Letters from Iwo Jima: 3 & ½ Stars
Clint Eastwood’s bookend to this month’s ’Flags of our Fathers‘ (read Alan’s review here) is a tough nut to crack. On one hand, Clint taking on a Japanese language film dealing solely with the horrific Japanese defeat at Iwo Jima is commendable, to say the least. And his ability to use this story of soldiers given an impossible task by a government that cares little for their lives as a metaphor for our current situation in Iraq makes it very poignant indeed, but I’m still left wondering if perhaps this is a film that should have been left to a Japanese filmmaker.
That’s not to say that this isn’t a film worth your time, as Ken Watanabe and a cast of unknown-in-the-West actors are amazing, as is the sense of dread and foreboding that comes from soldiers knowing that they’re on that island just to die. I guess you’ll just have to read the whole review, huh?
As stated previously, Letters from Iwo Jima is Clint Eastwood’s companion film to Flags of our Fathers, which focused on the war bonds tour undertaken by the surviving members of the iconic flag raising photo. For Letters, we see the battle for Iwo Jima through the eyes of the Japanese soldiers who fought and died there. From a hapless baker conscripted into service (Kazunari Ninomiya), a disgraced elite soldier sent to Iwo Jima as punishment (Ryo Kase), an Olympic Gold Medalist (Tsuyoshi Ihara), and the American educated general sent to command them all (Ken Watanabe), we experience the battle through the eyes of very different men who all realize the futility of their charge.
Plotwise, this tale is no different (and no less harrowing) than any number of wartime siege films. What makes it so unique is that it’s an American film depicting a very Japanese story. Effectively capturing the nuance of other cultures isn’t a trick Hollywood is particularly adept at, and it’s a testament to Clint Eastwood’s prowess as a director that he’s able to make that aspect of the film work at all. Impressed as I was, I still ended the movie wishing that the great Akira Kurosawa were still alive to helm a project like this.
It’s telling that the famously conservative Eastwood would undertake a film that so nakedly displays its contempt for the callousness with which incompetent governments will throw away the lives of its citizens and soldiers, and in that regard this film is incredibly powerful. The parallels to Iraq are evident in every frame. Just as we have done in Iraq, the decision makers in Tokyo consistently underestimated their American foes, leading to ever more decimating defeats. In Letters, the Western educated General Kuribayashi can’t make Tokyo understand just how badly they’ve misjudged the American military, nor can he get them to accept and support his decisions on the ground in Iwo Jima. The soldiers themselves know nothing of their eventual opponents beyond the propaganda they’ve been told, and they find out far too late that the Marines they’re fighting against are much the same as they are.
As I said, as metaphor for Iraq, this film is incredibly powerful and may be very telling of how the conservative mind has accepted what Washington won’t. As a straight film, however, it is deeply flawed. Eastwood has never had to deal with massive FX before, and his discomfort is evident in many of the battle scenes. By current standards, the budget of 20 million is quite small for a full blown, two studio picture, and that shows up in a number of shots. Eastwood sticks to a desaturated and washed out look for the film, which serves to mask some of the FX deficiencies, but mostly I found it rather annoying as a visual device. Desaturation is fast becoming cinema shorthand for ‘historic’, and that bothers me greatly. The history wasn’t in sepia. It was in gorgeous and luscious color, and I’d rather see it as such. As it was, I just kept thinking my television was going out.
The budget constraints come through in a number of other aspects, not the least of which being the feeling that there’s only a handful of men defending Iwo Jima, and not the twenty some thousand that were actually stationed there. Locations are used again and again, and there’s not much to let you know that Iwo Jima was a somewhat vibrant community (and important radar station) prior to the battle. Again, that’s a reason I would have rather seen someone like Kurosawa helm a film like this. Eastwood isn’t comfortable needing such a massive canvas to show his work, and that drags the film down.
The title ‘Letters from Iwo Jima’ doesn’t really make much sense until the last scene which closes too quickly (and without epilogue) for my taste, but the narrative device of hearing the letters the characters are composing to their loved ones back home (however well delivered by the cast) seems tacked on and forced.
That said, the performances are universally excellent, and Eastwood continues to prove his deft touch with actors. This film is an almost guaranteed Best Picture nominee based on the subject matter alone, but I’m not comfortable putting this up as a winner. It’s certainly not to the caliber of Unforgiven (Eastwood’s finest directorial work), nor is it as adept at its execution as the other front runners like Babel or The Departed. But at the end of the day (or the review, as it were) the question remains: Is it worth your time and money? I’m going to have to say a resounding yes. Yes, it is. Both for its message and its amazing performances. Not exactly your chipper holiday fare, and most likely you’ll want to catch Letters from Iwo Jima when it hits wide release in Feburary, but I’d certainly urge you to do so.