As most of you know, director Clint Eastwood made "Flags of Our Fathers" and "Letters from Iwo Jima" back to back in 2006 to present both the American and the Japanese sides of the World War II battle of Iwo Jima. Of the two movies, I enjoyed "Letters" the most. While "Flags" had some harrowing action sequences, thereafter it tended to dilute its story with too many characters and to bog down in political rhetoric. On the other hand, "Letters," which also contains much the same action, is more focused, more reflective, and more affecting.
When the film opened theatrically, I read several criticisms from viewers who felt "Letters" was too understanding of the Japanese, giving America's enemy during the War too much credit, in essence, for being human beings like anybody else. After all, the propaganda in every war tries to persuade each party that their side is right, that God is with them, that the enemy is evil incarnate. During World War II, for instance, the Japanese and the Germans were to Americans the most loathsome, wicked people on Earth, and the Russians were our allies. Yet after the War, the Japanese and the Germans were suddenly our friends and allies, and the Russians were the new enemies. Go figure.
The book and movie that "Letters" most resembles is Erich Maria Remarque's "All Quiet on the Western Front," a story of World War I combat told from the point of view of a young German soldier. When as a child I first saw the 1930 movie version of "All Quiet" in re-release, it astounded me. I couldn't believe that the "bad" guys could be anything like us; this wasn't what John Wayne war movies had taught me. Like "All Quiet," Eastwood's "Letters" is an eye-opener, a reminder that no matter how misguided a country's leaders may be, the common folk, the foot soldiers, are always just that--common folk, with the same hearts and minds and longings and human feelings as everybody else in the world.
Iwo Jima is one of the Volcano Islands south of Japan, a barren, rocky place with a mountain at one end, no drinking water, and hardly any vegetation. Nevertheless, by the end of the War in early 1945, it was a strategic point for both the Americans and the Japanese. The Americans wanted to seize control of the island to use as an air base for strikes against mainland Japan. The Japanese needed to maintain control of the island because they didn't want the Americans to have a convenient launching place for their airplanes and because it was a matter of national pride--Iwo Jima was the only place the Japanese had controlled before the War that the Americans had not yet seized.
It looked to be an easy victory for the American forces, as the Americans greatly outnumbered the Japanese. What the Americans didn't count on was the determination of the Japanese soldiers and the brilliant tactics of their real-life commanding officer, General Tadamichi Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe). What should have been a one or two-day cakewalk turned into a forty-day ordeal.
Make no mistake, this is Watanabe's movie all the way, with good secondary support from Kazunari Ninomiya as Saigo, a young soldier. The movie concentrates on these two men for their differences and similarities. Kuribayashi is a distinguished officer, a much-decorated war veteran; Saigo is a lowly private who was a baker before being drafted. Yet both men long for their wives and families back home, and both men are decent fellows at heart.
General Kuribayashi does his best in what he sees as an impossible situation. His plan is to dig in, literally, and fight. No beach defenses, just underground fortifications. The General has his men excavate a series of caves in the mountain in order to defend the high ground. Kuribayashi also knows they will get no reinforcements, no support from sea or air. They are completely isolated and must fend for themselves. And defend they will do, to the last man. "Not one of you is allowed to die until you have killed ten enemy soldiers," the General tells his men. "Do not expect to return from here alive." Kuribayashi gave his men only one directive: To fight for their country and die honorably.
The actual landing of the Americans and the struggle for the island does not begin until about halfway through the film, and then the violence becomes intense. Eastwood pulls no punches in his depiction of the savagery of war, much of the action reminding us of "Saving Private Ryan," which is no doubt in part because of co-producer Steven Spielberg's influence. I think I read somewhere that Spielberg himself offered the script to Eastwood because he had already done something so similar. Anyway, the battles are realistically severe in the extreme.
The movie does not take sides, but it does not portray the Japanese as the cruel and vicious opponent that many people insist they were. Screenwriters Iris Yamashita and Paul Haggis based the story on letters from the Japanese that reveal the soldiers as all too human. Whether you agree with Eastwood's approach or not is beside the point; the filmmakers did their best to be as accurate as possible in their depiction of the battle and the attitudes of the men who fought it. On both sides we see men acting as savages, true, but mostly see men who would rather be home in bed.
"Letters from Iwo Jima" is a sad, lonely, melancholic film, for all its brutal action and bloodshed, with moments of sheer poetry and others of heartbreaking grief. Yet never does Eastwood sentimentalize the situation, nor does the simple, haunting soundtrack music by Kyle Eastwood and Michael Stevens ever glamorize the story.
The film's only flaw is that at 140 minutes, it's too long, rather wearing out its welcome at the two-hour mark. Also, Eastwood uses the same gimmick Mel Gibson used in his last two films, that of having his actors speak in their native tongue. So the characters in "Letters" speak Japanese, and anyone who doesn't understand it reads subtitles. I have to admit that I'm a fairly fast reader, but I had some trouble keeping up with the English subtitles that flashed quickly on and off on the screen. Thank heaven for the "Back" and "Pause" buttons on the remote.
Minor concerns aside, "Letters from Iwo Jima" is a fine example of modern filmmaking, and Watanabe deserved another Oscar nomination, which didn't come. But the Academy nominated the picture for four other Oscars--Best Picture, Best Director, Best Writing, and winning for Best Sound Editing.
The Warner Bros. engineers preserve the movie's original 2.40:1 aspect ratio in dimensions that measure about 2.20:1 across my screen, enhanced for 16x9 televisions. Eastwood and co-producers Steven Spielberg and Robert Lorenz intentionally washed out the color to give the image a kind of black-and-white feel and appearance while still retaining some color. Again, think of "Saving Private Ryan." The screen is exceptionally clean, and the object delineation is good. There is, however, an odd sheen to faces, making some of them look eerie, almost waxen. I suspect it is a result of the color desaturation, which forces us to view these men from the outset as among the walking dead.
If the video quality is very good, the audio is excellent, the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack doing everything it can to reinforce the movie's action and dramatics. The wraparound six-channel sound is most effective, especially when it comes to the battle scenes, but also in its subtle reproduction of rain, wind, and ambient noises. When the fighting does start, though, it's as robust as it gets, as impressive as anything in "Private Ryan" or any other war movie you can name. Impact is strong, bass is deep, dynamics are wide, clarity is superb, and directionality is precise.
Disc one of this Two-Disc Special Edition contains mainly the movie. There are a few trailers for other WB products at start-up only, but beyond that there are thirty-three scene selections, but no chapter insert; the Japanese language track; and English, French, and Spanish subtitles.
Disc two finds the bonus items, starting with a twenty-minute, behind-the-scenes documentary, "Red Sun, Black Sand: Making of Letters from Iwo Jima." It concentrates on the screenplay and story. After that is the eighteen-minute documentary, "Faces of Combat: The Cast of Letters from Iwo Jima," concentrating on the characters of the film. Then, a touching, three-minute still photo montage, "Images from the Front Lines: The Photography of Letters from Iwo Jima," follows. Finally, we get the November 2006 World Première at Budo-kan in Tokyo, sixteen minutes; the November 2006 press conference, twenty-four minutes; and a widescreen, non-anamorphic theatrical trailer.
Considering that Eastwood had the idea for making "Letters from Iwo Jima" almost at the last minute and that co-writer Paul Haggis thought the idea of filming two movies at once was crazy, the result was well worth the effort. In my experience with both films, as I said in the beginning, it was "Letters" that most impressed me with its sincere and compelling attempt to put a realistic, non-biased face on war. If the movie seems too sympathetic to the Japanese side, remember that it is a companion piece to the American side, the two movies presenting a single thought: That war is an ugly, stupid, wasteful, but sometimes necessary evil, no matter whose side you're on.