Monday, June 04, 2007

Letters from Iwo Jima (movie review)

While I really like Clint Eastwood’s later movies, I never thought I’d say this and I mean it in a very positive way- “Letters from Iwo Jima is much more deeply subversive than Michael Moore’s Farenheit 9/11.”

Has Dirty Harry gone Communist? No, Eastwood’s companion picture to Flags of Our Fathers which shows the thirty five day battle of Iwo Jima from the Japanese perspective is actually humanist. Much like Das Boot. Wolfgang Petersen’s (1981) German take on life and death on a U-Boat in the North Atlantic, Letters makes its viewers see Japanese soldiers not only as men of honor, but as individuals with wives, children, and doubts about their duties. It is one of those war pictures that identifies the real enemies for both sides-fanatic patriotism, demonization of the enemy, ignorance, and the loss of the capacity to think and feel at an individual level.

At their heart, Letters and Flags are not only deeply anti-war, they are deeply anti-Iraq war. From its quiet beginning which starts with the arrival of General Korabayashi, Ken Watanabe (kind of Japan’s uber-actor in American movies he was also the male lead in Rob Marshall’s Memoirs of a Geisha) through a final movement that combines near constant gunfire with moments of poetic absurdity straight out of Celine, Eastwood’s point is simple. There are two kinds of enemies in war. The first is those people commonly identified as the enemy, in this case it’s the Americans and the Japanese. The second more critical enemy is the struggle by those on both sides to preserve their humanity, aka the enemy within.

Iris Yamashita and Paul Haggis’s (Crash) screenplay manage this by interweaving the perspectives of six characters who each represent different strata of Japanese society and levels of devotion to the traditional Japanese warrior code.

1) Saigo, Kazunari Ninomiya, is the most modern character. A baker, drafted into the war, whose wife has recently had their first baby, Saigo is simply determined to come home alive. In the meantime, he keeps his morale by constantly writing letters home to express his love for his wife.
In real life, Ninomiya was a member of the Japanese equivalent of the boy band, N Synch.
2) General Kuribayashi, Watanabe, is deeply patriotic and highly competent, but he has also spent time in America. He sees little sense in sending his men to a pointless death, yet does everything he can to defend the island. It likely should have been a five day operation since the Japanese had neither air or naval support. The battle took over a month.
It’s a very similar role to the Baron, his role in Memoirs of a Geisha, but Letters has the advantage of not “orientalizing” the Japanese and humanizing them instead.
3) Lieutenant Ito, Shido Nakamura, is the gung-ho (wow, I get to use that word in its actual context) junior officer who blindly insists on playing out the role of the uber-patriot. For most of the movie, he also has no perspective on the real situation and lacks any capacity to think about the real significance of his actions. Ito’s character is treated with a sweetly sublime level of irony that makes Tom Berenger’s character in Platoon look wooden and amateurish.
Ito is also vaguely reminiscent of some of the characters in The Final Days, the movie about Hitler's last days and life inside the bunker.

4) Baron Nishi, Tsuyoshi Ihara, is a dignified member of the ruling class who like Kuribayashi never loses sight of the connection between being both a warrior and a man of honor. He is also something of a celebrity which again is used in the storyline to tremendous effect in a scene with an American prisoner that spins irony into deep feeling for both sides.
5) Shimizu, Ryo Kase, plays a character thought to be a spy from the Kempaitai, kind of a Japanese version of the SS.
6) Fujita, Hiroshi Watanabe, plays a deeply loyal and professional junior officer who understands, but never openly questions.

In the meantime, Letters uses cinematography that slips between little patches of color to World War 2 vintage black and white. This evokes the feel of old-time war movies, Private Ryan (Spielberg co-produced Letters as well) being perhaps the last of those, while periodically reminding the viewer with the color that this movie also steps two full generations in the future away from that perspective. A team of Japanese archaeologists who locate the letters at the beginning and the end of the movie in two scenes with little to no dialogue gives the film just enough distance to let the viewer know that Eastwood wants the feel of old-time war movies, but not the perspective.

One of the tricky things about historical war movies is that the viewer knows who wins. Letters manages to lighten matters with bits of humor at key moments and keeping the different characters eventual fates in doubt even in the cases of those you know who will die. This is best exemplified by a double chase scene in which Saigo seeks to keep hold of a recently emptied honey bucket while being fired on by the approaching American fleet. The scene combines terror, humor, and the absurdity of war into a handful of frames by alternating Saigo's facial reactions and a fisheye shot of
a horizon-filling American invasion fleet.

Eastwood has won best picture twice for Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby. While I thought that Martin Scorcese’s The Departed was excellent, I’d say that Letters is Eastwood’s greatest achievement as a director particularly when paired with Flags of Our Fathers.

The fascinating thing about Letters is that it tells the story of the battle from the Japanese perspective with American characters appearing only in cameos, yet the ending of the movie reminds us as eloquently as any movie I’ve seen about what is most critical about being “American” in any war.
There was a time when Clint Eastwood was thought to be conservative and even deeply reactionary in his movie making. While Letters-Flags certainly appear to be the product of some other Eastwood incarnation from say Magnum Force or the Original Dirty Harry, the truth is that Clint Eastwood’s movie characters and outlook remain deeply conservative in the best sense. To see them and appreciate them is to understand just how far America has strayed from the best of that tradition.
Watch Letters and ask yourself what the movie says about the limits of American power, the need for understanding and respect of other cultures, the tragic destructiveness of blind patriotism.
I’m not exactly sure why the right isn’t calling for Clint Eastwood’s head and boycotting his movies. Letters is telling us with all its pure cinematic eloquence through its depiction of the “Last Good War” that today’s America is no longer Dirty Harry’s America. If you combine it with Flags of Our Father’s condemnation of hoopla, exploitation, and the use of patriotism as political theater, Eastwood the director makes a deeply political statement by being unswervingly artistic.
The end result is both a great movie and a work which as we debate the “virtues” of the “Surge” more people need to see, appreciate, and ultimately act on.



At 6/04/2007 07:44:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't think Eastwood's intention here is to make any kind of statement about Iraq. So as far as I'm concerned you're definitely projecting your own anti-war prejudices onto both movies. I think what both of these marvelous films share is a common theme of the demands each culture makes of its soldiers. For the Japanese the culture of that militaristic period demanded death rather than dishonor, for the Marines in Flags their culture demanded larger than life heroes for a public grown weary of war. In both cases the soldiers are trapped by the demands of these cultures. You can see this in Flags, in the way Doc & Ira struggle to reconcile their hero status with their memories of battle & you can see it in Letters, as Saigo & Shimizu try to survive in a situation where their senior officers will kill them even if the enemy doesn't.

When the patriotic rhetoric of both camps is stripped away what's left is an elegaic lament for the men & their memories of home, family & comrades who have fallen on the battlefield. As Flags reminds us, such memories haunted men such as John Bradley & Ira Hayes to the day they died.

At 6/04/2007 07:48:00 AM, Blogger inkyhack said...

I just recently got both Letters and Flags on DVD but I have yet to watch either one (due to lack of time). I have heard nothing but good things about both movies - with one exception:

My super right-wing mother (who also hasn't seen either) has blasted both films as being anti-American. Where would she get this idea? Apparently the right-wing talk shows have been blasting Clint Eastwood, saying both movies "betray the men and women defending America in Iraq."

So to answer your last question, yes the right-wingers have been bashing Eastwood for the films.

At 6/04/2007 08:44:00 AM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

thanks for reading and commenting. I've never spoken to Clint Eastwood nor have I seen interviews with him about what he intended or didn't intend with the movies.
Clearly, if anything is directed at Iraq in either movie it's done very obliquely, so it may be projection on my part. At the same time, Letters is pretty clearly an anti-war movie.
I agree that it's about what decency is on an individual level in wartime, but there are several bits of the movie that clearly call on the viewer to acknowledge that people have startingly similar values at heart, that favors familiarity between cultures, and that favors life over death. All of those notions translate to the Iraq war rather smoothly.

thanks for the update re: the right wing talk reaction to recent Clint Eastwood. As I said, his outlook remains deeply conservative. It just reminds me that so called "conservatives" have lost all track of what that means. Consider Lewis Libby and Alberto Gonzales....I have no idea what makes either man a "conservative" cause.

At 6/04/2007 10:12:00 AM, Blogger None said...

Ive seen both movies.. and both movies are some of the best I've seen. Keep in mind they are intended to be seen as a diptych. That is, they should be compared to side-by-side and not as wholly independent flicks.

I do think Clint is making a statement about war. He is at a point where he can make any movie he likes. Tell any story he wants. What does he do? Picks a war movie to humanize those we have demonized over several generations. He questions the heroic myths of "the greatest generation" in "flags". Then moves us in "letters" by showing the life of a doomed man. He forces us to see the horror of war from the pov of the "other".

As for the right wingers going after Clint, I feel sorry for them. Just another edition of conservatives eating their own. Besides, why let name calling get in the way of watching a beautiful movie?

I'm sure you can guess that I dont feel this movie to be anti-American. Anti-war, perhaps. But, since when does America stand for war? Well, best not answer that question.

At 6/04/2007 10:23:00 AM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

thanks for your always insighful comments.
I absolutely agree that Clint isn't being anti-American at's more that he's nudging us to look at what's important about being American.

I also agree that it's better to see and discuss the pair of movies together.
It helps one make sense of the mantra in Letters, "Do what's right, because it's right."

At 6/04/2007 02:56:00 PM, Blogger benny06 said...

Oh my. I had hoped to see this movie on the way back from Denmark, but it was not to be.

My spouse saw this and said it was better than "Flags of our Fathers" and I hope so. I thought the latter fell totally flat.

CL, you probably have more thoughts on this being Asian-American. As usual, you've given me a taste, and now I should watch the DVD, but admit, reading your reviews tells me a great deal. You are talented in blogging thoughts about entertainment and making it more plausible for us.

At 6/04/2007 04:33:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

the two should probably be seen as a pair, but I tend to agree that Letters is the more interesting movie of the pair.

I'm not sure they worked out the screenplay quite as well in Flags.

At 6/05/2007 03:30:00 PM, Blogger None said...

Just thinking about this a little bit last night... I think I saw both, "Flags" and "Letters", in the theater last year (I dont see many films in the theater). On top of that I/we rented "Unforgivin" and "Baby" within the past nine months. Anyway, Eastwood seems to benefit from less dialog. This might be where “Flags” gets tripped up a bit. Not to mention his own rolls he played as an actor (Dirty Hairy, Spaghetti Westerns, ect..). He seems to say everything, by not saying much. Which makes "Letters", subtitled, not that much of a surprise hit.

Last, I guess he describes himself as a libertarian. Which, after listening to comments by "former" libertarian, Ron Paul, its not that difficult to see his dissatisfaction with Republicans in relation to the current war(s). Not to mention, making strange bedfellows with the anti-war crowd.

At 6/05/2007 03:46:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

interesting point about Clint and dialogue. He is definitely big on strong-silent heroes.

I've wondered if some of that is the fact that his break in the movies came from Sergio Leone (I assume that Clint's Italian was always limited even though he was in Italian movies).
Anyway, he leared to emote for an audience without having to say much.

I've noticed a definite Republican revolt brewing with the libertarian end of the party. It's not just Ron Paul, it's also Tom Coburn who took on Alberto Gonzales with the most incisive question the senate committee asked "Do you meet the standards you allegeldly applied to your own US. Attorneys? If not, shouldn't you be fired too?"

At 6/05/2007 09:01:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"It is one of those war pictures that identifies the real enemies for both sides--fanatic patriotism, demonization of the enemy, ignorance, and the loss of the capacity to think and feel at an individual level." I can't speak to whether these movies embody this haunting statement of yours, but they ought. It's what herd-think does to us, how we are bestialized.

I always think of how surviving soldiers meet each other 40 years later and have a beer or a sherry and how compatible and amiable they are. Too bad one can't be compelled to have a beer or a glass of tea with each person one is going to kill from a distance in ignorance -- and then decide to shoot, bomb, or grenade him. Or not.

At 6/05/2007 10:53:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

Mr. Pogblog,
It is an odd phenomenon and I too wish they could skip the shooting at each other part.


Post a Comment

<< Home