Letters from Iwo Jima (2006)
Release Date: December 20th, 2006 MPAA Rating: R
Director: Clint Eastwood Actors: Ken Watanabe, Kazunari Ninomiya, Tsuyoshi Ihara, Ryo Kase, Shidou Nakamura, Hiroshi Watanabe, Yuki Matsuzaki, Takashi Yamaguchi, Nae
nfinitely more compelling than “Flags of Our Fathers,” yet equally lengthy and ill-paced, “Letters from Iwo Jima” nevertheless manages to curiously becloud the viewer as to which side they should have sympathy for during the events of World War II – which is no small feat, considering how obviously divisive that topic remains. And this is all nicely aided by exhilarating visuals and a mesmerizing score. But, though surely an Oscar contender, “Letters from Iwo Jima’s” expert direction and affecting acting still can’t avoid a marked lack of any longstanding movie magic.
The film focuses on the Japanese perspective of the battle for Mt. Suribachi, initially centering on two reluctant soldiers, Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya) and Shimizu (Ryo Kase), who are forced into a war they do not support. When the new leader General Tadamichi Kuribayashi (brilliantly played by Ken Watanabe) is brought in to head the defense of the sacred island, concern is raised as to whether his unconventional strategies will prove effective. Discontent and confusion spread throughout the Japanese troops as the American advance draws ever nearer, made more poignant by flashbacks that relate how several of the soldiers arrived at the doomed mountain. When the enemy forces land and all hell breaks loose, Kuribayashi struggles simply to survive – as well as to ponder and comprehend the value of tradition and his own misconceptions of honor and defeat on the battlefield.
As he did with “Flags of Our Fathers” earlier this year, director Clint Eastwood has crafted a visually stunning picture. Unfortunately, cinematography alone cannot support a film. With magnificent explosions, blackened skies, and a hazy gray that washes over the entire island, the recreation of Mt. Suribachi and the ferocious engagement that took place there is truly a marvel to behold. Impassioned and profound, the concentration on the raging battlefield proves to be more intimate and involving than the broader scope of the firefight, aftermath, and aftereffect blend of the American flag-raisers seen in “Flags of Our Fathers.” But, convoluted by good intentions and noble content, the end result is still a project devoid of the emotional drama necessary for a film to stick with its audience; it successfully reveals the often mired realism that every enemy is ultimately human, but it can’t muster an appropriate empathy for the audience to fully connect with its characters.
Eastwood has appropriated an epic length but not an epic feel to this latest venture, which begs an obvious question: Could the merging and re-editing together of “Flags of Our Fathers” and “Letters from Iwo Jima” have created a more immersive war saga? Perceiving the Americans as the villains and rooting for the Japanese is a concept that many viewers will certainly be incapable of accepting, even as it is being force-fed through dialogue and action. Yet a visualized viewpoint from each side of the conflict surely could have softened the psychological fight against preconceived notions of good and evil, right and wrong – just not when presented in two distinctly biased features intended to be seen separately.
Though this second chapter is superior to the first, it still feels incomplete and underwhelming; it’s an adequate companion piece, but as a stand-alone film, it’s not worthy of the bold, commendable effort to portray a side of WWII seldom seen in American cinema. Here, Eastwood hesitantly chooses the act of war itself as the antagonist, so as not to offend either camp outright; both groups contain soldiers that are abundantly humane (or exhibitors of overstressed humanism), as well as several who are not – but little satisfaction can be derived from comparing and contrasting these counterparts, especially when their outcomes are left inconclusive. This might better reflect the tragic realities of war, but it certainly conflicts with general concepts of entertainment.
– The Massie Twins