Movie Review
Letters from Iwo Jima
2006
Director: Clint Eastwood
Cast: Tsuyoshi Ihara, Kazunari Ninomiya, Ken Watanabe
B


the gray moonscape of the rocky island garrison drains all but brownish red and olive drab from the earlier images in Letters from Iwo Jima, the better for fire and flying viscera to burst through at the first American bombardment. While the second of Clint Eastwood’s Pacific War elegies competently sustains its grim focus on the Japanese force’s last stand, the war-is-hell-for-everybody moralism is unique only for its context (Warner Brothers makes foreign-language combat drama), rather than deviation from the conventions of battlefield narrative.

Framed by the excavation of soldiers’ buried letters, Iwo establishes familiarity with trench-digging grunt talk—the subtitles read like the archetypal dialogue of every Hollywood GI from William Bendix to Edward Burns. “Too hot…bugs...the Americans can have it,” says Everyman figure Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya). The wide-eyed, hangdog young skeptic is perpetually in danger of beatings or execution for seditious words and, after the fight is lost, reluctance to commit seppuku by grenade. In marked contrast, Gen. Kuribayashi (regal, then resigned Ken Watanabe) is a gentleman warrior whose work in the prewar U.S. (his sidearm is a Colt .45) guides his tactics and marks him as a Great Man in Defeat. The general commiserates on the mechanization of warfare with an equestrian/aristocratic officer (Tsuyoshi Ihara), who has claimed victory at the Los Angeles Olympics. Other commanders, presumably never having visited the States, must be at a distinct disadvantage; either they question Kuribayashi’s hunker-down strategy as a means of stalling an attack on the mainland, or they register as ineffectual or vicious.


Eastwood establishes the inevitability of loss early—Imperial HQ inform Kuribayashi that sea and air support will be impossible, then the invaders swiftly take Mount Suribachi. The dynamics of the film’s second half are fueled by frequent handheld-shot firefights, punctuated by the ill-fed, dysentery-plagued survivors regrouping in caves of blackest shadows to “die honorably” or mass for one more counterattack. A few flashbacks aiming to flesh out the fighting men lapse into formula. (When a heretofore ambiguous MP reveals his virtue by refusing to shoot a dog and another man assures his fate by vowing to his wife's swollen belly that he will return home for the gestating child, the story credit of Crash perpetrator Paul Haggis looms large.) There is bonding with a wounded American prisoner over his letter to Mom, but the cruel outcome of an attempted surrender to other Yanks feels more like a mechanical balancing of scales: Instant Complexity. But both technical grace (wooden debris clopping slowly to earth, the chiaroscuro of the tunnels) and an efficient ensemble smooth over some of this clunky plotting.

Eastwood sets up an implicit conflict between nationalist code (“Are they not the same?” asks Kuribayashi of personal and patriotic interests) and tearful idealism (“I don’t want to die for nothing”). This exercise in standing in the other side’s boots achieves empathy largely through Ninomiya’s performance, but more convincing, visionary perspectives on the war can be found in Japanese cinema, with Kon Ichikawa’s nightmarish Fires on the Plain ranking among the greatest.

Letters from Iwo Jima is currently playing in limited release.



By: Bill Weber
Published on: 2007-01-16
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