Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Movie List: Letters from Iwo Jima (2006)

Film: Letters from Iwo Jima
Director: Clint Eastwood
Oscar nominations: 4 (Best Picture; Best Director, Clint Eastwood; Best Sound Editing, Alan Robert Murray and Bub Asman*, Best Original Screenplay - screenplay by Iris Yamashita, story by Iris Yamashita & Paul Haggis)
*denotes win

Back in 2006, Clint Eastwood made a pair of movies about the Battle of Iwo Jima, the famed WWII battle that was considered a turning point in the war in the Pacific (Midway was arguably a more significant victory in terms of strategy, but Iwo Jima was a major morale boost). The first of these films to premiere was Flags of Our Fathers, detailing the group of American soldiers who hoisted the flag on top of Mount Suribachi in the now-famous photograph. The other, Letters from Iwo Jima, was a smaller film that told from the perspective of the Japanese, including commanding Lt. General Tadamichi Kuribayashi. One was intended to be a major Oscar contender, while the other would play the role of intriguing companion piece. However, the former wasn't supposed to be Letters from Iwo Jima; it ultimately makes sense, since Letters from Iwo Jima is the superior film and one of 2006's best.

The film, as stated above, comes from the point of view of the Japanese, who are on Iwo Jima preparing for the American invasion. As Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe) lays out his unconventional strategy of building a network of tunnels around the island, Saigo (Japanese pop star Kazunari Ninomiya) and Shimizu (Ryo Kase) struggle with being soldiers, fates that they were reluctant to accept or understand. Baron Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara) is suspected of having American sympathies, and finds himself having to make difficult choices once the Americans land and the fighting begins.

Give it to Eastwood for crafting such a powerful, eloquent film that is almost completely in Japanese and features "the enemy" as its heroes. The cinematography is gorgeous, with most of the colors washed out to give the film an old-fashioned look, while also serving as a statement on war: there's nothing lively about it, and ultimately it's not black-and-white, but a disturbing shade of grey. To me, Eastwood's direction is often hit-or-miss on a film-to-film basis, but here he shows a steady hand and a clear, strong vision. This is his paying respects to the Japanese who fell during the battle, and a reminder that war tears at both sides that fight, not just one.

Of course, the acting gives much of the film its power as well. Unlike many war films, Letters from Iwo Jima takes its time to create characters that you can genuinely care about. Watanabe is reliable for giving a great performance, and he does great work as the man who's great strategy for holding the island quickly falls apart, and must deal with the difficult decisions that such leadership requires, decisions that often go against Japanese military tradition. Kazunari does fabulous work as well, bringing a lot of heart and soul to his role. The real standout here, though, is Tsuyoshi, who steals all of his scenes as the humane Baron Nishi, a man who refuses to treat the enemy as inferiors. It's a terrific performance from an equally terrific ensemble.

Letters from Iwo Jima stands tall as one of the finest examples of a war film that doesn't glorify war. We're always quick to demonize the Axis Powers, but this film presents the Japanese just like the Americans: men putting their lives on the line for their country, and are just as scarred by the horrors they witness.

1 comment:

Aditya said...

Had seen this movie a long time back may be 2008, loved it. Was really surprised to see Clint Eastwoods name as director and more so of Steven Spielberg as producer,I thought he himself would have loved to direct it. Clint is class and he just gave it all. Ken Watanabe was superb as the general.