Saturday, January 27, 2007

Letters from Iwo Jima

Masters of the Hollywood system like Howard Hawks, John Ford, and Preston Sturges were still making movies when Clint Eastwood was a boy. “When I grew up there was such a variety of movies being made,” Eastwood told LA Weekly. “You could go see Sergeant York or Sitting Pretty or Sullivan’s Travels, dozens of pictures, not to mention all the great B movies.”

The boy was obviously paying attention, but there was a limit to how much he could absorb. Now in his 70s, Eastwood is still making movies in the honorable tradition of the studio system of the 30s and 40s. At his best, in films as different in tone as Bronco Billy and Bird, he skates up to the outskirts of art, demonstrating a clear-eyed understanding of the world and a moving affinity for hapless visionaries. But in the end, Eastwood is not an artist but a master craftsman, and his work often slides into cliche. Shooting fast and frequently and priding himself on staying within budget, he's a polished professional whose films nearly always entertain but too often feel comfortingly familiar.

Like Million Dollar Baby, whose pieces clicked neatly into place with a formulaic sense of inevitability, the similarly overpraised Letters from Iwo Jima (it won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Picture and is up for a Best Picture Oscar) feels surprisingly haimish for a story meant to convey the Japanese experience of a key WWII battle. A companion piece to last year’s hackneyed Flags of Our Fathers, Letters from Iwo Jima tells the story of the harrowing fight for control of that strategically located island. While Flags told the story of the battle and its aftermath from the American vantage point, Iwo takes the point of view of the vastly outnumbered Japanese soldiers. But the real subject of both is the age-old story of young men sacrificed on the pyre of war.

Told in subtitled Japanese and shot mostly in a gun-metal greenish gray, Letters from Iwo Jima takes place almost entirely on the island. We're socked in with the Japanese troops as they first prepare for the American invasion by digging into a series of interlocking tunnels and caves, then fight valiantly despite the hopelessness of their cause. Aware that they have no chance of winning and determined to “die with honor,” the men endure the long wait and the almost equally long battle, surviving scorpions, dysentery, and brutal commanding officers, only to die in battle or commit suicide, blowing themselves up with their own hand grenades.

The main characters, who feel overly familiar almost from the moment we meet them, are General Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe), the noble leader who comes up with the battle plan, and a likeable young enlisted man named Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya), a baker who just wants to get home to his pregnant wife. In pat setups, we see flashbacks to both of their lives before the war, Saigo’s in Japan with his wife and the general’s in the United States, where he lived for several years and learned to respect the American technology that was then the best in the world.

Their flashbacks, along with another that tells the story of a recruit who came from the military police force that’s imposing martial law on Tokyo, show a homeland in which a minority of true believers impose the emperor’s dream of an Axis victory on a cowed population. That may be an accurate portrait, but it’s suspiciously flattering: no wonder this was the number one film in Japan before it opened in the U.S. Were most Japanese during WWII really innocent bystanders longing for peace, or were more of them closer to the zealots we glimpse in the movie who were so nationalistic they chose suicide over surrender? It’s impossible to tell from Eastwood’s film, which doesn’t penetrate beyond the surface of Japanese culture.

His attempts at humanizing the individuals on the island are equally facile. In one bathetic scene, a noble Japanese officer translates a letter he found on a dead American soldier as his men stand at attention, bathed in angelic lighting. Just in case that didn’t make the point strongly enough, one of those soldiers tells another later on that the letter made him realize the Americans are men just like him and his comrades, with mothers who write them in just the same way.

The real shame of all this is that Eastwood’s message – that we are all brothers, and that the blotting out of young lives in war is always a criminal waste – is so important and so timely. If good intentions made good movies, Letters from Iwo Jima would be one of the greats. Unfortunately, even the most potent truth can be reduced to cliché.

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