In 1945, the Pacific war against Japan was nearing its end when the United States made plans to launch its next attack on the first of the Japanese home islands. Director Clint Eastwood, working with a script by Iris Yamashita, tells of this famous battle through the eyes of the island’s defenders in “Letters from Iwo Jima.”
This is the movie that I had hoped “Flags of Iwo Jima” was going to be. Eastwood adapted “Flags…” to uneven results, causing the distributors to push forward the release of the other Iwo film. “Letters…” – in what I think is a first for a major American film: the story is told through the minds, hearts and souls (and language) of some of the 20,000 doomed defenders (only 17 prisoners, I believe, were taken) of that strategic hunk of volcanic rock – is based on the actual letters of the islands commander, General Tadamichi Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe), and his men, letters that would never reach home.
It is a rare thing when I want to watch a movie again immediately after seeing it and “Letters from Iwo Jima” is just such a rarity. Ken Watanabe leads a flawless cast as the (historically accurate) compassionate commander sent to Iwo to prepare for the upcoming American attack. General Kuribayashi’s arrival on the island is first met with one of his officers beating two soldiers (a common, accepted occurrence in the Japanese Army). His first act as leader is to ban such behavior toward his men, setting the stage to show the general as a wise, kind, loyal man who cares, really cares, for his troops, as well as a brilliant strategist for a lost cause. Watanabe infuses the character with full dimension, creating a man who is larger than life. It makes you wonder what Kuribayashi, well versed and respectful of the United States, would have been if he had fought on our side.
The rest of the cast of this terrific ensemble film is a fine match to their first among equals, Watanabe. Tsuyoshi Ninomiya is very real as Baron Nishi, an aristocratic horseman (and Olympic medallist) who asked for assignment as Kuribayashi’s right hand man, fully knowing that the upcoming fight will be futile and deadly. In one scene, he orders his men to treat, not kill, a mortally wounded American POW. When the young Marine dies Nishi reads a letter from his mom back home to his men. It’s a clichéd device but, despite that, it is an extremely well done scene that culminates, later, when one of Nishi’s surviving men says, sadly, “…his mother’s words were the same as my mother’s.” Volumes are said with that one statement.
But, Eastwood and his team don’t just show the war and its effects from the leaders’ viewpoint. The lowly privates are also given shrift with the views and opinions of these soldiers – their fears, frustrations, homesickness and wavering acceptance of their impending doom – given full body. This is one of the best ensemble performances of the year, if not the decade.
Letters from Iwo Jima” is a marvel of accuracy in its production. Attention to details - uniforms, weapons and the intricacy, crudeness and claustrophobia of the cave system that made Iwo Jima a (nearly) impregnable fortress – are impeccable. Being a World War II buff, I was very aware that the soldiers’ rifles, Type 99s, and other period weapons and details were utilized. The vast majority of the filmgoers wouldn’t know the difference but production designers Henry Bumstead and James J. Murakami go the extra mile for such accurate detail. It’s something else that makes “Letters…” a great film. Clint Eastwood wrote the film score and it, too, fits the bill perfectly, especially with its mood of melancholy.
Iris Yamashita’s screenplay (with story credits to Paul Haggis) is based on General Kuribayashi’s posthumous Picture Letters from Commander in Chief and other correspondences from his men. The scribe infuses the script with the richness and the harshness of the still-medieval culture of Imperial Japan. The rift that the men feel between their loyalty and willingness to die for their emperor and their desire to stay alive to see their families once again is palpable. The class structure within the army is caught in a nutshell when, as the first American bombers arrive to plaster the island, a young private is ordered to empty the squad’s chamber pot. He goes outside during the furious bombardment but drops the pot after a shell burst nearby. He is so fearful of punishment by his officer he risks life and limb to bring the precious commode back. It’s a frightening, enlightening scene.
The battlefield action, from within and without the fortified caves, is upfront with the brutality and devastation of the American attack. Very little, from what I could see, was taken from “Flags of Our Fathers,” maybe just some attackers’ POVs of the bombardment and assault. Cinematographer Tom Stern (who was DP on “Flags…”) captures the violence of the continuous American bombing and gives a look at the attackers from the Japanese eye. The lenser also gives, in conjunction with the rest of the film’s techs, a realistic feel to the look of the lives of men forced to fight for their lives underground.
Letters from Iwo Jima” is the better of Eastwood’s two tellings of the Battle for Iwo Jima. It is a rich story with an eye toward capturing the soul of the warriors who would loyally fight and die for their emperor. Clint gives humanity to the soldiers who have been considered, until now, the enemy. He shows them to be men and not just a faceless opponent. This is one of the best “men at war” films, ever. It also happens to be, for me, the best movie of 2006. I give it an A.Laura:
Laura gives "Letters from Iwo Jima" an A-.
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