Letters from Iwo Jima Review
By Joe Lozito
During one of the many moving moments in "Letters from Iwo Jima", Clint Eastwood's second film based on that pivotal World War II battle, Japanese officers read a letter off the dying body of an American soldier. The letter is from his mother. She tells her son to "do what's right, because it is right". The Japanese men remark that their mothers give them the same advice. It's a quiet moment, but it says it all - about men, about politics, about war. It also says a lot about Clint Eastwood. The man whose "Flags of our Fathers"
covered Iwo Jima from the American point of view, now turns his camera to the other side of the battle lines, and it results in one of our most powerful and unique war movies.
Mr. Eastwood is a wise enough director that he doesn't tie "Flags" and "Letters" together in some hoary clichéd way (having characters pop in and out of the different movies). The films go together through visual cues - a long shot of the approaching American fleet, a frantic scramble across the island in the dead of night. But the most powerful shot in "Letters" - perhaps its raison d'être - might be of the infamous flag raising itself. Watch how Mr. Eastwood allows this moment to stand on its own, miles away, seen through the eyes of the General. That one shot speaks volumes about the significance of that event from both sides of the battle lines.
The actors are uniformly outstanding, but the always-wonderful Ken Watanabe stands out in a powerful, nuanced performance as General Kuribayashi, commander of the Japanese forces on the island. The quietly effective screenplay by Iris Yamashita paints a portrait of these soldiers without ever resorting to the clichés of Japanese pride. These men are like all soldiers - frightened, confused, struggling to do their duty.
Where "Flags" was told mostly in flashbacks, "Letters" - shot almost completely in Japanese with English subtitles - takes place squarely during the Iwo Jima battle itself. "Letters" shows the full scope and duration of the battle, which didn't come across as much in "Flags". We also get some of the strategy behind the fortifications on the island; we learn how and why the tunnels were built in the mountains and how they were defended. We also learn, surprisingly, how little support the Japanese soldiers were given by the mainland.
Perhaps the most harrowing moment in the film comes when the battle is all but lost and an overly zealous Captain prematurely orders his men to take the honorable way out. The suicide of Japanese soldiers is an act that has always been in the background of these war films but Mr. Eastwood puts us right in the middle of it. Like everything this director does, it's not exploitative or gory, just matter-of-fact. This is what these men did. And now we also understand why.
Much as already been made about the pride and honor of the Japanese, but as a people they have rarely, if ever, been depicted as fully human characters in American war movies. It's amazing to think what Clint Eastwood has done here. He's made a war film with the Japanese - a people typically portrayed as faceless, single-minded foes - as the underdog. It's not that we're rooting for them - that's not what "Letters" is about - but we understand them and, in a way, ourselves. As patriotic as "Flags" was cynical, "Letters" is a tribute - not just to the Japanese men who gave their lives for their country in an un-winnable situation - but to all soldiers. "Winning", after all, is a relative term.