CAPSULE: Clint Eastwood shows us the battle of Iwo Jima from the Japanese side, having three months ago given it to us from the American side. This time he gives us a more traditional war film that is anti-violence but pays homage to those men forced to be violent. The film is based on the actual letters of one Japanese commander who is forced to do his duty knowing it will mean his death. Eastwood makes some stylistic mistakes, but the strength of the underlying material comes through. Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4) or 8/10
This is, of course, Eastwood's second Iwo Jima film. It is a follow-up to his directly previous film, FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS. He said in an interview on National Public Radio that while making the first film he became interested in these letters by the Japanese commander of the island and decided that there was a movie to be made about him. As far as I am concerned, it is actually a better film and very different in tone. FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS was about exploitation and dishonesty. This is a film about honor and courage. In spite of the necessary downbeat ending, at the end of LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA one feels clean and the previous film leaves one feeling a little dirty. Curiously, that makes this the more traditional of the two war films. But there might be good reason for the traditions. Actually, the two films are mostly consistent in their respect for the fighting man and are less positive on functionaries who did their service a safe distance from the fighting, people who could be unfeeling who could tell themselves it was in good cause.
In the closing days of the Pacific War General Tadamichi Kuribayashi (played by Ken Watanabe) is the commander ordered to defend Iwo Jima from the onslaught of Americans. The island itself seems of little intrinsic value beyond simply being a strategic objective, being it was actually Japan. Like Yamamoto, Kuribayashi had been to the United States and was pessimistic that Japan could defeat such an industrial power. At this point in the war, that conclusion was rapidly becoming obvious to all and all too obvious. Kuribayashi accepts the command fully knowing that it is going to mean his death and the death of most of his men. Knowing that fact reinforces his natural compassion for the men serving under him. This makes him liked by the men, but disliked by the junior officers who favor harsh discipline for those lower in command. Kuribayashi's strategy it to take men from digging trenches on the beach and had them instead dig caves in the rocky hills of the island. This will simply slow the Americans. He sees his responsibility is to protect the Japanese children from the Americans, even if it is for only one day.
Iris Yamashita's screenplay, based on Kuribayashi's letters to his family, gives us views into the lives of the serving men and how they came to be serving on Iwo Jima. Once we are introduced and have a feel for the characters, we see them plunged into the inferno of war. The personal stories are affecting, though this is a surprisingly familiar structure for a war film. Films from the 1940s up to BAND OF BROTHERS have used it. And the soldiers experience and personalities are not very different from those of their American enemies. They are sympathetically portrayed. One low-level American soldier is decidedly unsympathetic, but there is a Japanese soldier who balances him off. The majority of those on both sides are just decent people hoping to survive the war and to get back to civilian life. There is something of the same spirit here of Michael Shaara's book THE KILLER ANGELS (made into the great film GETTYSBURG). As in Shaara, both sides are seen as noble and the war is very unfortunate. What we see are probably echoes of just about any war.
Ken Watanabe, playing General Kuribayashi, has been in Japanese films since 1984, notably including the food comedy TAMPOPO. However he did not get much attention in this country until his title role in THE LAST SAMURAI. Since then he has been in BATMAN BEGINS and MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA. The IMDB also says he is rumored to be already cast for next year's WOLVERINE. He is fast becoming this generation's answer to Toshiro Mifune. His is the only face in the film that is likely to be familiar to Americans.
Both Iwo Jima films have the heavily muted colors all but simulating monochrome. Color is used to highlight parts of an image--especially the flames of explosions--but never the full image. Selecting color values within a single scene like this is effective once or twice, but it is becoming an all-too-familiar device. Nobody is denying that lighting and color affect the feel of a film, but this is a gimmick that calls attention to itself away from the underlying material, and both of Eastwood's Iwo Jima films used it. Also the muted colors are something of a special problem in this film. The subtitles are in white and the background is frequently nearly white making the titles less readable. If Eastwood wanted to color something in the frame, it should have been the subtitles.
LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA has some wrenching moments but overall it strikes me as much less graphic than was FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS. Overall Eastwood gives tone to the film by playing honor and fatalism against each other. We rarely get a chance to see the war from the Japanese side, particularly in the tragic final weeks. I rate LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA a high +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 8/10.
Mark R. Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Copyright 2007 Mark R. Leeper