Mixed messages mar Eastwood's companion piece to Flags of Our Fathers — an antiwar film that also wants to be pro-warrior

Letters From Iwo Jima

on December 20, 2006 by Ray Greene
A smaller and more tightly focused work than its companion film Flags of Our Fathers, Clint Eastwood's latest directorial effort Letters From Iwo Jima nevertheless shares with that film a disappointing status as a fascinating second-tier entry in Eastwood's often magnificent oeuvre. Unlike Flags, which began life as a Steven Spielberg project before Spielberg brought Eastwood in to direct, Letters was all Eastwood's idea — a concept that emerged from his research into the Japanese side of the Battle of Iwo Jima for the earlier Spielberg-produced film.

It's easy to see why Eastwood was drawn to Japan's angle on one of WWII's most bitter clashes. Flags of Our Fathers dared to say out loud that Joe Rosenthal's iconic photograph “Raising the Flag at Iwo Jima” was a sort of necessary fiction. Letters From Iwo Jima undermines American triumphalism even further by presenting the enemy American soldiers defeated on the Iwo Jima battleground as noble, brave, compassionate — and almost as much the victim of Japan's uncompromising militarism as were the Americans the Japanese army killed.

Chinese descendants of the brutal Japanese massacre of 300,000 civilians at Nanking might find Eastwood's nonjudgmental humanism debatable as history, but it makes for a compelling and sympathetic narrative, and Eastwood's decision to shoot the film in Japanese — a language he doesn't speak — is at least as brave as Mel Gibson's fixation with making movies in lost and unverifiable tongues. What Eastwood and scenarists Iris Yamashita and Paul Haggis have concocted is a kind of Japanized variation on the classic western Shane, featuring Ken Watanabe (looking startlingly like an Asian Clint Eastwood) as Japanese commander General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, and contemporary teen pop idol Kazunari Ninomiya in a terrific turn as the (fictional) private Saigo, the Schweik-ian nobody Watanabe's great man befriends.

The enemy these tragic characters face is the mirror image of the faceless force confronted by Ryan Phillippe and company for the American side in Flags — a tidal energy of violence, dragging them down to ignominious death, with the added jeopardy posed by a military code of conduct that requires suicide in the face of defeat. Along the way, some gaps in Flags of Our Fathers are filled in, and there are subtle overlays between the two Iwo Jima plotlines which enrich an attentive viewer's experience of both films.

But Flags offered the jarhead's vision of war — a view from grunt level, with no character comparable to Watanabe's patrician general — and Watanabe's easy and aristocratic presence imbalances and confuses the meaning of both films as a result. Eastwood seems to want to make an antiwar statement, but he's been seduced by his historical protagonist — a Japanese general who was against Japan's decision to go to war, and who knew and loved America and its people, but who nevertheless managed to fight off the American military for 34 days without air or naval support despite the fact that he was outnumbered by a ratio of five-to-one.

Enamored with Kuribayashi's undeniable exceptionalism, Eastwood is unable to resist many of the clichés about the warrior's inherent nobility that Flags of Our Fathers set out to destroy. In tandem with Flags, Letters From Iwo Jima ends up saying something Eastwood can't possibly mean, which is that the American victory at Iwo Jima was a sham not only because the photograph that encapsulated it was (arguably) falsified but because the Japanese general America faced was a true hero, whatever the repressive nature of the political order he was defending.

The key to Kuribayashi's tactics at Iwo Jima was the creation of the 18-mile-long underground tunnel system where much of this film's action occurs. What could have been a claustrophobic Japanese variation of Das Boot is a missed opportunity instead. Despite a millipede or two, the tunnels in Letters From Iwo Jima seem comfortable and spacious rather than cramped and as dry as the soundstage where most of these scenes were undoubtedly filmed. The acting, as always with Eastwood's films, is flawless and real. Performance is a language Eastwood would appear to speak fluently in any tongue. Distributor: Warner Bros.
Cast: Ken Watanabe, Kazunari Ninomiya, Tsuyoshi Ihara, Ryo Kase, Shidou Nakamura and Nae
Director: Clint Eastwood
Screenwriter: Iris Yamashita
Producers: Clint Eastwood, Steven Spielberg and Robert Lorenz
Genre: War drama; Japanese-language, subtitled
Rating: R for graphic war violence
Running time: 145 min.
Release date: December 20, 2006

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