Sunday, February 11, 2007

Letters from Iwo Jima

Though Clint Eastwood did a fairly good job with why we fight in "Flags of Our Fathers," he unearthed a real treasure by going back and examining why they fought too in "Letters from Iwo Jima."

Having seen my fair share of Samurai movies, I had a notion of the Japanese ideals of honor and sacrifice. What muddies the waters here is a third component, country, which is clearly for these young men a much less tangible concept. As Eastwood examines their varying degrees of willingness to die for an emperor almost all of them will never even meet, he humanizes them much more than I expected, giving the movie its emotional core.

It's not the instant connection I had with the heroes of "Flags," but it did slowly become a deeper one, due in large part to two tremendous performances from Ken Watanabe and Kazunari Ninomiya.

Watanabe, who I've liked since way back in "Tampopo," plays Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi, who devised the system of caves we saw mostly from the outside in "Flags." It slowly dawns on him that what he conceived of as just one side of a trap to ensnare the American troops on the beach would instead become simply a death trap for his own troops, and Watanabe takes us on quite an emotional journey.

Even better is Ninomiya, who is apparently some kind of mega-popstar in Japan as a member of the band Arashi. Here he plays young Saigo, a baker conscripted into service and forced to leave behind his pregnant wife. Eastwood uses Saigo as filter to test the limits of undying loyalty to country, and its in Saigo that he finds the most humanity in the brutality of war.

I only had one beef, and this is probably more of a statement on my attention span than on Eastwood's well-established skills as a filmmaker: As the battle unravels in Kuribayashi's system of caves, I found it a little hard to keep up with all the comings and goings of our various combatants. Twenty minutes or so less of this would have suited me just fine. The movie was stronger for me in its first chapter, as we're slowly introduced to the Japanese combatants. It had a "Bridge on the River Kwai" feel to it that I really enjoyed.

So, is this movie better than "Flags"? I say yes, and for me it all comes down to the ending. IF YOU HAVEN'T SEEN "LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA" YET, SKIP THIS PARAGRAPH SO I WON'T SPOIL IT FOR YOU. The ending of "Flags," with the author interviewing the various survivors of this battle, just felt tacked on to me. But with "Flags," the shot of Saigo with a smile on his face was just pitch-perfect. I also thought the flashbacks were handled much better in "Letters," and the epistolary structure gave us a deep connection to its main characters that I appreciated.

OK, spoilers over. "Letters from Iwo Jima" is a real accomplishment, but is it worthy of a Best Picture nomination. The short answer, yes. The long answer: I wouldn't have put in the top five, but subjectivity is the beautiful thing about all lists. My five would have been: "Pan's Labyrinth," "Children of Men," "The Departed," "Little Miss Sunshine," and, yes, "Dreamgirls." That said, there isn't a "Driving Miss Daisy"-style dog in this year's Oscar finalists. The fact that "Letters," and my early favorite "Babel," didn't make my cut is less an insult to these great movies than a sign that 2006, with its strong finish, was a damn fine year for flicks.


vasta said...

As usual, amazingly well articulated. I'm so glad that this movie lived up to the hype.

Reel Fanatic said...

I have to admit I haven't read your review yet, Vasta, but only because I'm saving it for a great way to avoid doing work on Monday! Looking forward to it

vasta said...

It's not much of a review actually. Just two paragraphs of tired writing. You can skip this one. =)

Chalupa said...

Thanks for the review. I haven't seen "Letters" or "Flags" yet. I'm thinking I might just rent them both and watch them back to back.

Reel Fanatic said...

That would be an interesting experience, Chalupa, but I'm not sure I could take it ... "Letters" is a much more intense viewing experience, so I'd watch that one second if you try them back-to-back