Recent Historical Films

 

 

 

Letters from Iwo Jima (C. Eastwood, 2006)
 

 

 

 

 
 

 

Directed by Clint Eastwood; written (in Japanese, with English subtitles) by Iris Yamashita, based on a story by Ms. Yamashita and Paul Haggis; director of photography, Tom Stern; edited by Joel Cox and Gary D. Roach; music by Kyle Eastwood and Michael Stevens; production designers, Henry Bumstead and James J. Murakami; produced by Mr. Eastwood, Steven Spielberg and Robert Lorenz; released by Warner Brothers Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures. Running time: 141 minutes.

 

 

Synopsis

Letters From Iwo Jima is a recreation of the events that transpired during the American invasion of Iwo Jima during World War II, as told from the Japanese perspective. In February of 1945, some 22,000 Japanese troops defended the island against the overwhelming American forces that outnumbered them nearly five to one. Like a memoir, the film will follow the personal stories of two close friends serving in the Japanese army as they fight for survival throughout the battles and are forced to watch helplessly as their closest comrades succumb to unavoidable deaths. The story will also revolve around real-life Lieutenant General Tadamichi Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe), who continued to defend the island with his forces even as the fighting drew close to its inevitable conclusion.

 

From the Director

"When you do a war picture, everybody thinks about people running around, doing war. But to me, this movie was more than a war picture. It was about people dedicating their lives to winning this war, but also the families, and their sacrifices, and the mothers, and the fathers. And whole families. And then also people being haunted by some of their acts, whether justifiable or not, and in the name of their country fighting a war." (Clint Eastwood).

 

Reviews

"He has made one of the most quietly devastating war movies of our time." (Tim Robey, Telegraph).

"It takes a filmaker possessed of a rare, almost alchemic, blend of maturity, wisdom and artistic finesse to create such an intimate, moving and spare war film as Clint Eastwood has done in Letters from Iwo Jima" (Claudia Puig, USA Today).

"Taken together, "Flags" and "Letters" represent a genuinely imposing achievement, one that looks at war unflinchingly -- that does not deny its necessity but above all laments the human loss it entails." (Todd MacCarthy, Variety).

 

Press Clippings

 

By Peter Travers

Having just won the Best Picture prize from the National Board of Review, Clint Eastwood's intimate epic Letters From Iwo Jima enters the Oscar race with banners flying, which is a good thing. The director's Flags of Our Fathers had to suffer the alleged indignity of being a box-office underperformer, as if that says anything about quality.

And Letters is quality from first frame to last, a war film that is almost a tone poem in how it reveals the minds and secret hearts of the Japanese soldiers defending the volcanic island of Iwo Jima against American forces over forty days of battle in 1945.

Working from a screenplay by Iris Yamashita (her first), Eastwood's companion film to Flags burrows deeply into Japanese culture, starting with Lt. Gen. Tadamichi (the soulful Ken Watanabe), once an envoy to the U.S., who led the defense and came up with the controversial plan to tunnel the island (eighteen miles' worth) and dig caves to take on the American forces that far outnumbered them.

Eastwood's direction here is a thing of beauty, blending the ferocity of the classic films of Akira Kurosawa (Seven Samurai) with the delicacy and unblinking gaze of Yasujiro Ozu (Tokyo Story). Characters are drawn with striking nuance and tender feeling, be they Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya), the baker who dreams of seeing his wife and baby, or Baron Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara), an Olympic equestrian who brings his horse to the island.

The scenes of combat, shot in desaturated color on the beaches of Iceland by the gifted Tom Stern and edited with grit and grace by Joel Cox and Gary D. Roach, gain in terror and complexity from what we learn of these men. We watch in horror as soldiers bang their helmets with live grenades, preferring suicide to surrender. Eastwood's film burns into the memory by striving for authentic detail. The result is unique and unforgettable.

(Rolling Stone, December 12, 2006).

 

 

By A. O. Scott

Blurring the Line in the Bleak Sands of Iwo Jima

[...] “Letters,” which observes the lives and deaths of Japanese soldiers in the battle for Iwo Jima, similarly adheres to some of the conventions of the genre even as it quietly dismantles them. It is, unapologetically and even humbly, true to the durable tenets of the war-movie tradition, but it is also utterly original, even radical in its methods and insights.

In December 2004, with “Million Dollar Baby”, Mr. Eastwood almost nonchalantly took a tried and true template — the boxing picture — and struck from it the best American movie of the year. To my amazement, though hardly to my surprise, he has done it again; “Letters From Iwo Jima” might just be the best Japanese movie of the year as well.

This is not only because the Japanese actors, speaking in their own language, give such vivid and varied performances, but also because the film, in its every particular, seems deeply and un-self-consciously embedded in the experiences of the characters they play. “Letters From Iwo Jima” is not a chronicle of victory against the odds, but rather of inevitable defeat. When word comes from Imperial headquarters that there will be no reinforcements, no battleships, no air support in the impending fight with the United States Marines, any illusion of triumph vanishes, and the stark reality of the mission takes shape. The job of these soldiers and their commanders, in keeping with a military ethos they must embrace whether they believe in it or not, is to die with honor, if necessary by their own hands.

The cruelty of this notion of military discipline, derived from long tradition and maintained by force, is perhaps less startling than the sympathy Mr. Eastwood extends to his characters, whose sacrifices are made in the service of a cause that the American audience knows to be bad as well as doomed. It is hard to think of another war movie that has gone so deeply, so sensitively, into the mind-set of the opposing side.

Since the fighting that Mr. Eastwood depicts is limited to a single, self-contained piece of the Japanese homeland, the bloody roster of Japanese atrocities elsewhere in Asia and the South Pacific remains off screen. But this omission in no way compromises the moral gravity of what takes place before our eyes. Nor does it diminish the power of the film’s moving and meticulous vindication of the humanity of the enemy. (Mr. Eastwood also, not incidentally, exposes some inhumanity on the part of the American good guys, a few of whom are shown committing atrocities of their own.)

Any modern military organization depends, to some extent, on the dehumanization of its own fighters as well as their adversaries. (In “Flags of Our Fathers” the Japanese are all but faceless, firing unseen from bunkers and tunnels dug into the mountainside; in “Letters From Iwo Jima” we see the grueling work and strategic inspiration that led to the digging of those tunnels.)

An army needs personnel, not personalities, and one of the functions of the art and literature of war — especially on film, which exists to consecrate the human face — is to compensate for this forced anonymity by emphasizing the flesh-and-blood individuality of the combatants. Think of the classic Hollywood platoon picture, with its carefully distributed farm boys and city kids, its quota of blowhards and bookworms, all superintended by a wise, crusty commander. Even as they approach stereotype, those characters give names, faces and identities to men who have gone down in history mainly as statistics.

Historians estimate that 20,000 Japanese infantrymen defended Iwo Jima; 1,083 of them survived. (The Americans sent 77,000 Marines and nearly 100,000 total troops, of whom close to 7,000 died and almost 20,000 were wounded.) The Japanese commander was Lt. Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi, whose illustrated letters to his wife and children, recently unearthed on the island, were a source for Iris Yamashita’s script. Played by Ken Watanabe, Kuribayashi, who arrives on Iwo Jima with a pearl-handled Colt and fond memories of the years he spent in America before the war, is a dashing, cosmopolitan figure. He arouses a good deal of suspicion among the other officers for his modern ideas and for the kindness he sometimes displays toward the low-ranking soldiers.

The general is a practical man (those tunnels are his idea) in an impossible circumstance, and Mr. Watanabe’s performance is all the more heartbreaking for his crisp, unsentimental dignity. He anchors the film — this is some of the best acting of the year, in any language — but does not dominate it. Much as the Imperial Army may have been rigidly hierarchical, Mr. Eastwood’s sensibility is instinctively democratic. As the battle looms, and even as the bombs, bullets and artillery shells begin to explode, he takes the time to introduce us to Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya), a guileless baker with no great desire to give his life for the glory of the nation; Lieutenant Ito (Shidou Nakamura), who will settle for nothing else; Baron Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara), an Olympic equestrian who once hobnobbed with Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks; and Shimizu (Ryo Kase), who Saigo suspects is an agent of the secret police.

It is customary to use the word epic to describe a movie that deals with big battles, momentous historical events and large numbers of dead. But while some of Mr. Eastwood’s set pieces depict warfare on a large scale, the overall mood of “Letters From Iwo Jima,” as the title suggests, is strikingly intimate. Even though the movie has a blunt, emphatic emotional force, Mr. Eastwood also shows an attention to details of speech and gesture that can only be described as delicate.

He is as well acquainted as any American director (or actor) with the language of cinematic violence, but he has no equal when it comes to dramatizing the ethical and emotional consequences of brutality. There is nothing gratuitous in this film, nothing fancy or false. There is the humor and the viciousness of men in danger; there is the cool logic of military planning and the explosive irrationality of behavior in combat; there is life and death.

As in “Flags of Our Fathers,” nearly all the color has been drained from the images, a technique that makes the interiors of the caves and tunnels look like Rembrandt paintings. The anxious faces seem to glow in the shadows, illuminated by their own suffering. At other times, in the hard outdoor light, Tom Stern’s cinematography is as frank and solemn as a Mathew Brady photograph.

A few scenes serve as hinges joining this movie to “Flags of Our Fathers.” While “Letters From Iwo Jima” seems to me the more accomplished of the two films — by which I mean that it strikes me as close to perfect — the two enrich each other, and together achieve an extraordinary completeness. They show how the experience of war is both a shared and a divisive experience, separating the dead from the living and the winners from the losers, even as it binds them all together.

Both films travel back and forth in time and space between Iwo Jima and the homelands of the combatants. In “Flags of Our Fathers” the battle itself happens mainly in flashback, since the movie is in large measure about the guilt and confusion that survivors encountered upon their reluctant return home. In “Letters From Iwo Jima” the battle is in the present tense, and it is home that flickers occasionally in the memories of men who are certain they will not live to see it again.

(The New York Times, December 20, 2006).