Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Letters From Iwo Jima

The verdict: Complex, dark and harrowing, this movie will make you battle-weary, but it deserves to be seen.

The rating: 8/10

Two weeks ago, I was somewhat unimpressed by 'Flags of our Fathers', the first of a sort of twin set of Clint Eastwood directed movies about the American forces' invasion of Japan at Iwo Jima in 1944. That movie delved into the political complexities of war, and how symbolism can be worth more to the people of a nation than the often painfully inglorious realities.

Letters from Iwo Jima is the far superior companion piece to that movie, the difference being: the events are confined to the battle on Iwo Jima island, and this time, we see the events unfold from the perspective of the Japanese forces.

Clint is a veteran of the odd war movie himself and, to his credit, has recognised something fundamental to anyone looking to add to the already swollen ranks of the war movie genre: if you're going to make one of these babies, you gotta have an angle. 'Flags of our Fathers' was flawed and far from perfect, but at least it had that shot of originality to set it apart from something contemporary but derivative like, for example, 'Jarhead'.

The Letters referred to in the title were written by Japanese soldiers in 1944, and uncovered from the network of tunnels dug in preparation for the battle many years later. Many of them are quoted in the movie, and give a unique twist to proceedings.

Telling a war story from the perspective of 'the enemy' is not a new idea, indeed it was done in the 1930's, when 'All Quiet on the Western Front' gave an anti-war message from a German perspective at a time when Nazism was on the rise in der Vaterland during the inter-war period. Due to the political context though, that film had propaganda value, and this was recognised by a certain Dr. Goebbels. (ah, that lovable rogue... - Ed). Goebbels ordered the film banned in Germany, and encouraged followers of national socialism to disrupt screenings of the film wherever they found them.

More recently, 'Downfall' ('Der Untergang') told the tale of the last days of Nazism at the end of World War II from the Nazi perspective, and this story is perhaps a little closer to the siege mentality also found in 'Letters From Iwo Jima'.

Both of those movies put us in the uncomfortable position of seeing the human side of our enemies' actions, and in Iwo Jima, this message is delivered extremely well, from two differing points of view. The first perspective is of General Kuribayashi, pleayed excellently by Ken Watanabe. Kuribayashi is aware almost from day one that his mission, to hold Iwo Jima from the American forces, is essentially a suicide mission. (Let's be real for a second here folks, remember who won world war two? Ok, we're on the same page then... - Ed). His mission is made more complicated by dissent among the ranks, a lack of any real support whatsoever from mainland forces, and more than a hint of conflicting emotions at the prospect of fighting America, a country he visited before the war.

This officer's perspective is supplemented by that of Saigo, played by Kazunari Ninomiya. Saigo was drafted, leaving behind a pregnant wife, and in one of his first scenes is beaten by his superior officer when he questions the need to defend an island as apparently worthless as Iwo Jima. His point has an element of truth to it, as the Japanese forces all seem to be suffering from the effects of the Iwo water, with dysentery spreading through the ranks like a hot... well, you get the picture.

So, the forces are ordered to prepare for the American invasion, and hold out until death, a grim enough prospect in anyone's book. This situation leads the soldiers to consider all sorts of war-time craziness, such as: is it more honourable to kill yourself or surrender to the enemy? (... um, can I phone a friend? - Ed).

'Letters from Iwo Jima' borrow from the gritty and unpleasant reality of military life that 'Platoon' presented so well, and the scale of events is brilliantly evoked, with the claustrophobia of 'Das Boot' springing to mind more than once. Also, the futility of the mission, and the choice of protagonists, evokes 'Downfall' as previously mentioned.

Eastwood doesn't shy away from presenting the complex situations faced by these men, and presents many difficuly moral questions in 'Letters from Iwo Jima'. However, the sentimentality is kept to a minimum, and by choosing to follow the paths of four distinct and separate lead characters, he holds the audience's interest right to the end.

At two and a half hours, it's a little long, and there isn't much light relief on offer, but Iwo Jima is a truly excellent addition to the war movie genre. It's understated and intelligent, wise but unsentimental, and with a very powerful message about the futility of war: not the idea of countries fighting each other, but of the insane realities and choices men are presented with in war-time situations.

PCMR reckons Clint now needs to follow his Iwo Jima tag-team tale with the story of an Irish invasion of another Japanese island: 'Saipan the Movie' anyone? With its high-profile deserter, and the political implications, this story is just about right for the Hollywood treatment... now, who would play Keano then?! (Think of the children, Roy! - Ed)

1 comment:

Reel Fanatic said...

I"m definitely with you on Letters from Iwo Jima being the superior of these two flicks .. It has several scenes that are just permanently burned on my brain, and I certainly can't say that about Flags, though I have to say it was nice to see Adam Beach in a movie again

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