Friday, May 25, 2007

Letters from Iwo Jima (2006)

Directed by: Clint Eastwood
Screenplay by: Iris Yamashita
Story by: Iris Yamashita & Paul Haggis
Starring: Ken Watanabe, Kazunari Ninomiya, Tsuyoshi Ihara

Color, 140 minutes
Rated R

Grade: B+

I've always been a fan of Clint Eastwood. The man has come a long way in his career, and approaching 80, he shows no signs of slowing down. He has accomplished a great deal in his career, and he has seemingly went on to surpass those that have directed him in the past, most notably Sergio Leone (The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly) and Don Siegel (Dirty Harry). Since 1990's underrated White Hunter, Black Heart, Eastwood has become increasingly obsessed with the violence that men can do. He has had a few clunkers since then (The Rookie, Blood Work), a few genuine masterpieces (Unforgiven, Mystic River, and Million Dollar Baby), and at least two overlooked gems (A Perfect World, The Bridges of Madison County), but 2006 was the year that his ambitions would reach their zenith. In tackling the battle of Iwo Jima, Eastwood has given us a depiction of a fight from both viewpoints (the Americans in Flags of our Fathers, the Japanese in Letters), and in doing so he has created what may be the most definitive and authentic portrayal of a single battle ever committed to film. The problem is that they play much better as a double header than they do as separate achievements.

On the island of Iwo Jima, Japanese soldiers are preparing for the onslaught of American forces. General Tadamichi Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe) has been put in charge of defending the island. He is an idealistic and intelligent man, chosen mainly because of his familiarity and knowledge of American tactics. Upon arriving on the island he promptly starts stepping on toes. His fellow officers are confused by his tactics and unsure of how to handle him. When he learns that no reinforcements, either from air or sea, will be made available to his soldiers, Kuribayashi orders his men to dig a series of underground tunnels and caves across the island and in the mountains. What others may see as inevitable suicide, Kuribayashi sees as their only hope.

The first half of the film is devoted to the construction of these tunnels. Aside from Kuribayashi, Eastwood and rookie screenwriter Iris Yamashita focus mainly on a few characters. We meet Saigo (Japanese pop idol Kazunari Ninomiya), a former baker who has a pregnant wife waiting for him at home, Baron Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara), an Olympic horse rider who brings his beloved animal along with him, and Shimizu (Ryo Kase), a former special forces type with a shameful past. Eastwood gives us the quiet moments between these characters, creating a genuine sense of foreboding that culminates in the film's last hour in which we see soldiers, holed up in the caves, who would rather blow themselves up with grenades than surrender their honor.

Because of my admiration for Eastwood, I have always been willing to forgive some of the glaring flaws that inhabit his films, and Flags was no exception. Letters was a different experience for me. Although the use of letters as a framing device is a little old, the film has no obvious flaws that are worth mentioning. Tom Stern's cinematography is the best of his career, taking the faded, washed out look pioneered by Steven Spielberg (Eastwood's coproducer on the Iwo Jima saga) and Janusz Kaminski on Saving Private Ryan to new heights. All of the performances are top notch, particularly Watanabe and Ihara. For some reason, though, I found the film lacking something that I can't put my finger on. It's obviously a better film than Flags, it's more human, and far more poignant, but it doesn't have the bite that Flags had. For all it's sentimentality, Jesse Bradford's poor acting, and Paul Haggis' horrible dialogue, Eastwood was able to find something deeper in Flags, he was able to show how a war is sold and the hypocrisy of blind patriotism. Letters, however, is just more of a slow burn, and it hampered the experience for me.

Now, in all fairness, Eastwood's direction here is probably the best it's ever been. Less frenetic than Flags, Letters is full of spare, dark, and haunting compositions. Eastwood's patience behind the camera rivals only Ozu, Bresson, and the later work of Dreyer. He knows how to let a scene build to it's most effective point, without ever compromising it with overexcited editing. It's a joy to see this guy churn out better work than most filmmakers half his age.

Letters from Iwo Jima is a very good film. The overwhelming critical acclaim that it has received seems to me to be more of a celebration of Eastwood's enduring spirit rather than the greatness of this film, but it is a hell of an accomplishment. It's a rare thing to see the viewpoint of our "enemy," and Eastwood should be commended for his even handedness. The film is not as great as some have said, but that doesn't really matter. The fact that it was made is a huge step for American cinema. It deserves to be seen for that reason alone.


Anonymous said...

"The overwhelming critical acclaim that it has received seems to me to be more of a celebration of Eastwood's enduring spirit"

Erm no, it's because it's a great film. Eastwood is working at a level of artistry head & shoulders above everybody else.

Clayton L. White said...

I do believe that Eastwood is near the top of American filmmakers right now, and has been for a while, but I felt a little disappointed with this one.