Monday, January 14, 2008

Letters from Iwo Jima

"See you on the other side!"

Somewhere in the planning stages of "
Flags of our Fathers," Clint Eastwood had a thought-What was on the minds of the Japanese soldiers who also fought at Iwo Jima? What of the commander who took such a different apoproach that the badly out-numbered troops could hold off the Americans as long as they did? So with the same crew, and a completely different cast he made another movie on the heels of the previous one that showed the situations and motivations of the defenders of Iwo Jima, based on writings contained in the book "Picture Letters from the Commander in Chief," written and illustrated by the Iwo Jima forces' commander Tadamichi Kurabayashi.

The results, "
Letters from Iwo Jima" won the National Board of Review's "Best Picture." It's nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, and it incongrouosly won the Golden Globe for "Best Foreign Language Film" ("I guess I have to learn a foreign language now," said Eastwood laconically).

The film is 98% in Japanese with subtitles. Played by a terrific cast (assembled with Eastwood's knack for picking interesting faces) led by
Ken Watanabe who after stealing "The Last Samurai" from Tom Cruise and going to waste in "Batman Begins" shows how thoroughly he can carry a film. He suggests no one less than Gregory Peck in his portrayal of the American-schooled Japanese tactician who knows the impossible task of defending the last stop to Japan and does so to the best of his ability.

Like that defense strategy "Letters" is an excavation. In a present day prolog the letters are unearthed by Japanese archaeologists. Flash back to war-time Iwo Jima and the soldiers are digging trenches for the initial beach attack strategy, then digging the elaborate system of tunnels that would prove to be the core of their final strategy. "Letters" follows several soldiers of various ranks in the days between Kurabayashi's arrival and the fall of the last man. The film wheels between the scenes of the island (filmed in a bleached monochrome broken only by the reds of the Japanes flag, the orange flame of explosions or blood), and of the men's past lives filmed in vivid technicolor. Technically, the film is a wonder. The effects by Digital Domain are photo-realistic, even amidst battles that are shot hand-held and face-close. The explosions singe.

Given the structure, the film is very much in lock-step with such traditonal war-films as, say,"The Sands of Iwo Jima," where the personal lives of the individuals in the troop manifest themselves on the battle-field. But the war film it most resembles is the B-movie WWII drama "Hell is for Heroes" directed by Eastwood's mentor, Don Siegel. Like "Letters," "Hell..." is a view from the trenches, where the conceits of heroism and honor--a constant hook in the dialog of the Eastwood film, everyone talks of honor...or mocks it ("Kashiwara died from honorable dysentery," says a grunt about the whereabouts of a comrade) have no place in the grime and destruction of war. The picking-apart of the hero myth has been the most frequent Eastwood subject. But not even Eastwood has gone as far as Siegel's film to suggest that the maladjusted make the best heroes.

It's interesting that Eastwood has made these two films now: "Flags of Our Fathers" with its focus on propaganda and the selling of a long war in the face of a populace's flagging enthusiasm, and "Letters" with its hollow talk of honor and pride in the worst of circumstances. At one point Kurabayashi bitterly reacts to a wire from his superiors, "The Imperial Headquarters is not only decieving the people, but us as well." The similarities cut across time as well as the disputed borders of the combatants.

And there is a constant reminder of what unites the combatants rather than divides, managing to make the standard war-film trope of "we're more alike than different" that goes all the way back to "All Quiet on the Western Front" fresh and surprising (that lesson is never hammered home more than in films about the Civil War). The American-trained commanders drink Johnny Walker while grousing about the food, the conditions and their superiors. At times in the dim light the features of the participants blur--it could be any army. Eastwood and his screenwriters--the ubiquitous Paul Haggis and first-time scripter Iris Yamashita work overtime on the ironies, but one stands out. Watch the ivory-handled revolver that Karabayashi wears on his hip. "He must have taken it from an American," says one of the admiring soldiers. He did. But like so many of the twists in "Letters from Iwo Jima," it's not in the way you'd think.

"Letters from Iwo Jima" is a full-price ticket film, however, it feels 20 minutes too long (though I've struggled where one can cut it), so I'll mark it down to a matinee.

Of the two Eastwood Iwo Jima films, I prefer "Flags of Our Fathers" for being less traditional in its story-telling, and for taking up two subjects--propaganda and the selling of war and patriotism, and survivor's guilt, the practical and mysterious faces of war, that are rarely touched on despite the reels and reels of film that have been dedicated to the subject of battle.

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