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Letters from Iwo Jima film reviewA Great American Director
Movie Review
by Harvey Perr
Letters from Iwo Jima
in limited release, expanding weekly
Flags of Our Fathers
released in October, 2006
Great directors do not make masterpieces each time out of the gate. What they do is make a mark on the history of cinema, a mark that does not get totally ignored but does sometimes fail to be fully appreciated at the moment it should. Clint Eastwood has become, quietly and over a long period, one of our very best directors. And he has done so by going against the grain of much contemporary filmmaking. His is not the art of fancy editing or special effects: he has, consciously or not, adhered to the formal classicism of cinema and has achieved, as a result, an almost Fordian austerity and, like Ford, a melancholy respect for simple human decency that owes something, perhaps, to his political conservatism but which, in its humanism, seems downright radical.
This year, he has done a bold and beautiful thing; he has taken a look at a World War II incident, the battle for Iwo Jima, from an American point of view – “Flags of Our Fathers” – and then again from a Japanese point of view – “Letters from Iwo Jima” – and has, like Steven Spielberg in his ground-breaking “Saving Private Ryan,” removed from them all the gung-ho heroism of the classic wartime movies we made during World War II and injected into it the awful truth of the horrors of war. If he had done no more than that, it would be enough, because it is such a crucial time in our history, a period when we desperately need to re-discover the power of metaphor to put into perspective what happened then and what is happening now. Of course, nobody really wants to see that, especially now when we need it most, precisely because we are already overwhelmed by the devastating effects of the war in Iraq. One can’t blame audiences for not wanting to confront this tragedy. Even the distance World War II provides is not distance enough. But attention must be paid Eastwood for being brave enough – and unfashionable enough – to go there the way he has and for allowing himself to get under the skin of the American soul, and, even more profoundly, the Japanese soul. The task Eastwood has given himself is complex enough; that it looks so simple on the screen is the evidence not only of Eastwood’s artistry but of his honesty. If we cannot fully understand the beauty of these films today, when we should, we at least should be grateful that they were made at all and count ourselves blessed that they will be around for future study. It is hard to think of any other American films made this year about which one could say as much.
If “Flags of Our Fathers” is the more accessible of the two films, it is because the story – of the six men who raised the flag on Iwo Jima and the exploitation of the three survivors who were sent back to the states as heroes in order to sell war bonds – is at least, superficially, familiar to us. Also, it finds humor in its ironies, anger at its exploitations, and pathos in the plight of its heroes, especially in the tragic story of Ira Hayes, the Native American who comes to realize that being in harm’s way on a battlefield is preferable to facing the prejudices of his fellow Americans at home. The dignity that Adam Beach finds in Hayes is one of the film’s great glories. The ensemble work – and the eloquent casting of George Grizzard, George Hearn, Len Cariou, and Harve Presnell as the survivors in old age – is testament to Eastwood’s sensitive way with actors.  And it is, finally, the more accessible, because it is the American story, and the dramatic swell and sweep that comes flowing off the screen is so purely American in its style just as much as in its observations.
By contrast, “Letters from Iwo Jima” is sullen and lacking in exuberance, without much humor, without conventional plot and decidedly free of sentimentality. It is like crawling through spidery caves, like plodding through a sand storm in the darkness of night, like plunging into a pit which leads to Hell. Death is everywhere. Why then, does it seem so connected to “Flags of Our Fathers” without really resembling it? The rich starkness of Tom Stern’s monochromatic cinematography, so crucial to the look of both films, is, of course, a visual link. The metaphysical link is death. The Americans want to live. The Japanese, committed to suicide rather than facing defeat in an unwinnable war, want to die. What is a heart-stopping but mercifully brief moment of horror in “Flags” – the discovery of Japanese soldiers in a tunnel, having grenaded themselves to death – is almost the whole of “Letters.” The stoicism of its aristocratic officers, so beautifully portrayed by Ken Watanabe and Tsuyoshi Ihara, is conveyed in the most vivid of brush strokes. The fine line etching is devoted to the humble young soldier (memorably played by Kazunari Ninomiya) who wants to survive, who wants to get back to the wife he left behind and the child he has never known.
Eastwood’s work in this film has been compared to Kurosawa – probably because, except for a few moments which take place in America and a passing encounter with a dying American soldier, the film is in Japanese with English subtitles – but it is not so much the influence of Kurosawa as it is the influence of John Ford – the Ford of “They Were Expendable” – that comes most physically into play. Of the two films, “Letters,” despite its dour tone, is the richer, the deeper, the more poetic of Eastwood’s diptych.  Clint Eastwood can now be indisputably counted among our national treasures.
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