Letters From Iwo Jima (Clint Eastwood, 2006)
I was quite surprised to have immensely liked Clint Eastwood's Letters From Iwo Jima. I've heard all the praises the film has received, and I thought it would be Mystic River (2003) all over again --- overly praised film but heavy handed to the point of tedium. My dislike for Letters From Iwo Jima's companion piece Flags of Our Fathers (2006) also led me to expect utter disappointment. Flags of Our Fathers was all over the place --- it was narratively unstructured, sentimentally grating, and extremely melodramatic. However, after seeing Letters From Iwo Jima, I was completely dumbfounded. I never thought Eastwood has the capability, or even the knowledgeable restraint to create such a film. Letters From Iwo Jima is both poignant and celebratory. It dismantles the importance of warfare by celebrating the value of humanity; and all this is seen from the point of view of the conceived enemy of the Pacific War, the Japanese.
Iris Yamashita's screenplay disposes of the time jumping narrative structure of Flags of Our Fathers. Instead, she begins her tale with the arrival of American-schooled general Kuribiyashi (Ken Watanabe) to Iwo Jima to see through the military affairs of the island until the expected attack of American troops. Flashbacks are utilized to give a human face to the Japanese troops; Eastwood segues voice-overs of these troops reading their letters to the flashbacks --- we see these soldiers years before they were commissioned to sacrifice their lives for their country. It's not an uncommon device, but in Eastwood's hands, these flashbacks urge you to immediately identify with these soldiers, who through the years have been described as war-hungry conquerors, or mindless suicidal drones of an inutile empire.
What surprises me the most with Letters From Iwo Jima is how Eastwood successfully fleshed out the theme of identity through the feature. It's a war pic --- two great nations forced into war with Iwo Jima as the touted final battleground. Ordinarily, a war pic would force you to distinguish hero from villain, winner from loser, Japanese from American, yet what Eastwood does is to give each player in the war their individual stories and with that, transform his war pic into a struggle for these individuals to seek out an identifying factor with the rest of humanity. These soldiers, forced from their homes and families, have suddenly found themselves in a situation wherein they juggle their multiple roles in life --- husband, soldier, citizen, baker --- in the end, the only thing remaining from what feels like a melting pot of jarring roles, is the fact that they are human beings, similar to the captured American soldier who through his letter is revealed to be a loving son to a worried mother, similar to the lowly soldier who becomes entrapped in a mutiny within the Japanese army, similar to the Kuribiyashi who finds himself in a situation wherein he'll be fighting against his friends.
It's a classy film. I didn't understand why Eastwood bleached out the colors from Flags of Our Fathers --- the result was a drab and dreary film. Here, Eastwood similarly uses the same technique, but with vastly different results. There's a elegiac quality to the visuals. Some of the scenes look like something John Ford would make --- close up of faces backgrounded by an empty sky, shadows of men in desolate vistas. It's extremely beautiful --- and the bleaching out makes an illusion of a black and white feature, enunciating the little gestures, the folds and wrinkles of troubled faces, the contemplative moments wherein almost nothing or something utterly mundane happens.
This is the only Eastwood film I can honestly say that I loved. It's the only Eastwood film that I can call cinematic. It is quiet, observant, focused, and graciously plotted. The film aches with a thoughtful power that urges you to just dwell in these very human experiences that unfold onscreen. I must admit, I am deeply impressed.