Thursday, February 22, 2007

Letters from Iwo Jima (Oscar Round-Up)

Bravo to Clint Eastwood for making this film. It is a powerful account of the battle at Iwo Jima, Japan in World War II. As a sister movie to his other World War II film, Flags of Our Fathers, Eastwood made Letters from Iwo Jima to give audiences a much more accurate and all-encompassing view of this time period than any one movie could do.

Eastwood took a unique approach to Letters from Iwo Jima. Most war films push a specific ideology that exists on one side, depicting those who represent the enemy as bad, evil, or wrong, while glorifying the actions and words of the "good guys." Eastwood stays away from these things, and in so doing creates a "big picture" movie that tells a tragic story beautifully while simultaneously exposing us to the ugliness of war.

The main character we follow is Saigo, played by Kazunari Ninomiya, a soldier at the bottom of the ladder who ends up in some very difficult situations, but bears it all in the hopes of seeing his family again. The movie begins with the Japanese forces getting ready for the impending battle, doing the backbreaking job of digging beach trenches--which one of them on a dry note refers to as "their own graves." Soon General Tadamichi Kuribayashi arrives, played by Ken Watanabe. Kuribayashi has been sent to command the forces at Iwo Jima, and as soon as he arrives he starts shaking things up. His approach to the battle is entirely different from those around him; for example, he stops the digging on the beaches and instead tells the soldiers to begin digging tunnels. Kuribayashi realized the number of lives that would be sacrificed in those trenches and knew that if they didn't fight more defensively, their slim odds would become even worse. He also strongly believed that his men should be treated humanely and kindly, a sentiment not shared by the leadership under his command.

The beginning of the film helps us to identify with the Japanese soldiers. As the title indicates, we become privy to a number of the letters that were written by the soldiers on this island before and during the battle. At different times and with different characters, we catch a glimpse into their lives, meet their loved ones, and hear their deepest desires and regrets. We hear their hopes, their despair, and the daily musings any other person would have called unimportant. Screenwriter Paul Haggis based these letters on authentic letters that were found on the island in 2005. These scenes add a beautiful, gentle side to an otherwise tragic and sobering film.

I remember distinctly the bitter moment when the battle begins and we see the Americans descending upon the beach. I felt a true conflict within me, seeing my own people arrive to kill and defeat the people I had been getting to know through the film. And as soldiers fell on both sides, I was reminded that for every man there is a mother, a father, a wife. There is an entire story. Through this, Eastwood does away with the "us and them" mentality: the "good guy versus bad guy" idea that is the norm with war movies, and movies in general.

Now, there is "good" and "bad" illustrated in Letters, but it is not limited to one side. There are very specific moments in the film where one sees ugliness as well as beauty from both Japanese and American soldiers. We are confronted with individuals, not faceless enemies or agendas, and we are given this look at the individuals through their letters.

Eastwood shows us not only the conflict that existed between America and Japan, but also that which existed within the Japanese forces, as a new ideology works against an old one. This old ideology fostered fear of the unknown, brainwashing, and suicide. This "battle within the ranks" tore the Japanses apart from the inside, and we are able to see the conflict at numerous levels of command.

I cannot pretend to know what working on this film must have been like for all involved. The direction and screenplay were incredible, and the acting was top-notch. Ken Watanabe is one of my personal favorites; he draws us in and keeps the strength and emotion of his character very well-balanced. Ninomiya effortlessly provides us with a main character who acts as a channel through which we can experience the movie. He mirrors our own reactions to the terror and tragedy of war from beginning to end, and empowers us to hope against the odds that all will be well.

Rating: 17

Letters from Iwo Jima is a story about the Japanese, their culture, the individuals who fought and lost their lives, and this bloody battle. As most people know, it is a very sad story, but we're provided with enough glimmers of hope to not feel completely destroyed at the end. It is a masterpiece which pays a wonderful tribute to both sides, while at the same time reminding us to remain humble.


Moshe Reuveni said...

Quote: "Most war films push a specific ideology that exists on one side, depicting those who represent the enemy as bad, evil, or wrong, while glorifying the actions and words of the "good guys." [end quote]

I don't think the above statement is true anymore. Check out Das Boot from 1981 as an earlier example.

Your Racist Friend said...

I agree, very not true. Watch Peckinpah's Cross of Iron, you'll root for the Germans....and it's World War II.

Wicked Little Critta said...

Well, I'll admit that my base of war movies is probably limited. However, I'm not saying that films don't try to look at things from another side, what I'm saying is that (in my experience) very few films attempt to understand BOTH sides in the same movie. So, if there is a movie out there which causes you to root for the Germans during WWII, then it's still being one-sided.

Stormy Pinkness said...

Excellent review WLC! You really captured the spirit of the film!