In December, amidst a wave of Oscar-attracting hype, the first of Clint Eastwood’s two movies dealing with the battle of Iwo Jima, Flags of Our Fathers, arrived in cinemas. While sincere with its subject matter and featuring a fine performance by Adam Beach, Flags suffered from a messy story structure and characters that were close to impossible to connect with.
Given the film’s talent: Eastwood directing, Steven Spielberg producing and Paul Haggis penning the script, Flags was one of my most anticipated films of 2006 that unfortunately turned out to be the biggest disappointment of the year. Fortunately, Eastwood and company had an ace up their sleeve: Letters From Iwo Jima, the companion piece to Flags, that takes a look at the same island conflict, only this time from the side of the Japanese army.
Iwo Jima focuses on five Japanese men, two soldiers and three officers, who are sent to the island knowing that in all probability they will not come back. Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya) is a baker who wants only to live to see the face of his newborn daughter; Baron Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara) is an Olympic equestrian champion known around the world for his skill and his honor; Shimizu (Ryo Kase) is a young former military policeman whose idealism has not yet been tested by war, and Lieutenant Ito (Shidou Nakamura) is a strict military man who would rather accept suicide than surrender.
Leading the defense is Lt. General Tadamichi Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe), whose travels in America have revealed to him not only the hopeless nature of the war but has also given him strategic insight into how to take on the vast American armada streaming in from across the Pacific. With little defense other than sheer will and the volcanic rock of the island itself, Gen. Kuribayashi’s unprecedented tactics transform what was predicted to be a quick American victory into nearly 40 days of combat that claimed the lives of some 7,000 Americans and at least 20,000 Japanese.
Letters is technically brilliant, from the production design, to its near black-and-white cinematography, to its sparse, beautiful score co-composed by Clint’s son, Kyle Eastwood. But at its heart beats a superb screenplay by Iris Yamashita and Paul Haggis, partially based on the actual letters Kuribayashi wrote to his wife and children during WWII. Along with the soldiers on the island, we feel the slow buildup of dread as the battle draws near. We feel their isolation, their longing just to go home and be with their loved ones and live ordinary lives, and their resignation that they are not only being used by their government that constantly feed them lies, but also the possible fact that their one and only way off the island is death. The screenplay provides the rock-solid foundation and the actors develop it beautifully (in particular Watanabe and Ninomiya, both of which should have been up for Oscars this year).
Of all the American filmmakers to tackle the point of view of America’s sworn enemy in the Pacific during World War II (and do it almost entirely in Japanese, no less), Clint Eastwood would definitely not be on the short list to direct. It’s not a question of Eastwood’s filmmaking ability, far from it: it’s just that Eastwood is the working definition of an All-American motion picture icon, one of the last remaining ones at that. And an American-produced film about a famous WWII conflict from the enemy’s point of view is not a subject you would expect someone like Eastwood to tackle.
But he does and does so in a way that makes Iwo Jima not only the best directorial work of his illustrious career, but also one of the all-time great motion pictures dealing with the nature of war. As he does in his superlative Unforgiven, Million Dollar Baby and Mystic River, Eastwood steps back and lets the power of the screenplay and his acting ensemble shine through.
But there is a bit more to Eastwood’s work here. What really sets Letters apart from his other films is the even-handed, non-clichd eye he casts over the whole production. It would have been easy for Clint to load the film up with your typical war stereotypes (doesn’t matter which army you are dealing with in which war, clichs are universal) and it would have been even easier to manipulate the viewers by whitewashing the Japanese and making the Americans the bad guys. But it doesn’t do that. There are neither heroes nor villains. We are presented instead with honorable, everyday human beings forced into situations fueled by government lies and deception that offer no easy way out, a point of view that proves to be as relevant to today’s global situation as it was to it sixty years ago.
Letters From Iwo Jima is yet another masterpiece from one of America’s finest directors. It would be easy to express my disappointment that neither Eastwood nor the film won the Oscars they were up for at this years awards, but that would be taking away from the fact that we have received yet another powerful, beautifully made masterpiece that pulls the viewer in, stays with them for many days afterward and will most certainly stand the test of time. I’m not sure what Eastwood may have up his sleeve for an encore, but it is going to have to be something pretty damn remarkable to top this picture.