Director: Clint Eastwood
Starring: Ken Watanabe
2006 was a major year in the career of Clint Eastwood, who would tell the story of the Battle of Iwo Jima over two films, each told from a different side of the conflict. The first was Flags of Our Fathers, which turned on the famous photo of the American flag being raised on Mount Suribachi. The second was Letters from Iwo Jima, which doesn't have the same kind of "moment in time" to act as its fixed center, and is instead more about the battle in general. The films are opposite sides of one coin, and though one was ultimately much more warmly received than the other, their strengths are about equal. Ten years on, removed from the context in which it was released, Letters from Iwo Jima plays as a very fine film. I don't think that it's quite the masterpiece it was hailed as being in 2006, but it's a good movie.
Letters from Iwo Jima tells the story of the battle between U.S. and Japanese forces for control of the island of Iwo Jima from the perspective of the Japanese soldiers. Outnumbered, under supplied, and told that their purpose is to die on the island, either in combat or by their own hands, the Japanese proceed with a grim sense of duty to hold the island for as long as they can.
The Good: "Letters is tight and focused, both feet planted firmly in the island’s black sand, with restrained use of flashback to flesh out key characters." - Dan Jolin, Empire
The Bad: "Eastwood can’t bring himself to deal with any genuine complexity here. He wants to make the case that in wartime, people who are essentially good can do horrible things. But downplaying the horror of atrocity has the unintentional effect of making it seem almost reasonable.. It’s a reduction that absolves humans of responsibility rather than challenging them to accept it." - Stephanie Zacharek, Salon.com
When I first started looking at films ten years removed from their release, the purpose was to see how those films held up over time, to see whether shifts in culture had made initially well received movies seem dated or poorly received movies seem worthy of critical reassessment, and finding that certain films are so timeless in terms of their greatness or terribleness that a decade makes no difference. I always look back at reviews from the time of release to see how these films were received, but it wasn't until looking at Clint Eastwood's dual 2006 effort Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima that it occurred to me that it might be worth looking at whether the reviews themselves held up. I say that because, looking back at how the two films were reviewed, it feels like people went into them having already decided that Letters would be the superior effort. Whether it was because of feelings of malaise about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that made people wary of even the hint of "rah rah" wartime patriotism (which Flags actually doesn't engage in, though it might seem that it does), or whether the lack of Hollywood films with Asian leads (let alone all Asian casts) made people want to embrace the film for devoting itself to a demographic severely underrepresented in Hollywood, people seem to have been a lot more open to Letters than they were to Flags. Yet, having watched both films recently, I don't believe that the former is significantly better than the latter (though it is slightly better) and the notion that critics at the time seemed much more enthusiastic about the idea of what Eastwood was doing than the actual product seems borne out by the fact that reviews of Letters spend a lot of time talking about Eastwood's ambition, about the novelty of an American filmmaker telling the story of a conflict that America participated in from the perspective of the opposing party, and about the history of the Battle of Iwo Jima, but relatively little time talking about the actual film - its storytelling, its acting, its techniques - itself.
On a technical level, Letters is a solidly crafted piece of work. The battle scenes are unflinching in their brutality and expertly unfolded, and even though these scenes contain many of the elements that have become archetypal in military battle scenes since Steven Spielberg blew the doors off with the D-Day sequence in Saving Private Ryan, Eastwood is able to find a degree of freshness in it by touching on the cultural differences in the way the war is seen and fought by the Japanese soldiers. On a narrative level, the film is less successful and tends to drag and descend into repetitiveness. Like Flags, Letters is a story told in three time periods, opening in the present day when archaeologists discover something in one of the caves on Iwo Jima. However, while Flags tells its story with Iwo Jima as the first part, the warbonds tour of the men purported to have raised the flag as the second, and the present day story of the son of one of those men writing a book as the third, in Letters the battle of Iwo Jima is the middle section and the other flashbacks in the film take place before its characters have entered the war. This makes sense in that Japan did not emerge victorious from the battle, and the culture of "win or die" meant that from that perspective there was no "after the battle" if there was no victory, so instead the film uses earlier flashbacks to try to explain the societal pressure to die if victory is not possible (many soldiers die in combat, but many also die at their own hand, blowing themselves up with grenades) and to fulfill and respect the orders given without question. I wouldn't say that the film is entirely successful in this respect, as the flashbacks feel like padding in a narrative that's already kind of shapeless, and it might have been more interesting and illuminating to tell the story of how those Japanese soldiers who were captured or surrendered reconciled themselves to life afterwards in the face of the "never surrender" ethos that had been drilled into members of the military, especially given that some Japanese soldiers held out for decades after the end of the war rather than accept the fact of Japan's surrender.
The film is also a bit problematic in the way that it approaches the characters who shoulder the burden of carrying the story. There are two main characters, General Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe) and Private First Class Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya), and two main supporting characters, Colonel Baron Nishi (Tsuyoshia Ihara) and Superior Private Shimizu (Ryo Kase). There's nothing especially objectionable about how Saigo and Shimizu fit into the story - they're portrayed as basically ordinary men who wish to serve their country but have not, or cannot, buy into the predominant mentality and don't want to die for nothing - but when it comes to the way that the film depicts the Japanese officers, it's striking that only Kuribayashi and Nishi emerge as being really humane and as the only ones who have experienced American culture first-hand (Kuribayashi as part of a diplomatic trip, Nishi as a participant in the 1932 Olympics). While the other officers rule the men under their command through fear and physical punishment, and quietly seethe at Kuribayashi's orders out of the belief that he doesn't know what he's doing, Kuribayashi and Nishi are depicted as calm and capable of seeing the Americans not as their enemy, exactly, but merely as the other side of the conflict, men fighting for their country just as they are fighting for their own. At one point Nishi even insists that medics attend to a wounded American and then translates and reads a letter found on the soldier's person which demonstrates to the men around him that the Americans aren't so different from them after all. While the film's desire to show that good and bad exist on both sides is admirable, the approach makes it feel somewhat like the good on the Japanese side is the result of American influence, even though the depiction of Kuribayashi and Nishi is balanced by the depiction of Saigo and Shimizu, who are also part of the good and have had no contact with Americans until the war.
All told, Letters from Iwo Jima is a fine film. It's not the best film that Eastwood has ever made, but it's top 5, and taken together with Flags of Our Fathers it represents an ambitious project of the type that few filmmakers get the opportunity to realize and that tries to take an even hand. I can't say that I liked the film itself as much as I liked the idea of what Eastwood is trying to do, but at moments when the two films talk to each other, as it were, with things that are focal points in one receiving a passing glance in the other and in doing so underscoring the different ways the two sides see this one thing that will always bind them together, the force of the project as a whole hits its mark.