"It’s like the American Iwo Jima movie, only better."
As he gets older, Clint Eastwood’s movies become gutsier and smarter. This year’s “Flags of Our Fathers” had the former Dirty Harry expertly deconstructing the Battle of Iwo Jima and its impact on the American soldiers who fought in it and the nation the returned to. But for all that Eastwood accomplished with that film, his examination of the Japanese side of the battle is even more astonishing.“Letters from Iwo Jima” is more intimate in scope but no less haunting in its depiction of the horrors on the battlefield. Featuring fewer flashbacks and explanatory information than “Flags of Our Fathers,” “Letters from Iwo Jima” moves at a tight pace and is easier to follow than its predecessor.
It also benefits from a typically mesmerizing performance from Oscar-nominee Ken Watanabe (“The Last Samurai”) as General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, the man who had the ultimately futile task of repelling the American invaders.
Unlike some of the other officers serving the Emperor, Kuribayashi knows that World War II is all but lost. The American industrial machine can turn out more weapons and support equipment. Furthermore, the 20,000 men he’s commanding are facing an attacking force with more than triple the number of troops.
Kuribayashi once lived in the United States and knows more about America’s capabilities than most of his junior officers. He often admonishes them for their draconian treatment of the enlisted troops. They, in turn, distrust him because they think he’s “soft” on the enemy.
Unlike his superiors and many of his subordinates, Kuribayashi knows he’s in a battle he can’t win. His only reasonable goal is to drag the conflict out as long as possible to delay the eventual American conquest.
Despite the inevitable conclusion, “Letters from Iwo Jima” still feels involving to the end. American screenwriter Iris Yamashita (working from a storyline she wrote with “Flags of Our Fathers” scribe Paul Haggis) creates vivid and occasionally sympathetic characters whom we’d at least like to survive even if the odds are overwhelmingly against them.
Moonlighting singer Kazunari Ninomiya is terrific as Saigo, a draftee baker who realizes that all the pep talks he’s hearing from his superiors aren’t going to win the war. Tsuyoshi Ihara is also good as an Olympic equestrian champion whose nobility probably won’t save him on the battlefield.
Eastwood and Yamashita thankfully don’t aim for an even parallel with “Flags of Our Fathers.” The new film doesn’t feature any of the same characters and is told with a detached tone that’s more reminiscent of Eastwood’s approach in “Mystic River” and “Million Dollar Baby.”
As a result, the new film feels more satisfying than its predecessor (which was still excellent) because Eastwood again leaves it to his viewers to decide what they make of what is happening on the screen. When violent action occurs, it’s often in the side of the frame, but we still know that something bad has happened. The blood and explosions happen in such a matter of fact way, that they become more terrifying than if Eastwood had emphasized them.
He correctly figures that if we find the characters intriguing we don’t need to be told how to feel about their outcomes.Clint Eastwood will always be a red-blooded American filmmaker, but with “Letters from Iwo Jima” he’s demonstrated a remarkable maturity by looking outside our own borders.