Warner Bros. // 2006 // 140 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron // June 7th, 2007
War is Hell...No Matter What Side You're On
No one celebrates the loser. Indeed, the inherent nature of being the victor is to gain those all-important proverbial spoils. If you couldn't gain notoriety and notice from your wins, why would you bother competing? Certainly there are other principles that can be gained from participation, but contests require a champion and a chump to maintain their intrinsic value. War only makes such material matters worse. When one sect (say, the Confederacy), nation (England), or collective of countries (Germany, Italy, and Japan circa World War II) takes on another for social/political/ideological bragging rights, there is more at stake than mere territorial claims. There are concepts of reputation, principle, and pride in play as well. History will eventually color the proper path but, at the time, all soldiers are slaving in a noble cause, hoping to prove their viability as men and citizens. This means that, sometimes, begrudgingly, the bad guys can have good intentions or principles behind their purposeless slaughter, just as the good guys can easily slip into unethical atrocity. It's a new perspective, one grappled with admirably by Clint Eastwood in 2006's Oscar nominated Letters from Iwo Jima. For most U.S. movie fans, the Japanese solider remains a kamikaze, hari-kari committing madman with only one purpose on the planet -- kill as many Americans as possible. Here's a film that wants to change such perception, as awkward as that sounds.
Recent losses are foretelling the enemy's next move. After successfully taking several islands held by the Japanese in the Pacific, the Americans are coming for the Imperial Nation's actual mainland -- Iwo Jima. Fortified by hundreds of fresh troops, the officers are split on how best to protect the tiny atoll. The old-school guard wants trench warfare right on the beaches. But new leader General Tadamichi Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe, The Last Samurai) wants to forgo a frontline near the water. Instead, he mandates the digging of tunnels throughout the island's rocky interior landscape, a system that will provide better communication and protection. Though stoic in his preparations, Kuribayashi knows he is badly outnumbered, and can't rely on either the Japanese Navy or Air Force for support. As he prepares for the inevitable, he writes letters to home, notes reflecting on his conflicted nature. They mirror those written thoughts sent by enlisted man Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya). A baker by trade, he can't stand the fact that he may die for a cause he can no longer believe in. On the other hand, former Olympian Baron Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara) sees his service as a chance to further solidify his hero's legacy. Of course, anticipation cannot match reality and, in the end, the battle would be bloodier and deadlier than anyone could imagine. All that will be left behind are a stack of Letters from Iwo Jima.
Who would have thought that, at age 77, longtime acting fixture Clint Eastwood would become one of our most accomplished motion picture directors. Granted, he's had a long and somewhat illustrious career behind the camera (starting with his debut effort, 1971's Play Misty for Me). But he hasn't always been praised as a maker of masterpieces. Indeed, up until 1992's Unforgiven, many dismissed him as an old-school genre icon out of touch with what modern audiences wanted. Oscar legitimized his cinematic acumen and, by the time Mystic River became a cause célèbre, Eastwood earning a second Academy Award seemed like a given, not a fluke. With the equally praised Million Dollar Baby cementing his status, the Hollywood legend decided to take on his most ambitious projects to date -- a pair of films focusing on a decisive battle of the Pacific campaign, the invasion of a tiny fragment of land that made up part of the Volcano Islands at the Southeastern-most part of Japan. Iwo Jima would come to signify much for both sides -- the first attack by the Allies on Japanese soil, a last stand of sorts in the Asian theater and, upon victory, an iconic image that would inspire America to continue on and crush their Eastern enemy. After Flags of Our Fathers focused on said indelible photograph, Letters from Iwo Jima looked at the losses taken from the Imperial Army's point of view.
There are three main themes running throughout this film, ideas that should seem standard to any fact-based war film. Eastwood specifically wants to focus on the enemies desire to maintain honor, perform their patriotic duty, and sacrifice themselves for the sake of their country. It's the kind of thing that the heroes and the eventual victors in other entertainments are celebrated for, but something sorely lacking in the depiction of the enemy. Since the Japanese don't suffer from the same slanderous status as the Nazis (who now almost single-handedly define evil), the narrative hopes to show that not every foe is a slobbering fiend looking to destroy democracy and rape civil rights. Indeed, the doomed nature of the Iwo Jima attack -- we learn upfront that the island will have no air or sea support, and is badly undermanned and undersupplied -- argues for a whole other level of commitment. In essence, the officers are no longer strategizing based on politics or governmental policies. Each has taken an oath to defend their native land, and almost all are willing to die doing it. The disgruntled members of the company keep their reservations to themselves. In return, they systematically carry out their orders, praying that a miracle of some sort arrives. Together, they form a front of almost insane, nonsensical nobility.
At the heart of our three pronged subtext are the main characters -- General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, ex-Olympic champion Baron Nishi, and lowly enlisted man (and former baker) Saigo. Inside this trio lie differing levels of principle, obligation, and surrender. Our General realizes the limited odds of success, but does the best job he can to make sure his men are as prepared and protected as possible. Nishi is kind of a weekend warrior, a man who views his status as an athletic hero (he's an equestrian) as an inference for many of reputation and responsibility's greatest demands. That just leaves Saigo, and Eastwood is aware that the audience will be looking to him to play the voice of reason inside the maelstrom of misguided posturing. But instead, he's merely a survivalist, existing through each awkward and/or fatal event that comes his way, and looking for the best way to make it out alive. Sure he sounds off on occasion, questioning the rational for many of the more suicidal strategies. But in the end, he continues to serve, waiting patiently for destiny to finish dealing out its cards.
During the sequences set before the battle, and some later flashbacks, we get a chance to see war from the Japanese perspective. Saigo's conscription is hilarious in its peer pressure aspects, and a failed officer's school candidate provides us with a bitter moment of weird wartime madness. Most intriguing are the conversations about everyday life on the island nation. We learn the country continually drained the merchant marketplace for all the free goods it could, and when the businesses finally went belly up, the men were sold into soldiery and the inventory was looted and used to make weaponry and rations. Kuribayashi's story is even more interesting. Sent to the United States before the war as part of some diplomatic mission between the militaries, he finds instant acceptance among the slightly snobby American brass. But the minute he is questioned about his position on possible war, Kuribayashi makes it very clear which side of the skirmish his loyalties lay. This is all part of Eastwood's overall plan. He wants us to witness the same Band of Brothers determination that we assume was only part of the Allies allegiance. Instead, our filmmaker fashions a premise that's puzzling. It can best be described in the following phrase -- can your adversary be as righteous in his intentions as you, the named champion, are in yours?
The answer to this question drives much of Letters from Iwo Jima's drama. In fact, Eastwood is so effective at bringing out the emotional depth of the Japanese dilemma on the island that we almost (ALMOST!) feel sorry for them. We definitely sympathize with many of the maddening moments that make up the conflict. Saigo sees firsthand an entire squadron committing mass suicide, while Kuribayashi's shouts for "more messengers" finally hit him with the fatal inevitability of his demand. Nishi suffers a far more manipulative blow (we can see it coming from the moment we are introduced to his character), while other supporting players do a superb job of showing how rational men snap under pressure. Even the Americans come across as both compassionate and cruel. Since we know how the battle turns out (Eastwood already prepped us with his first film in this intriguing duo -- Flags of Our Fathers), the surprise here is not the finale. No, the drama is derived directly from Saigo's journey from front lines to supposed safe haven, Nishi's discovery of his internal strength, and Kuribayashi's continuing commitment to his men. As the pieces fit together and then fall away, one by one, we find ourselves drawn directly into an unknown facet of armed conflict. It's a vision as basic as it is brutal.
It's this element that remains Letters from Iwo Jima's greatest accomplishment. Sure, the war footage is utterly realistic and Eastwood doesn't shy away from situations of dark, dire consequences, but seeing such cruel carnage from the other side of the gun site is something few war films can successfully manage. The reason, of course, is clear. Why would a victor want to wallow in the despair of the defeated when they can celebrate their own bravery and self-styled superiority? If we've learned anything over the last few decades of scholarship and study, it's that battles are won and lost on facets far outside the control of generals and majors. Weather, chance, timing, and blind luck can turn an offensive as easily as excessive manpower and well-planned precision. In the case of Iwo Jima, the Japanese were poised to crumble. Their limited resources pushed to the brink, they just didn't have enough physical materials to carry on. Their mental makeup almost managed to compensate. But it just wasn't enough. In fact, it makes the American victory appear more like overkill than obvious providence. As a wise man once said, the best way to prevent war is to learn how lucky one was to survive it. Letters from Iwo Jima finally provides that inspiring insight.
Making its first appearance on DVD since losing out to The Departed for Best Picture of the Year at the March 2007 Academy Awards, Letters from Iwo Jima is given a gorgeous digital presentation by Warner Brothers. The two-disc set (one for the film alone, the other for extras) does a great job of bringing the majesty and scope of Eastwood's vision to the small screen. Desaturating his colors to almost monochrome levels, this is cinematography as memory, a complex artistic approach that requires an excellent transfer to tackle. Luckily, the 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen image is nearly flawless. The attention to detail is shocking, as are the post-production moments where splashes of fire (or blood) splash across the screen. One imagines that Eastwood would be happy with this level of home theater reproduction. It serves his visuals expertly. On the sound side, we are treated to a Japanese-language track (with readily legible subtitles) that expands and explodes across the entire Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround domain. It is a very immersive presentation, allowing you to feel lost in the battles and claustrophobic inside the caves. Mention also needs to be made of the brilliant, brittle score. The product of Eastwood's son Kyle and collaborator Michael Stevens, it is a rare achievement of epic understatement.
What most fans of the film will be wondering is if Eastwood himself sits down to offer a full-length audio commentary for the feature. The answer, sadly, is no. He does, however, appear frequently during Disc 2's myriad of behind-the-scenes documentaries. First up is a very evocative making-of. Entitled "Red Sun, Black Sun" (Iwo Jima's original title), we get stories about the logistics and the inspiration for such a massive undertaking. Next up is a cast compilation called "The Faces of Combat: The Cast of Letters from Iwo Jima." It is here where we can hear Ken Watanabe, Kazunari Ninomiya (a major pop star in Japan), and other members of the acting company discuss their participation. It is very insightful. Next up is a photo montage stills gallery, along with footage from both the November 2006 premiere (at the Budo-kan in Tokyo) as well as the press conference that followed. Toss in a trailer (in full screen, for some odd reason) and you've got a nice amount of added context. If you're looking for more military or historic perspective, however, you need to pony up for the big five-disc box set that's currently available. It contains this DVD presentation, the special edition of Flags of Our Fathers, and a bonus disc of documentaries on the war.
Sometimes, the enemy deserves compassion. But more times than not, a murderous throng aiming to overthrow the natural order of the world in order to support their own selfish, misguided aims, deserves to go down in time's tablet as definitive demons. No one is nominating the Japanese for "most misunderstood" Axis power of 1945, but it's clear from Letters from Iwo Jima that their attempted defense of their own territory was marked by as much horror as hubris. Yes, they saw America as Imperialist dogs. Yes, they believed that their bond with Germany and Italy would results in a better political position for their tiny island nation. Yes, they, too, asked much of their citizenry in the name of God and country. But in the end, they lost. Defeat rendered all the honor meaningless, all the duty pointless, and all the sacrifice senseless. It's a reality that most conquerors choose to label as cowardice, weakness, and incompetence. But there is more to a battle's consequences than simple tags. Movies function at their best when they take such realities and realize them in a manner that makes us understand the intrinsic and ethereal elements simultaneously. Clint Eastwood's magnificent Letters from Iwo Jima does just that.
Not guilty. This stunning achievement in cinematic artistry deserves all the praise and accolades it has received.
Review content copyright © 2007 Bill Gibron; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Japanese)
Running Time: 140 Minutes
Release Year: 2006
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* "Red Sun, Black Sun -- The Making of Letters from Iwo Jima" Documentary
* "The Faces of Combat -- The Cast of Letters from Iwo Jima" Documentary
* "Images from the Frontlines -- The Photography of Letters from Iwo Jima" Slide Show Montage
* November 2006 World Premiere at Budo-kan in Tokyo
* November 2006 Press Conference Footage
* Official Site