Much like with Million Dollar Baby, I can’t figure out what old Clint is trying to say with his latest movie, Flags of Our Fathers companion, Letters from Iwo Jima. Is he suggesting that not surrendering in the face of certain death is a noble and patriotic decision; or it is a futile and empty gesture? Or is he just pulling the same trick that Aeschylus pulled 2,500 years ago when he wrote The Persians: showing sympathy for the defeated enemy?

There is a school of American history that claims that, had the Japanese not defended the volcanic island of Iwo Jima so vigorously, the powers that be would not have felt the need to drop the atomic bomb. I personally doubt it would have made a difference. As the McNamara documentary Fog of War so powerfully showed, it was the terror-bombing of the mainland more than Fat Man and Little Boy that forced the Emperor’s capitulation, and that strategy was born from the cold statistical mind of McNamara himself. The characters in Iwo Jima certainly dramatize all sides of the issue of surrender, from the horrific band of brothers who hug live grenades to the straight-laced former Kempetai who finds ignominious death in flying the white flag. Eastwood and the writers, Iris Yamashita and Paul “Walker, Texas Ranger” Haggis, dance around the issue of surrender, which would seem to speak directly to the current situation in Iraq, much like Million Dollar Baby did fancy footwork around the hotbutton issue of assisted suicide. In the end, we know that some great specimens of humanity perished needlessly in the dark caves of that volcanic island, but little else.

I found the beginning of Letters from Iwo Jima unspeakably dull; I found the last half, with the battle, more viscerally interesting, but still short of classics of the war movie genre like Full Metal Jacket, The Big Red One or even Saving Private Ryan. Those movies are packed beginning to end with memorable scenes and sequences. Letters has a more reflective bent and doesn’t feel the need to gussy up the plot with drama and action.

I lack sensitivity to Japanese inflections, but the performances seemed universally excellent, including lead Kazunari Ninomiya, as the cowardly Saito and Hollywood’s noble Asian go-to Ken Watanabe, as General Kuribayashi. A special plaque of honor should also be reserved for d.p. Tom Stern and his bold choices with the cinematography. Leeching out all color except for the red of the Japanese flag and the instant yellow of explosions, the look truly pays off when the movie retreats into the dark caves and the night battlefield. There, Caravaggio-like compositions abound, placing the emphasis on the soldiers’ faces, and the fear on those faces.

Letters from Iwo Jima is a fine piece of filmmaking, especially when you consider that the director is an American and doesn’t (as far as I know) speak a lick of Japanese. But in this same year, Mel Gibson made a movie in ancient Mayan; a movie with more action, pathos and drama than Letters from Iwo Jima, and more epic spectacle. If I had an Oscar ballot in front of me, Letters from Iwo Jima would not be getting my vote.