Letters from Iwo Jima is Clint Eastwood's follow-up to Flags of our Fathers, which was a unique, well acted but ultimately cluttered war picture. Thankfully, whether in response to constructive criticism on his first picture, which arrived in theaters only a couple months earlier than this new one, Iwo Jima is a simpler, more emotional film that develops its characters and provides a unique viewpoint on World War II from the perspective of the Japanese, something that has rarely been seen by American audiences.
Iwo Jima focuses primarily on two men, a young, timid soldier named Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya) who doesn't quite understand why he is forced to defend a stank, desolate island, and General Tadamichi Kuribayashi (Oscar nominee Ken Watanabe), who has been assigned to lead the island's forces to victory against a looming American fleet, despite the fact that all of his reinforcements and airplanes have been redirected to protect Tokyo. Kuribayashi knows that most if not all of his men will die, but that every day he continues fighting is another day the Allies will be distracted from focusing on homeland Japan. As the battle progresses, Kuribayashi finds it harder to maintain his commanders than he thought, as their sense of honor and duty conflict with his views of fight 'til the end.
Letters from Iwo Jima is currently the front runner for Best Picture at the Oscars, but I can't say this is the strongest movie of the year, nor the strongest movie of Eastwood's career. While Iwo Jima certainly engages the audience on a level that Flags failed to do, it still isn't so emotionally involving that you let your breathe out when the credits finally roll, which in my mind should be the criteria for a best picture candidate (of course, those are hard to come by). You do feel strongly as the battle winds down to the end and you hope that Saigo will make it, despite the odds against him. You do feel strongly when the Japanese soldiers "befriend" a dying American soldier and then read a letter he was carrying from his mother. Eastwood knows how to strike those chords with you, and more importantly he knows how to get his point across: you fight for what you believe is right, but that doesn't mean the other side isn't right as well. The perceptions of each side of a battlefield toward the other are often wrong, but what do you do when you get to those crossroads?
The best thing about Iwo Jima is that Eastwood maneuvers it with such finesse. He avoids clichés and doesn't get overwhelmed with intense shots for the sake of intense shots. Known for his fast filming schedule, he skips from one scene to the next without much transition or warning, but unlike Flags the transitions still seem natural. Every once in a while, Eastwood throws in a scene that you could literally miss if you blinked, and yet these are some of the most effective moments of the film.
The acting is also very good, and the actors bring a much needed spirit to their characters. In most American war movies, the Japanese are generally portrayed as a mix of Vulcans and Klingons: emotionless and yet willing to die without question for honor. Eastwood and his actors tackle this stereotype quite well, as understandably in any culture, there are those that believe in tradition and those that question tradition. Many of the soldiers react negatively to Kuribayashi's style of fighting; they would rather die fighting on the beaches rather than hide in caves. This clash causes many problems on both sides; Kuribayashi's own sense of logic completely ignores what he should already know about his soldiers, and his soldiers end up killing themselves prematurely.
Watanabe is good here, as he plays that balance of mindless honor and logical tactician quite well. He will fight to the death for his country, but he will not just throw himself on a grenade when he still able to fight. One of his best scenes is shown in a flashback where he is discussing war in America; men can be friends until their countries go to war. At the same time, I would not say this is Watanabe's most overpowering role, and it isn't necessarily meant to be. You care for his character, but he does not blow you away.
Ninomiya is even better, though at times he looks so young it is hard to imagine he has a wife and child back home. He brings to the table a youthful resistance to what is set in stone by his culture, and also shows that even Japanese soldiers laugh at the same things Americans would laugh at, so on and so forth.
Letters from Iwo Jima is one of 2006's best films, but it is not the best film of the year. Compared to Eastwood's Mystic River or Million Dollar Baby, it does not strike the heart at quite the same level, but it is certainly a huge step up from Flags of our Fathers, which was still in itself a pretty good movie. It may not be best picture in my mind, but watch out for it come Oscar time: the combination of Eastwood, his alterations to the war genre and a Japanese perspective make this one a force to be reckoned with.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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