Letters from Iwo Jima is the second WWII offering by actor-turned-auteur Clint Eastwood in his twin analysis of that great battle in the Pacific. The other film, Flags of Our Fathers, takes a look at the same battle from the American perspective. Where Flags of Our Fathers failed both critically and at the box office, Letters from Iwo Jima has surprisingly surged ahead of its more American-friendly counterpart as one of this year’s Oscar contenders for Best Picture and a critical darling.
In recent years Mr. Eastwood has shaken off his iconic status as a grizzled piece of American iconography, initially by producing an excellent deconstruction of the Western genre (a genre that he had a big part in shaping in the first place) with Unforgiven (1992). Eastwood then fell out of favor with critics after producing a series of mediocre features, including Absolute Power (1997) and the awful Space Cowboys (2000). Then, in 2003, he reemerged with Mystic River (2003) and Million Dollar Baby (2004), which won Eastwood both Best Picture and Best Director Oscars. But this critical praise is due primarily to Eastwood’s choice to take the safer, far more traveled road. Simply put, Clint Eastwood has become a successful filmmaker by taking the safe bet.
With Letters from Iwo Jima, Mr. Eastwood is continuing in safety. The film, running at a predictably ‘serious’ length of two hours and twenty minutes, is by design both a grand scale war epic and a delicate tale of personal survival and tragedy. The film begins as an ensemble piece, as many war films do. But as the American invasion begins, the bodies quickly start to drop, leaving us with a singular protagonist: Saigo (played by Kazunari Ninomiya), a simple baker who has been unwillingly thrust into the chaos of war.
As a war film, which this film wholeheartedly is, one can meander down the checklist quite comfortably and find all of the staples: breathtaking grand scale cinematography, ideology vs. individuality, the everyman, and loads of heartbreaking violence.
Mr. Eastwood does take somewhat of a risk with his depiction of the invasion itself however. Perhaps for the first time in American film history the American WWII forces are depicted as being an overwhelming surge, and not as the underdog, which is part and parcel to American identity. The Japanese are thus massively outnumbered at Iwo Jima and that sense of immanent doom prevails, as the key tone throughout that provides for the existential thematic backdrop. But make no mistake: although this film was shot in Japan with a Japanese cast, Letters from Iwo Jima is nevertheless a product of Western thought. Japanese practices and ideology are treated rather haphazardly and the notion of ‘honor’ is easily vilified by being placed at the core of much of the tragedy. There is a particularly daunting scene that was designed to enrage viewers where a group of soldiers explode themselves with grenades instead of surrendering. The protagonist of the film comes close to being forced to participate in this group suicide, but escapes by convincing the only other remaining soldier in the suicide pact that survival is more honorable than death. Looking at the aftermath of exploded torn flesh it seems like a no-brainer. But tradition and practice are inherent to cultural identity, and this moment seems somewhat dolled up for an American audience that would struggle to grasp this sort of an ultimate act.
Letters from Iwo Jima is thoroughly adequate as a war film. It at times stumbles, but is quite effective in categoriz-ing war as a senseless scenario that merely pins simple human beings against one and other. The lesson embedded within Letters from Iwo Jima is that humankind is governed by a common good and that no matter the culture or clan, all of us are essentially the same. A quaint (and perhaps true) notion, but one that sadly seems both ridden with clich