In his companion piece to the flawed but moving
FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS, director Clint Eastwood has crafted an
intriguing, and one might argue subversive, feature film. He has done
something that I cannot recall any other American movie maker ever
doing -- which is to turn the tables and focus on the "enemies" of
America. Eastwood and his writers, Paul Haggis and Iris Yamashita
(both of whom collaborated on the story with Yamashita penning the
Japanese-language screenplay) have crafted a film that serves as
the other side to Eastwood's first film about the Battle of Iwo Jima.
Whereas
FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS concentrated as much on the
aftermath of the raising of the American flag on Mount Suribachi and
the attendant publicity for the survivors,
LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA
mostly unfolds during the preparation for and the action during the
actual battle. There are judicious flashbacks that flesh out some of
the characters, but in many ways this is the better film, simply
because its scope is much more focused.

  
FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS ended up being a bit diffused as
its story spanned more than forty years and moved from Japan to
the United States. Emotionally, I reacted more to that film by virtue
of the fact that my own father had served in the Pacific during World
War II and like the older characters portrayed in the movie, he chose
not to discuss his experiences. (Nor did his brothers who also served
in the military; there was an endemic stoicism to that generation that
is to be admired.)

  
LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA is based on actual correspondence
that was discovered buried on the island many years after the war.
The missives demonstrated a commonality that some of us forget
when considering historical events. Yes there are cultural differences,
but ultimately we are human beings. That is an almost trite message,
yet what makes this film so interesting is the fact that Eastwood
and his crew demand that the audience identify with the Japanese men
portrayed. We no longer see the characters as the "Japs" of the other
film (where they are nothing more than faceless killing machines), but
as flesh and blood figures who get scared or dream of returning home
to their loved ones. Perhaps this is a commendable approach as it
lends a moral code that moviegoers will recognize from the many
war films that were churned out by Hollywood in the 1940s, but it
does overlook a key feature of the Japanese psyche. The tradition of
ruthlessness in battle that dates back centuries.

  Eastwood and his cohorts have avoided or perhaps downplayed
the win at all costs mentality that drove the Japanese soldiers before
and during World War II. This ferocity and its disregard for humanity
was a key element in what some may feel was the demonizing of
"Jap" in the Hollywood films, but to completely do a 180-degree turn
and present most of them as typical "humans" does not take into
account the cultural differences and the historical record. On one
hand it is commendable, yet on the other hand it is a bit dishonest
or disingenuous at best.

  The film does attempt to present a cross-section of figures from
Japanese society, much in the same way that most American war movies
do. There is the intelligent and somewhat paternalistic general
Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe), the aristocratic Olympian Baron Nishi
(Tsuyoshi Ihara) who brings his horse to the island expecting to ride
into battle, the reluctant grunt Saigo (Kazunari Nimomiya), the fallen
idealist Shimizu (Ryo Kase), and the belligerent, condescending Ito
(Shidou Nakamura), who perhaps comes closest to embodying the
fierce warrior.

  
LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA is nicely staged by Eastwood --
in the reverse approach, most of the American soldiers are seen
as faceless invaders and the raising of the flag on Suribachi is
seen in a long shot that if you blink you might miss.

  Watching the film, I had admiration for what Eastwood and       
his writers were attempting, but I remained at arm's length. I'm
not entirely sure why I could not buy into the film; maybe it's that
as a student of history and a connoisseur of cinema, I carried certain
cultural predispositions. Or maybe it's that, despite all their best
efforts, the filmmakers weren't completely successful. Yes, the film is
tighter and more focused than its companion piece (since this movie
concentrates on the battle), but as far as emotion, I have to say that
FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS made me choke up; LETTERS FROM
IWO JIMA
left me clear-eyed.


                  
Rating:                        B-
                  
MPAA Rating:             R for graphic war violence
                  
Running time:            114 mins.
Letters from Iwo Jima
©  2006 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.