Monday, 5 March 2007

Movie: Letters from Iwo Jima

Lowdown: Eastwood's flip-side on Iwo Jima is a masterpiece.
The last movie we watched at the cinema up until yesterday was Clint Eastwood's Flags of Our Fathers. That film wasn't bad, but I didn't find it to be that special; it did make me think that maybe I should not go about saying I think Eastwood is the best contemporary director out there.
You can call it a coincidence or call it a luck of the draw, but yesterday when we went to the cinemas again we went to see Eastwood's second half of his private battle of Iwo Jima saga: Letters from Iwo Jima. In retrospect, it is obvious that in order to fully appreciate Flags of Our Fathers one has to see its second half. It is also clear which of the halves is the better one, because once the lights were on at the cinema one thing was very clear to me: Clint Eastwood is the best contemporary director out there. And if you want a second thing that was clear to me, here you go: Letters from Iwo Jima is a masterpiece. True, it starts a tad on the slow side of things, but it's one of those films where, once the curtain is up, I had to take my watch's word for it and accept that the film was 140 minutes long because it felt like a short clip.
The thing that is most unique about Letters is that it's a film presented from the enemy's point of view. In its entirety, the film looks at the Iwo Jima battle from the Japanese point of view; it features what seem to be Japanese actors and Japanese dialog (at least so they say; I couldn't understand a word, and I wonder if Eastwood could). Now, looking at a battle through the eyes of the enemy is not that unique: All Quiet on the Western Front did it twice, and Das Boot did it again more recently. Still, there is a difference to the level of personification in Letters, because unlike its brothers in arms Letters does not attempt to show how "we are all the same" - in fact, it tries very hard to show how Japanese the Japanese were; yet, unlike Das Boot, which often feels like some propaganda material for the Third Reich even if it is somewhat sympathizing towards the evil British, Letters shows both the good and the bad about both sides. Das Boot is a film about Germans that was made by a German; Letters is a film about the Japanese that was made by an American, and that makes all the difference. That, and the fact Eastwood is damn good. The best contemporary director out there.
So - what is actually taking place in the film? The film follows the Japanese on the Iwo Jima island as they prepare for the imminent American invasion. By then the American military superiority is pretty obvious, and the Japanese know that the best they can do is fight to the death in a one big kamikaze act. The film follows several characters in the Japanese side throughout the before and after of the battle, and we see how the very different characters handle the war. The battle scenes themselves, once they start, are not for the feint hearted; they are, however, eclipsed in horror by the scenes portraying what takes place in between the Japanese themselves as they face their ultimate demise. The American side is encountered, from time to time, but mainly in order to expose different sides of the Japanese psyche. All in all, you may very well argue that Letters from Iwo Jima is a film exploring muscularity and male heroism in the face of extreme conditions - a pretty familiar Eastwood theme - while utilizing the colorful palette that is the Japanese psyche during World War 2.
Another recurring Eastwood theme is to do with the conflict between absolutism and relativism. Eastwood's take on things has been pretty obvious to me since he finished his Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil with the words "truth, like art, is in the eye of the beholder". Nothing, however, is better at exposing the shortsightedness and futility of absolutism as the mind of a determined soldier; and Eastwood does a very good job exposing that through the medieval concept of honor that plagued the Japanese in the past.
Just like it's hard to watch The Two Towers without watching the other members of its trilogy, Letters cannot be fully digested without Flags. The combination of both, though, serves as a major reality check for all of us living in this day and age where we are asked to take part in a war that is not really there.
Best scene: A group of Japanese soldiers who lost their bit of the battle commits mass suicide. War never looked more meaningless than this on the big screen.
Overall: The best film I have seen at the cinema for a few years now, and one of the best new releases I've seen for quite a while overall. 4.5 stars.

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