yet that effect does nothing to alleviate the psychological brutality that is more pointed here than physical gore. For all the glimpses of dismemberment, or firestorms in a yellow that blaze painfully as one of the few colors that register, it is moments such as a squad being ordered to commit suicide by their commmander, and then doing so one by one using hand-grenades and grimacing from fear and reluctance combined that are the most difficult to process. Here is a cultural convention as alien to western audiences as the rarely glimpsed American soldiers are to the Japanese fighting them. Yet the script, but Paul Haggis (MILLION DOLLAR BABY, CRASH) and novelist Iris Yamashita, makes these characters fully realized and in the process, anything but alien, their actions notwithstanding, with more than the somewhat tired cliche of having them make an unexpected connection with a captured American soldier. The respect for these men is a palpable presence, making their loss all the more tragic to bear. Watanabe and Ninomyia are not just the audience’s entrée into the mindset of the Japanese Army during WWII. They are the heart and soul of the film, adding a dimension of empathy that makes the already gripping story even more wrenching. The former has an intelligent, thoughtful performance that embodies the contradictions of his character and of his society with an elegant warmth and graceful authority. The latter has the same warmth, but also a rebellious spirit tempered by circumstance and a cultural conditioning that allows for a few subversive remarks, but not for refusing the draft while mouthing the requisite sentiments about being honored to go. There have been no better performances on film this year, and perhaps so far this decade LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA is a stark masterpiece, rife with irony, pathos, and melancholy for the waste of it all. It’s also, and perhaps more importantly, an uncompromising comment on the dangers of blind loyalty. The event in question is 60 years in the past, but the issue, there is nothing unpatriotic in questioning the received wisdom or the status quo, is as relevant today as it was then. In fact, it might be the most patriotic action a true believe can take.