Last year we all heard Clint Eastwood, who I still consider the greatest living human, was directing this World War II movie produced by Steven Spielberg. Not really my genre, but with Clint directing obviously I was looking forward to it. Things got more interesting during filming when he announced that he realized the story of Iwo Jima needed to be told from the Japanese perspective too, so he was doing another movie straight after FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS, originally titled RED SUN, BLACK SAND. And that sounded more interesting to me. Way to be ambitious, Clint.
But when FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS came out it was underwhelming enough that, to be honest, I lost some of my interest in LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA. That first movie’s not terrible, and I really like what it was about – the complicated feelings of some guys who are declared war heroes for bullshit reasons and have to go along with it in order to raise war bonds and help out their fellow soldiers who are still fighting. But the way the story was told was just not Clint enough. Usually when he directs the stories are pretty spare, pretty bare, and the emotions are raw. The score of FLAGS was about the only thing that was the usual laid back Clint. He had to jump between the present day with the son of one of the flag raisers interviewing the survivors, the actual battle of Iwo Jima, and the war bonds tour after the battle, and then all of those are jumbled up so they’re in even less order than it sounds like.
So at the very least you gotta keep track of these 5 guys who raised the second Iwo Jima flag, plus you will need to remember some of the other guys who raised the first flag and figure out which parents are theirs, and you have to figure which young character corresponds to which old man in the present day, all this while trying to figure out which of the identical looking grey helmets got killed during chaotic shaky cam battle. And with all that you don’t really attach to the characters like you did, say, the 2 or 3 characters at the heart of MILLION DOLLAR BABY. And when the emotions come out sometimes it comes across corny instead of powerful.
Well I’m a little surprised and alot happy to say that LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA is about a hundred or more times better than FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS. I’m not good at math but that figure sounds about right. It’s funny that this is the one he did as an afterthought. Maybe he overthunk the other one. This story is much more intimate and focused, the characters and performances are more impressive and, as much as I liked the exploration of propaganda there, this is a story that is more groundbreaking and profound for an American movie about World War II.
Obviously this isn’t HELL IN THE PACIFIC, there are a bunch of characters, but it focuses mainly on two of them. One is a relucant young soldier named Saigo(Kazunari Ninomiya) who had to leave his pregnant wife and his bakery behind to go to this war where he’s not likely to come back. The other is General Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe), who has just been assigned here after another general turned down the job. He used to live in the U.S., which raises suspicions in some of his men but also gives him some insight into the enemy and some different ideas about the battle and about life.
The story is much more straightforward than FLAGS. It’s told in a direct line, from the preparations for the battle to the end, occasionally going into flashback to explain more about each character, but then quickly coming back to the same story. No jumping around otherwise.
A big part of the story is the sense of hopelessness and impending doom. The beginning of the movie is spent digging trenches and tunnels, complaining about the heat and the bad water, waiting for the invasion. Once the Americans arrive it becomes an underdog story. You’re attached to this group of characters and even though they’re on the wrong side of the one war most of us agree on, we have to root for them. Maybe not to win but at least to get out alive.
And that’s what’s so brilliant about it. These guys aren’t nazis, but they’re on the nazis’ side of the war. But it turns out they also happen to be people. The way they get involved in this war is not that different from people in other countries, it’s pretty normal. They’re not being brainwashed exactly. This could be almost any war, almost any country, there are going to be citizens who believe in their country, or feel they should believe in their country and they will feel that fighting for their country is their duty. This is a humane movie. I can’t think of many movies that so clearly show the humanity of the “enemy.” Even the “good war” is a god damn shame. Everybody knows that I’m sure, but you see a movie like this and you FEEL it. All the human beings who died on that piece of shit island for something as dry and technical as control of a strategic location. What a fuckin waste.
I don’t think I’ve seen another WWII movie completely from the point of view of the Japanese. In FLAGS, you barely even saw the faces of the Japanese soldiers. Here it’s the other way around. The weird thing is that when the few American characters do show up they aren’t as good of actors as the Japanese stars of the movie, so it almost seems like one of those Godzilla movies or martial arts movies where they have a guy speaking English and the acting is bad because the director didn’t speak English. But Clint does speak English, and not Japanese. I’m not sure how he did it.
There are themes here that are universal and there are themes that are pretty damn Japanese. One problem they keep facing that you don’t see in all cultures is that everybody keeps wanting to commit ritual suicide. The baker doesn’t want to kill himself, he wants to get out of this alive. But not in a macho way. Everybody else makes him feel like he’s a coward for having a survival instinct. He has to try to convince them (and maybe himself) that it would be better for the Emperor if they kept fighting from the corner they’re painted into. You guys and your ritual suicide, jesus. Let’s cut that out. Don’t jump.
These two lead actors are both great. Watanabe is so charismatic and heroic, some kind of Japanese John Wayne, but more thoughtful. And the other guy is more of a goofball, he seems like the guy that would be the comic relief in most movies. But it makes you feel more for him, he’s out of his element. He should be baking bread, not fighting an unwinnable war.
When I think about the movie now I remember it as being in black and white. This is probaly partly because the colors in the movie are so muted and partly because it reminds me of one of those old Japanese classics, like the early Kurosawa pictures. Less swords, but that same kind of quiet seriousness and involving characters. These guys seem more like real people than the guys in FLAGS.
I’m glad this got nominated for a bunch of oscars and FLAGS didn’t. It seems like the obvious better one to me, but you never know what those people are gonna fall for. I don’t know many people who have seen LETTERS. One of my buddies said it was only okay and he mentioned a scene later on where the characters start talking about their feelings about war and they sort of say straight out the ideas that they’ve already expressed without words. It’s true, he’s right, this is what you gotta assume is the Paul Haggis contribution. Haggis helped the new writer Iris Yamashita with the story, so he probaly got some shots in there.
It’s handy. See, whenever Haggis is one of the writers on a movie you can blame him for whichever parts you didn’t like. So I blame him for the part in FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS where the guy says his father was “the best father a man could ever have.” And the part in CASINO ROYALE where Vesper has communicated everything that needs to be said through her posture and facial expression and the fact that she’s sitting in the shower, and then she states out loud how she’s feeling. Also, I blame him for those parts during the poker game where the dude has to explain how the poker works. In fact, I have decided to extend Paul Haggis blaming to movies that he didn’t even have anything to do with. For example, he did the scene in HILLS HAVE EYES REMAKE where the character “Big Brain” makes a big speech about why the mutants are fighting the humans. He did the twist ending in HIGH TENSION, and the scene in WOLF CREEK where one of the victims finds the killer’s collection of camcorders and watches and finds out that the killer uses poison, like anybody who is watching the movie already figured out. Any time there’s a good movie, Paul Haggis flies around and tries to put a Haggis scene in there so you can’t love it unconditionally.
But I’m not gonna let Haggis win this one. This is a great movie. Not flawless, but great. The movie had me way too tightly in its grip for me to slip away over a little thing like a conversation we didn’t need. They coulda done the HIGH TENSION twist, at that point I still woulda thought it was pretty good anyway.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.