Letters from Iwo Jima ***1/2
A few months ago I wrote my review for Clint Eastwood's first film in his two part World War Ii saga "Flags of Our Fathers." The review was the first time that I didn't do a did not do a linear type of review. As a joke, or a gimmick if you will, I made it out to be a phone call between Clint Eastwood and his agent trying to decide what type of film they should make that will beat Martin Scorsese for the Best Director Oscar this year. There was a reason that I was childlike and silly in that review, and it's because I thought that Eastwood's film making while making that was childlike and silly. "Flags of Our Fathers" was the most cliched war movie I ever saw, and Eastwood seemed to be picking up Academy Award Winning Cliches from a bag and then using them. There even managed to be a father/son relationship subplot thrown into the last five minutes for no other reason than to try and add a few last minute tears. So I thought I would try and have a little fun with that review, and just continue to poke fun at how ridiculous that film really was. That's why I was a little worried with "Letters from Iwo Jima," which was filmed at the same time as "Flags" was, which tells the story of the same battle but instead from the perspective and the Japanese who fought it. But somehow Eastwood seems to drift away from all the standard Hollywood Oscar nonsense, and has actually crafted a masterpiece war film-and he directs it in a way that does indeed rival Scorsese's work in "The Departed." Perhaps this isn't his year after all.
"Letters from Iwo Jima" opens in the present day, with archaeologists digging on the island of Iwo Jima. One of them finds some kind of parcel, and everybody begins to dig it out to see what it is. We then flashback to a few days before the battle, and the arrival of General Tadamichi Kuribayashi. Kuribayashi may be a Japanese general, but he was in America for quite some time studying their ways. Some of the other soldiers make comments to themselves. Some of them think that he was studying their way so that he'll know their weaknesses. Others aren't too happy with him being around-thinking that he will sympathize with the America side. We are then introduced to Saigo, a young soldier who sadly had to leave his wife behind to go to war. Saigo and the general form a certain bond. The battle does soon begin, and the certain battle values of the Japanese begin to stick out. For example, the soldiers are never allowed to surrender, and they have to live out until the very end, or at least kill themselves with honor. And as the end draws near they begin to think that they might not make it to the end, and spend some final moments on Earth writing letters to their loved ones.
"Letters from Iwo Jima" does not revisit any of the characters from "Flags of Our Fathers," and I was grateful that Eastwood didn't connect the two films in any way except the desolate gray landscape. One thing that I thought he would do was have the Japanese capture one of the main characters from the other movie, but that would have been simply ridiculous. Another connection between the two films was one of Eastwood's statements about war. It seems like whatever is going on over seas is always somehow blocked to the people of the home countries. In "Flags of Our Fathers" the four soldiers that were being celebrated over the photo of Iwo Jima were not the actual soldiers involved, but it didn't matter so long as war bonds were bought. In this one whenever a soldier writes a letter home, parts of the letter would be censored, so as not to reveal to much about what is happening. It is these kinds of details that make me wonder about what is going on during this present war.
"Letters from Iwo Jima" is also a wonderful study of characters, origins, and values. Because the Japanese have this value that they must either die with honor and never give up, it was painful to watch. You knew that most of these characters were doomed from the beginning, and when certain ones did decide to check out early Eastwood did not spare any visuals from being shown. A particularly disturbing scene involved hand grenades, and them biting them open with their tougue and then hitting themselves in the head with them. The only man that does try to integrate American values with the values of the Japanese is Kuribayashi who does love America, but knows that he must stand up for his country. When asked during a banquet in America what he would do if America went to war with Japan, Kuribayashi responds "The United States and Japan have no reason to fight one another, but if they did I would have to stay with my country." But in the end, even though he does try and help an American soldier that is caught injured in the battlefield, it is the Japanese values that he must follow, and he will do whatever is neccessary to stick with his country.
"Letters from Iwo Jima" is stunning to look at, which was one of the only decent things about it's predecessor. The entire film is cloaked with a gray tint, which makes this an even more painful experience to sit through, but in a good way. I don't understand why this isn't getting the same type of release as "Flags of Our Fathers." Out of the two films, this is the true masterpiece, and its getting a slow release treatment instead of throwing it into 2,000 theatres upon its first week. It seems like Dreamworks wrote off this saga after the poor box office for "Flags," but this is indeed the better movie of the two. Even for war buffs it is better. The battle scenes are more intense and more exciting to sit through. The acting is fantastic, and Ken Watanabe continues to impress me with whatever he does. It is never dull and it never seemed too Hollywood or contrived or cliche like the first film did. The first thing I said after I saw "Flags of Our Fathers" was how ridiculous and silly that film was. It was indeed childlike-a two year old could have written and made a better film. After I walked out of "Letters from Iwo Jima" I was upset that I was alone, unlike the first film. There was nothing to discuss about "Flags-" just constant jokes at some of the scenes. With "Letters" I was analyzing scenes and characters in my head-something that happens rarely, especially with war films. If you didn't like "Flags of Our Fathers" then this is the film to see. It seems like "Flags" was given better treatment by the studios, but "Letters from Iwo Jima" is the better film, and it seems like Eastwood put a little more effort into this one than the first.