Letters From Iwo Jima Review
The second of Clint Eastwood's two back-to-back dramas about the 1945 battle for Iwo Jima switches sides to give us the Japanese perspective. Perhaps to make it easier for us to empathise with the enemy, Letters From Iwo Jima is a much more traditional war movie than Flags Of Our Fathers. It makes modest use of flashbacks and flash-forwards but for the most part Letters avoids Flags' constant jumping back and forth and the battle's events play out in chronological order.
As the movie begins, the Japanese army is digging trenches on Iwo Jima's black beaches, in preparation for the imminent American landing. The arrival of the island's new commander, General Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe) heralds a change in strategy. He orders the men to leave the beaches and move their positions back to Mount Suribachi, the volcano that towers over the island. The mountain is riddled with tunnels and the general wants to fight the invaders from the natural cover they provide.
Kuribayashi's officers are offended by what seems to them like a cowardly way of conducting warfare. The Japanese don't retreat and fight in caves! But the general is a practical man who knows the invasion force is overwhelmingly superior and that engaging the Americans in close combat on the beaches will result in a quick defeat. Of course he also knows that the defence of the island is ultimately doomed to failure, especially now that the imperial fleet has been destroyed and there is no air or naval cover forthcoming. However, to Kuribayashi, every day his troops can delay the enemy on Iwo Jima means another day of freedom for his homeland.
The troops in the caves wait fearfully for the American fleet to arrive. They've been told that they're expected to die for their country but for most of them, that reality hasn't sunk in yet. They dig and they sit around and they write letters home. We get to know a few of them: Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya), a young baker who feels guilty about leaving his family, his cynical friend Nozaki (Yuki Matsuzaki) and Shimizu (Ryo Kase), a former military policeman feared to be a spy by his comrades.
Clint Eastwood's sympathies are firmly with the grunts, just as they were in Flags Of Our Fathers and in his previous war film, the less ambitious Heartbreak Ridge. For Eastwood and his screenwriters, Iris Yamashita and Paul Haggis, heroism in war means getting home alive to the family that's depending on you, not laying down your life, fighting over a pile of dried lava. Eastwood's two Iwo Jima films convey the same jaundiced attitude towards war that Sergio Leone did in the bridge scene in The Good, The Bad And The Ugly - that it's about ordinary men being sent to their deaths so distant leaders can claim possession of a small piece of ground.
Eastwood has no time for the top brass in their ivory towers back on the mainland. Disdain for authority figures is a common theme in his films. The Japanese soldiers on Iwo Jima are lied to by their high command (which pretends until the last minute that reinforcements are coming), then abandoned and coldly instructed to die. The only officers portrayed sympathetically are General Kuribayashi and Baron Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara), a champion horseman now enlisted in the army. In both cases, they're sympathetic because they care about their men. Also because they rise above the anti-western racism of their country and because they reject the samurai ethos of their fellow officers.
That's an ugly, outdated ethos in this film's view. Letters From Iwo Jima takes a very different standpoint on traditional Japanese notions of honour from most western films on the subject. Edward Zwick's The Last Samurai admired the warriors riding to certain death for their principles and portrayed the westernised Japanese as corrupt. Clint Eastwood sees the officers who choose death over retreat or surrender as fanatics, not much different from the suicide bombers of Al Qaeda. This film's most memorable scenes are blackly comic ones in which Saigo and Shimizu try to obey the general's orders to fall back to headquarters, but keep running into officers who think they're deserters or who reject the order as un-Japanese and insist the men die rather than abandon their position.
As he did in Flags Of Our Fathers, Eastwood strips away the excitement most war films create in audiences. Most of the movie takes place in caves and tunnels at a distance from the fighting. Instead of building to a climax, Letters grows quieter and quieter as it progresses (perhaps too quiet in places). It stops to record the stupid, petty details of war - the men dying from dysentery because their drinking water is tainted; strategy falling apart because a radio doesn't work; supplies dwindling until there's not even any tainted water left to give the men.
The horror of war is conveyed not in big set-pieces but in brief, intimate scenes and moments. A beloved animal mortally wounded by a bomb; a man suddenly incinerated by an unseen flame-thrower; the tears in the eyes of a terrified soldier forced by his superior officer to kill himself. There's inhumanity on both sides. The killing of a captured American soldier is shocking but even more so is what one of the Americans does in a later scene.
Letters From Iwo Jima is shot in the same bleached tones as the battle scenes of Flags Of Our Fathers, all the better to emphasise the ugly, desolate nature of the Iwo Jima (really Iceland). The film's soundscape is also notable: much of the drama comes from what the men trapped in their tunnels can hear outside. Letters won a deserved Oscar for its sound editing.
While this is an excellent piece of film-making, I don't think it's quite as good a film as Flags is. I'd have given the Best Picture nomination to that movie. Letters doesn't have the same scope. Flags says just as much about Iwo Jima and about combat but it goes further and also touches on other aspects of war - the home front, the propaganda effort, the effect on the survivors. The flaws in Letters are a little more visible too, the screenplay's artificial touches a tad more obvious - for example, you can guess where all the speculation about Shimizu is leading.
Don't let a small amount of carping put you off though. Letters From Iwo Jima is one of the very best films showing in cinemas and it's a continuation of Clint Eastwood's amazing winning streak. It's beautifully acted by its Japanese cast, speaking almost entirely in their own language. The standout actor for me is Kazunari Ninomiya, who makes an enormously sympathetic protagonist. It's hard to believe that before this, he was best known as a member of a Japanese boy band!