Last week, I dug out the old review for Clint Eastwood’s The Flags of Our Fathers. It’s time for his follow-up. Since I initially took the occasion of revisiting these reviews of Eastwood films to call into question some of the more overt veneration of his skills as a director, I now feel obligated to add that this effort nabbed a reasonably secure place on my top ten list for the year it was released.
Well it’s a damn sight better than Flags of Our Fathers, I’ll say that.
The companion to director Clint Eastwood’s earlier film about the battle of Iwo Jima shifts the perspective from the American soldiers who charged onto this little chunk of land in the Pacific to the Japanese fighting men who held their fingers on triggers as they sat in tunnels dug into the hillsides, poised for a battle that they knew was hopeless. Eastwood was trying to cover a lot of ground with Flags, drawing in the carnage of war, the impact of images, the calculated use of heroic veterans to bring in enough money to keep the wheels of war turning, the trauma of adapting to live on the homefront again, and the far-reaching legacy of World War II. In Letters From Iwo Jima, Eastwood largely concentrates on the battle itself, both the preparation on the part of the Japanese and what happens when the bullets and bombs start to fly. By doing less, he achieves more.
Maybe the greatest compliment that can be paid to Eastwood in this instance is to note that Letters doesn’t feel like a movie made by an American director about a different culture. It has none of the condescension or leaden exposition that often drifts into the most well-meaning of features. Instead, Eastwood’s film truly seems immersed in the lives and ideologies of these men it depicts. For instance, the cultural norm that self-inflected death would be more honorable and preferable to facing defeat at the hand of the Americans is illustrated dramatically in several effective and harrowing moments, but Eastwood is clear-eyed about it. He passes no judgment on this men, and also offers no overt explanations for their actions. This is simply how it was, and he shows it to with the quiet assurance that he has conveyed their lives and their world effectively enough for it all to make sense.
That’s not to say that Eastwood implies a uniformity of belief or vision among these Japanese soldiers. A great strength of this film is that he commits to highlighting the individuality of these men, often in very subtle ways. Every man who pulls a pin on a grenade or aims his rifle has a different reaction to the situation he finds himself in. For every man who screams “Banzai!” with conviction, there is another who does it will heavy reluctance, and then a small fleet who stand at different points on the spectrum between those two reactions. These contrasts aren’t especially highlighted by Eastwood, simply captured by his camera. As always, he brings a great restraint to his film-making. Moments that other directors would inflate with bombastic music and technique, Eastwood lets play out with the flatness of real life. In letting a Japanese soldier read aloud the words of a dead American G.I.’s letter from home with no score accompaniment, for example, the film finds a fresh power in that moment. For a moment, it feels like it may not be a movie construction after all, but a legitimate piece of the wartime experience, the discovery that the enemy’s letters read a lot like your own.
As admirable as Eastwood’s approach may be, it has its downside, too. Like many of his films, the careful pacing occasionally becomes too languid. When you want the film to start moving more briskly to its conclusion, Eastwood keeps it at a gentle amble. That leaves time to further admire the performances of Ken Watanabe as the Japanese General overseeing the futile stand on the island or Kazunari Ninomiya as a soldier who values self-preservation over death-with-honor, but it also gives you time to check your watch and start thinking about what to have for dinner.
It’s hard to be too critical of that, however, as it really is a marker of Eastwood’s style. And when that style can yield unique accomplishments like Letters from Iwo Jima it seems a fair compromise.