Clint Eastwood's new film "Letters from Iwo Jima" is not a date movie. James proposed it as such. I should qualify by saying he and I are both interested in traveling to Japan, which interest provided extra motivation for shelling out the $11, especially when we primarily Netflix films nowadays.
"Letters" is the flip side of Eastwood's recent film "Flags of Our Fathers." Both movies depict the battle on the island of Iwo Jima during the Second World War. While "Flags" shows the American story behind the iconic image of our men raising the flag on the top of Mount Suribachi, "Letters" shows the hell the Japanese soldiers endured while they fought to their deaths.
The movie reveals what the roughly 20,000 Japanese soldiers do to prepare for the Americans to arrive on Iwo Jima, and then what happens when the Marines land. The island is inhospitable, and the General leading the troops learns quickly that no reinforcements will be sent. His soldiers know the cause is lost but must follow their military tradition of dying honorably, either at the enemy's or their own hands. This result is extremely punishing. Bombing takes up much of the movie. Many soldiers take their own lives, which is devastating. I left the movie down and pained.
Mr. Eastwood's film succeeds on several levels. He develops his characters quite well, so that we feel for them. Ken Watanabe plays General Kuribayashi. He is dignified and innovative, but many soldiers suspect his modern methods. The ancillary characters shine. The scrappy kid who doesn't want to be there, Saigo, is our hero. Shimizu, whom Saigo suspects of being a spy, is in fact, as we learn through flashbacks that round out the lives of several characters, completely honorably. And Nishi, a former Olympian, is tragically handsome. Daring and gorgeous, he is the most vulnerable of the men; he cries when his horse dies and befriends a wounded Marine, with whom he can speak of American film stars.
The deaths of many of these characters moved me to tears. The look of the movie is stupefying. Much of the action takes place in the caves the soldiers dug into Mount Suribachi to avoid attack. As a result the light is dim and gloomy. Mr. Eastwood allows us to feel as never before for the Japanese side; even though I kept saying to myself, "they sided with Hitler!," I could not help but feel for these men. (Of course, a similar movie about the hidden lives of the SS could never be staged, for obvious reasons. I wonder what certain Chinese viewers, against whose ancestors the Japanese committed atrocities, might think of this film.)
Mr. Eastwood's film falters, too. It is too long by a bit. One only needs to see so much bombing to get the point. In many scenes, nothing happens. I suppose the filmmaker captures the amount of waiting that war entails, but must the audience wait, too? Maybe. No war film, I suppose, completely escapes sentimentality. In one scene, when the soldier whom Nishi has befriended dies, Nishi reads a letter clutched in the dead soldier's hand. The soldier's mother has penned the note, and for some reason, when Nishi reads it, all the Japanese men surrounding him stand, as if to attention. The note ends, "Do what is right, because it is right." Nishi then sends his men to battle with those last thoughts as their rallying cry. This feels contrived, but the sentiment strains further when Saigo says to Shimizu (I'm paraphrasing), "I thought all Americans were savages, but that soldier's mother's words, they could have come from my own mother." Oh, really, Mr. Eastwood? Is that similarity between sides what you want us to feel?
I questioned seeing the movie when I left. I felt dogged and drained. I thought about our current world and how Mr. Eastwood might have been making a point about jingoism. General Kuribayashi and his men, almost all 20,000 of them, fight to death even though they know they have lost. Such nationalistic blindness has been ingrained. I hope we do not have such blinders on.
Postscript: "Letters" brings to four the number of movies I have seen in the theater this year. The others being "Borat," "The Devil Wears Prada," and "Sophie Scholl," about a young woman who resisted the Nazis. I am not sure if "Thank You for Smoking" counts, since I walked out of it. I actually didn't think it was so terrible, but James and I saw it squeezed in next to my parents in a tiny theater in Connecticut. We were about to get married and I think more than a satiric film we needed strong cocktails.