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Movie Review: Letters from Iwo Jima

Letters from Iwo Jima
Directed by Clint Eastwood
Written by Iris Yamashita from a story by Yamashita and Paul Haggis, from the book Picture Letters from Commander-in-Chief by Tadamichi Kuribayashi and Tsuyoko Yoshido
Dreamworks/Warner Bros.

There are a number of things to discuss before launching into a review of Letters.  First, Clint Eastwood joins the 2006 2-movie club, joining Justin Lin (Tristan & Isolde, Annapolis) and Richard Linklater (A Scanner Darkly, Fast Food Nation).  Last year, an incredible 8 directors had two films in one year.

Of course, Eastwood gets his membership via politics, as his American-sided Iwo Jima drama Flags of Our Fathers was poised to be Warner Bros. big Oscar film.  But the movie didn’t sell upon its release, and it faded to obscurity.  Looking back on my positive review of Flags, one thing I didn’t mention was how the movie could have benefited by being much tighter; the message was that three heroes from The Battle of Iwo Jima were not the glorified heroes the American people thought they were and they were also treated badly behind the scenes.  This was pounded throughout the movie.  Eastwood could have cut the movie a good twenty minutes, and maybe had a singular hero through which the story is told, rather than several.  And, hey, maybe no Ryan Phillippe could have helped too.

So now, here’s the companion piece, the Japanese-sided telling, coming with the seal of approval from the National Board of Review, who seemingly jumped on the bandwagon before the thing was even built or anyone had time to paint it.  You must be a Hollywood god when people are so eager to praise you that they are willing to overlook tons of flaws and focus only on the good, and prop a movie over easily better-made ones.

Starting off my review, I feel almost the exact same way about this movie that I did Flags.  The Flags review (and The Departed review) are the reasons why I’m never going to do reviews early in the morning after a long day at work ever again.  Because writing these things takes focus.  I’ve left out key ingredients in the interest of posting my thoughts too quickly.  As I mentioned earlier, Flags could have benefited from some cutting, some better perspective.  Letters from Iwo Jima is the very definition of lacking in focus, even though there is a lot of good done along the way.

On the sacred island of Iwo Jima before the American attack, we follow Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya) and how he’s definitely not suited for the army; he’s a baker who has been drafted for what is deemed a tremendous honor.  He has a wife back home and a daughter he hasn’t seen.  He’s writing letters that aren’t getting sent.  He has no business being in this war, but it’s evident that Japan’s imperial government wants all men to die for them, and death is accepted before surrender.

Everyone has their idea of how the battle should be fought, but a general with American ties has his own methods, much like Norman Dale in Hoosiers, complete with the requisite criticism that is bound to follow.  This is General Tadamichi Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe), and he doesn’t want to start fighting this war on the beach in the trenches, he wants to fight this in caves with the element of surprise on his side.  No one really believes they have a chance in this battle, not even Kuribayashi, but he and others in command try to put on a good face for the troops, maybe hoping for a miracle.

Those are the two main guys, but the movie is also interested in a soldier who trained in the military police, Shimizu (Ryo Kase), a Lieutenant Colonel who won Gold at the 1932 Olympics in an equestrian event, Baron Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara), and Lieutenant Ito (Shido Nakamura), who definitely wants to break from the intelligent (but seemingly cowardly) command of General Kuribayashi.

I generally felt that the movie went all over the place.  Sometimes the movie would build some momentum, but then it would cut to some guy writing a letter and there would be a flashback.  A lot of times, these flashbacks are relevant, but they seem to come at the most inopportune times.  These letters help humanize the Japanese, and through this film we recognize the similarities between us and them, just as they do when they read a letter from a wounded American soldier that makes them think about Americans differently.  That scene is great, but it’s in the middle of some choppiness, and this is the kind of thing I felt during all of the great scenes of this movie.  They are all bookended by some boredom, or some other distraction.

I wonder if this movie, and Flags, might have been better without the flashbacks.  The problem with using letters as a framing device is that I think they take over the narrative choices, that if the filmmakers didn’t somehow include the letters and their requisite flashbacks, then they would lose their power.  I think you can solve that problem by having the discovery of the letters come at the very beginning of the film (here, it’s at the very end, and it’s given the full dramatic effect, as if, “What would we know without these letters?”).  Have someone in an office somewhere read the letters, weaving a story from them, maybe constructing a sort of puzzle.  You still get to play with the narrative a bit, and I think it’s more interesting than having all this action get interrupted each time by a flashback.  Maybe it’s just me.

On to the final word, I enjoyed Letters, but it’s certainly not the best film of the year.  I think I might even like this better than Flags, but there are a few I can name (and will at the end of the year) that deserve to be recognized over these movies.  Stunning achievement, yes.  Good messages, yes.  Commits errors in judgment, absolutely.


Comment from KW
Time: December 21, 2006, 11:11 am

What? A Clint Eastwood film near the end of the year and it’s not the “best film of the year?!” How can that be? I though it was like a rule or something that if he directed a film that was released in the last quarter of the calendar year that he automatically won all the awards.

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