Tuesday, January 13, 2009

A Winning Loss: Letters From Iwo Jima

[In light of the still-unfolding discussion of Gran Torino, The Cooler offers the following review, written upon the film’s release in the author’s pre-blog era.]

With his companion pictures about the Battle of Iwo Jima, Clint Eastwood has earned yet another bullet in the book of cinema history. What he hasn’t done is make a pair of great films. Flags Of Our Fathers, released earlier this year, is an erratic, sentimental mess. Letters From Iwo Jima, filmed successively and released just before the end of 2006, is considerably better but also unfortunately flawed. And yet if suffering through the first film is the price of getting to the second, it’s worth it. Because though Letters is far from perfect, its mere existence is a triumph.

Telling the story of Iwo Jima through the eyes of Japanese soldiers, Letters is a notably atypical war movie in at least three respects: it follows battle through the eyes of the (1) invaded and (2) eventually defeated, with (3) America standing in as the enemy. Thus the picture is an intriguing blend of The Alamo and (parts of) Tora! Tora! Tora! But in a picture sure to be hyper-analyzed in this country for any hint of anti-patriotism, the universal ugliness of warfare remains forever in the crosshairs.

All war film projects needn’t be as balanced as Eastwood’s Iwo Jima duo, but they should at least be this conscientious. The sad truth though is that without Flags there probably wouldn’t have been a Letters – not from an American studio at least. But while the making of a (literally) flag-waving American chapter is frustrating and offensive as a prerequisite for a Japanese edition, Eastwood’s separate-but-equal treatment is a wise way to go. By giving each side of the conflict its own unique film, Eastwood ensures that we don’t let the end sum of the battle (American victory in the face of more than 18,000 Japanese casualties) obscure our selection of heroes.

Earning top-billing in the film is Ken Watanabe (familiar to you from The Last Samurai) as General Kuribayashi, whose ingenious defense tactics allowed an out-manned and out-gunned Japanese force to turn what was expected to be a five-day American sweep into a 40-day epic. Watanabe fits the part well, his broad shoulders and tall frame exuding confidence while his soothing voice and winning smile express compassion. Kuribayashi, who toured America before the war, is a fascinating figure, whose actual letters home help to shape his character here. Alas, his genius, along with the resolve of his soldiers, is never properly portrayed.

The irony is that Eastwood undercuts the spirit of those he is trying to exalt by refusing to spend more time on the Xs and Os of battle. Though Eastwood does well in the set-up – showing Kuribayashi surveying the island to predict the Americans’ angle of attack, ordering the construction of crossfire zones and establishing an 11-mile tunnel structure connecting the Japanese gun ports – once the Americans hit the beach, time and place get lost. Over the last hour of this 140-minute picture we get a tedious parade of Japanese soldiers lurking through tunnels, falling back to who knows where, committing suicide when death seems immanent and arguing over whether retreat or suicide is the proper course of action. Meanwhile, Kuribayashi paces in his bunker and wonders why his messengers disappear.

The Japanese story of Iwo Jima is one of grit and sacrifice in the face of impossible odds. Most of the 22,000 soldiers suspected that they wouldn’t return from the tiny volcanic island. They battled dysentery, lived in reinforced caves that withstood the American aerial bombardment and generally waited to die. Their only mission was to kill at least 10 American soldiers each before they themselves fell. But unlike Americans at the Alamo there wasn’t a San Jacinto to avenge such suffering. All Iwo Jima did was help convince the U.S. military that the Japanese would fight to the very end, and that big bombs for Hiroshima and Nagasaki would be an easier means of victory.

It’s a pity then, given all that Japan’s troops endured, that the full of extent of the soldiers’ resilience gets lost in the timeless darkness of the caves. Eastwood’s film might feel like it takes 40 days unfold, but since we’re never given a feel for the geography of Iwo Jima, it’s nearly impossible to follow the battle. One moment the Americans arrive, the next they take Mount Suribachi and the next the battle is over. Just like that. Or so it feels. Equally frustrating, the action seems to peak-and-valley according to the dramatic needs of the screenplay (written by Iris Yamashita with collaboration from Paul Haggis). In one sequence, Americans take out a gun at one of the tunnel mouths, and yet the Japanese have time to dramatically (and brutally) sacrifice themselves with grenades before the enemy shows any sign of penetrating the breach.

Partly responsible for such missteps are Eastwood’s best intentions to keep this a solely Japanese story. Letters borrows some footage from Flags – mostly in the initial beach raid – but the films overlap only in time, location and visual theme. Once again, as in Flags, Eastwood has chosen to tint his film with a greenish monochrome haze – all the rage since Saving Private Ryan – even though it has the unfortunate effect of flattening the landscapes while making saturated fire-red explosions pop off the screen like Pleasantville anomalies. By the end of the movie I was dying to get outdoors to ensure that the sky was still blue.

But if Eastwood has a fault as a filmmaker, beyond his penchant for sentimentality, fussiness isn’t it. It’s being too casual. Though Letters has the possible excuse of being rushed through editing (it was initially slated for a February 2007 release), the movie is overlong and under-polished. Transitions are rough, close-ups are the rule even when inappropriate and flashbacks are halting and unnecessary. Somewhere in the midst of this shadowy maze there’s a touching story about a baker who never wanted to become a soldier (a powerful Kazunar Ninomiya) and a riveting though underdeveloped subplot about a former military policeman whose death on Iwo Jima punctuates a cruel fall from grace (Ryo Kase). But you’ll need a headlamp to keep track of them. Eastwood’s second Iwo Jima film has arresting sparks, but it never quite finds the light of greatness.


Daniel said...

Another excellent review. Your pairing of the write-ups is perhaps better than the pairing of the movies.

You point out my two biggest problems with this really well:

1. "his genius, along with the resolve of his soldiers, is never properly portrayed." - to say the least. I left with hardly any impression of the man. I knew nothing about him beforehand and I think Eastwood could've met me halfway.

2. "it’s nearly impossible to follow the battle.". I think I immediately preferred FooF for this very reason. I can be a patient viewer, but at least with FooF there was a change of scenery to break things up and a feeling of time progressing.

Jake said...

Having watched this again recently, I agree that it might not be quite all I set it up to be but I still think it's Eastwood's masterpiece. Yes, it's rushed like Gran Torino -- a film I somehow loved despite its terrible acting, pedestrian direction and questionable script, though I hope I reacted more out of disbelief than any emotional connection -- but this is one of his movies, the others being Josey Wales and Bird, that do not scream out for Oscar nominations. Ergo, I can't help but love this one, as it takes Eastwood's strengths -- a clear formalist sense, attention to his actors (if not necessarily their characters) -- and leaves out his insufferable penchant of kowtowing to the Academy's warped, conservative standard (does anyone else think it's funny that Clint has this image of being such a badass when he's the biggest Oscar-grabbing director working today besides Stephen Daldry?). A second viewing took it off my list of the best of the decade that I'm compiling, but it still holds a soft spot in my heart.

And if his idea of depicting the Japanese side was to simply play the scene of Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany's on a loop for two hours it would be an improvement over Flags of Our Fathers.

Jason Bellamy said...

Ha! Well said about Flags!

And good point about Eastwood. I loathed Gran Torino (and many people have loathed me for it, as you'll see in the comments section of my review, if you go looking for it), and I think Million Dollar Baby is shamelessly manipulative and got treated by kid gloves by critics in part because they protected the surprise of the movie's second half (the most offensive scenes in the film happen after that twist). All of that, plus your comment, is why I think the guy is bulletproof. People say that Pixar gets it easy, but Eastwood has people rushing to defend every should-be-unforgivable misstep. Not sure I've seen anything like it.

Anyway, all things considered Letters is one of my favorite Eastwood pictures. Or maybe I should say that it includes a lot of my favorite scenes from Eastwood movies.

Unforgiven is still at the top of the list, however.

Jake said...

I think I'm one of the ones who goes easy on Pixar, but reading your conversation with Ed I found myself agreeing that they I perhaps find them masterful relative only to other animated films (and even then I'd trade them all for Spirited Away or another high quality Miyazaki, who makes masterpieces period). I never feel more at odds with the moderate cinephile crowd than I do when an Eastwood picture comes out. Even Gran Torino, one of the few he's made this decade I've liked, tends to fall in the same nebulous area of "love" I assign to The Room or Ed Wood movies, so you could hardly call that a compliment.

For me, my favorite of his is Bird, simply because out of all his films it seemed the least concerned with getting an Oscar or -- like Josey Wales, Unforgiven and GT -- addressing some part of the image he's built for himself. I think Letters is maybe his "objective" best and I love Unforgiven, but something about Bird, overlong and somewhat repetitve as it is, strikes me as his most, to use quasi-concrete ideas, "honest."