Judge Dennis Prince has determined there is no suitable quip to pin on this remarkably balanced motion picture.
Every historical conflict has two distinct perspectives.
Although Director Clint Eastwood's bookend to Flags of Our Fathers came about almost accidentally and in decidedly hurried fashion, this Letters from Iwo Jima reveals far more than a desire to merely compete in the 2007 Oscar race. While filming Flags, Eastwood
Facts of the Case
As the conflict between Japan and US progresses, the outlook is not looking good for the Japanese military. The US forces have been successful in their campaign to secure several smaller islands surrounding Japan and are now readying to claim Iwo Jima, a small volcanic island that is strategically imperative as a US staging point for larger scale attacks on the Japanese mainland. The Japanese military recognizes that Iwo Jima will be its last stand in hopefully thwarting the US advance but hope is all that remains, and very little of it. General Tadamishi Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe, The Last Samurai) has been dispatched to enforce the army's military plan yet he dispenses with the recommendation to buttress the beachfront, electing instead to command the troops to develop an intricate maze of subterranean tunnels. But Kuribayashi is not deluded by visions of grand victory, knowing he is significantly outnumbered in this standoff and severely lacking in reinforcements from the Japanese ground troops and Air Force. Despite his doubt, he leads his troops in preparation while writing letters home about his exploits and as a record of his potentially final days. Among his troops is the reluctant baker, Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya), forcefully enlisted into this losing endeavor and brutalized by the ranking Baron Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara), a man who believes this to be a glorious undertaking certain to canonize him as a hero. But, in the end, the mood is doubtful and the inevitability of the outcome pains the troops and their leader and they nonetheless march forward in service of the Emperor.
We soldiers dig. We dig all day. This is the hole that we will fight and die in. Am I digging my own grave?
As I watched Letters from Iwo Jima and witnessed the arguably insubordinate attitudes being presented from the Japanese soldiers, I expected this would become a picture to be derided from the very honorable and dedicated Japanese culture. Apparently, the Japanese have also held this film in very high regard, appreciating its honest approach and its real yet respectful delivery of the message that Iwo Jima was a fruitless endeavor by the Japanese military. Indeed, it is difficult to witness the futility of the stand to defend the tiny volcanic island, that deemed a significant staging point for the US attack against the Japanese mainland. The Japanese contingent was certainly under-trained, under-fortified, and certainly to be outmatched. The sadness of it all is that we see Saigo and his comrades caught in the middle of a cultural quagmire—the Japanese way of bushido did not account for such situations and was clearly outdated in this moment of "modern" warfare. While there was little denying the soldiers were proud and honorable, they were also wise enough to recognize their inevitable march to death in this clash against the surging US forces. To that end, the script from first-timer Iris Yamashita is absolutely compelling if not heartbreaking in the way it presents each soldier, each leader, and each family member left behind in detailed strokes of pain amid pride. Although the film runs a lengthy 140 minutes, it's the sort of drama that commands your attention immediately and keeps you properly attentive for the duration.
Technically, Letters from Iwo Jima poses a bit of a dilemma on this new HD DVD / DVD Combo disc. The good news is, because of the combo treatment, we're able to immediately compare the two formats to determine if HD DVD is all it's trumped up to be and, without question, it outpaces its SD ancestry. The details truly permeate this high-definition master and subsequently make the SD alternative look soft (some HD adopters claiming they see "halos" in the SD master when comparing to the HD version; I didn't notice anything significant when I ran my comparisons). The challenge, though, comes when you're expecting that usual HD "pop" where vivid colors and silky smooth gradients deliver 3D-like image quality; not so on this disc. The production design of the film, intentionally muted, washed out, and speckled with imposed film grain, prevents this feature from achieving the "HD effect." Nevertheless, this shouldn't be construed as being problematic on this disc nor giving any argument that such "period pieces" aren't deserving of a high-def delivery. The fact is that the image quality here, riding on the aforementioned improved detail, gives Letters from Iwo Jima a decidedly gritty feel that is perfectly appropriate to the picture, especially the many subterranean sequences. The color palette is hamstringed but the vividness of detail certainly adds to the overall viewing experience. The transfer itself, incidentally, is mastered using the 1080p / VC-1 codec and framed at an aspect ratio of 2.40:1.
On the audio side, the Dolby TrueHD track is excellent if not, again, intentionally understated. Since the film centers solidly on character development and less on depictions of warfare, you won't be rocked and rumbled during a viewing. Granted, your surrounds and low-end channel will roar to life during the few explosive moments but otherwise this is a subdued and subtle mix yet is manages to eke out every little aural detail that contributes admirably to the overall texture of the film.
As for extras, you'll be pleased to find all of the extras delivered on the two-disc SD special edition are on board in this release, two of which are presented in high-definition here. First is Red Sun, Black Sand: The Making of Letters from Iwo Jima, the 21-minute featurette that explores the development of the film with plenty of insight from Eastwood. Also in HD here is the 18-minute Faces of Combat: The Cast of Letters from Iwo Jima. The remainder of the extras, the three-minute photo montage, Images from the Front Lines, the World Premiere footage, and the widescreen theatrical trailer are all presented in SD format. Even so, the fact that this disc includes the full complement of extras as found on the special edition disc and coupled with the fact that two of the bonus features, not to mention the feature film itself, are presented in HD make this a very wise investment.
Without a doubt, Letters from Iwo Jima is a somber and even sobering experience in its portrayal of the "other side" of the historic battle. There's little point in attempting to determine which side deserved what from this conflict as many have already made up their minds. But the true value of this intense character-driven drama is the opportunity we're given to look inside the minds and hearts of the "enemy" only to learn that he is not so very different than we and, when the rhetoric is stripped away and the military-fueled froth has subsided, we come face to face with another human being as we each struggle to determine the purpose of the warfare of the moment.
I don't know anything about the enemy. I thought all Americans were cowards. I was taught they were savages.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Featurette: Red Sun, Black Sand: The Making of Letters from Iwo Jima
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