Clint goes back to war
I refer, of course, to em>Letters from Iwo Jima, the companion film to Eastwood's Flags of Our Fathers, and the flip-side (I will not use the word "completion") of the story of the Battle of Iwo Jima. It is unquestionably a more successful film than its sister, although I don't want to get into a whole thing comparing them, not right now. Back in October, I rather breathlessly proclaimed Flags "the greatest of all contemporary World War II films" and while I meant it at the time (especially because it was mostly my backhanded way of reminding everybody that I don't really care for Saving Private Ryan), it's no longer true. For not only is Letters a great film about the fact of war, at times it manages to tap into the poetic mode of The Thin Red Line, where the limitations of "war movie" start to vanish, and thus it manages to be the best of both worlds: an art house combat picture.
(And it is not "better" than The Thin Red Line. I want to be absolutely clear on that point).
There is a harsh simplicity to all of Eastwood's films, but I'd wager that it reaches its apogee in Letters from Iwo Jima, a surpassingly austere film. Those who have seen Flags know that film to have been severely desaturated, but here the director and cinematographer Tom Stern go further, to a point where I am aware of several people who proclaim in perfectly good faith that the film is black-and-white. It's not, but it is extremely close, save for the odd explosion or splash of blood shown in comparatively vivid color. And why not: it is a bleak look for a bleak story, in both cases the bleakness only obviated by violence. An army has been informed that they shall unquestionably die, and their best hope is to die gloriously. This is not the stuff of Technicolor extravagance.
The sense of waste hovers over Letters like a cloud - the waste of land, the waste of human life. Iwo Jima is not a pleasant place to exist, this is made clear both in dialogue and in imagery: everywhere is rock and barren field. It is a landscape full of dead things, and this underlines the central tension, never spoken but always present: men are being sent to their death for a small patch of nothing. Their lives are being tossed away for no conceivable gain. Because this film is ultimately American, one is tempted to compare this to modern politics, which I will leave as an exercise for the reader.
As written by Iris Yamashita (who co-wrote the story with Paul Haggis), these are people who speak of many things, but never what is on their mind: the fear of death. I and very nearly everyone else criticised Flags for the obviousness with which Haggis troweled on his themes, but Letters is (with one scene excepted) extraordinarily subtle and quiet. It insists on nothing, merely presenting what happens, and trusting its exemplary cast to make sure we understand the emotions in any given moment.(Ken Watanabe is the only name known to American audiences; I refuse to single out any one member of the ensemble, as they were all fantastic, one of the very best of the year).
It's rare, to say the least, for a filmmaker to present a war movie from the point of view of his country's enemy. There is a certain thematic heft that the film enjoys because of this distinction; and it is I think another sign of the film's subtlety that much of its meaning comes partially from contemplation of how it was made. On the most central level, the film functions as a cultural levelling: as the "us vs. them" distinction is erased, war becomes increasingly impossible, and by the mere fact of existing, Letters from Iwo Jima erases that distinction. Humility is not much prized in America, and so we do not often see films about the losers of wars made here; and certainly we do not see many films praising a culture in which personal need is subsumed to the good of the whole. As simplistic as the theme "we're all the same" sounds on paper, it's impossible to ignore how deeply that idea is built into the very foundation of the film. Unlike, say, Crash, which expresses that very same idea by mouthing it over and over again, Letters never has to say it, nor call our attention to it, because it embodies the ideal. (This would all be moot if the film were exploitative or Westernised in its thinking, of course, but the strong response to the film in Japan - stronger than here, in fact - leads me to doubt that there's any problems of representation).
During the film, I never noticed this. I never caught myself thinking of the soldiers as "the Japanese," but rather the doomed armies against a superior force, recognising their fate and fighting anyway, because it is the only right thing to do. This is an extraordinarily humane film, especially coming from a man like Eastwood (along with Million Dollar Baby, I wonder if it points towards a new moral direction in his cinema). I have not recently seen a film that argues on the human cost of warfare so elegantly, with so little emphasis on graphic death.
For Letters is in fact surprisingly non-violent. The geysers of blood in Saving Private Ryan were much toned down for Flags of Our Fathers, but even that film's minimal gore has been stripped away: the closest this film has to a truly violent scene doesn't even involve combat, but rather a group suicide undertaken in favor of retreating. Simply put, this is a personal war film, about the individual with a life and a family and a history, rather than a stand-in for a class or a type. This the function of the letters of the title: the general (Watanabe) and a baker (Ninomiya Kazunari) are often seen to be writing back home, in the full knowledge that their messages will never leave Iwo Jima; but the point is to hold on to that calming hope, the reminder of domesticity that keeps them human. It is truly heartbreaking, and I can think of not one other war film in the last 40 years for which I would say the same.