January 18, 2007

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Letters from Iwo Jima (R)
Clint Eastwood takes the grim war movie Flags of Our Fathers and shows us the even grimmer flipside in Letters from Iwo Jima, a movie about the battle for the titular island from the Japanese point of view.

And, man, if the Americans had it rough, at least they had the benefit of eventually winning. The war was just grim and bleak and unforgiving from the Japanese side. And then they lost.

The flag that carries us through most of the action in Flags of Our Fathers is here just a shimmering bit of motion in the background. The focus is now on General Tadamichi Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe) and his doomed men, asked to defend Iwo Jima but not given the manpower, the airpower or the reinforcements of men or materials to do it.

One of those men asked to fight off the Americans or die trying (actually, with the Japanese the order seems to be fight AND die trying) is Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya). He’s left his pregnant wife with the hollow promise that he will return. We first see him on Iwo Jima digging a futile ditch in the sands on the beach. Later, when Kuribayashi determines the beach is unholdable, Saigo is one of the men holed up in the caves. At first, they are able to pick off the American soldiers coming over a rise onto an unprotected flat-land like they are playing the easiest round of an arcade game. But then the tanks and the flame throwers appear and the Japanese soldiers soon find themselves in a battle where the question is not if they will die but if they will be able to take any American soldiers with them when they go. (The answer for many of the men is “no” — in the fog of war, Kuribayashi’s orders to retreat are ignored and some of the military commanders decide to kill themselves and order their men to do the same.)

The rampant suicide is — in the language of this movie — the loudest expression of the movie’s central theme — the random brutality and ultimate futility of war. In Flags of Our Fathers, Eastwood demonstrated how even in a “good” war the warriors are, to some extent, destroyed by their experiences. In Letters from Iwo Jima, he turns the enemies — the kills, the less emotional part of a battle’s casualty count — into flesh and blood men, men with wives and homes, men who get stomach aches from the water and are sore from grunt work, men who have long since ceased to care about the reasons for war in any real sense and simply want to be done with it. Taken together, these two movies about the different sides of one battle flatten the field and leave no victors, just an island of damaged men.

Eastwood does this in a way that is particularly subtle. He gives us the humanity of the enemy without sympathizing with their cause. Just as Flags of Our Fathers could be considered anti-war without in any way disagreeing with the specific war being fought (World War II — his commentary on other wars is left for the audience to decide), Letters from Iwo Jima shows us the toll of war on all sides leaving us with the great sense of the enormous waste of human life caused by conflict. With his nearly four and a half hours of film (all of it spare and harsh in classic Eastwood style), Eastwood seems to be saying to those who would go to war “the cost is this high; the war better be worth it.” A

Rated R for graphic war violence. Directed by Clint Eastwood and written by Iris Yamashita and Paul Haggis (from a book of letters by Tadamichi Kuribayashi that was edited by Tsuyoko Yoshido), Letters from Iwo Jima is two hours and 21 minutes long and is distributed in limited release by Warner Brothers and Paramount Pictures. The movie is currently playing in Boston and in Lowell, Mass., at the Showcase Cinemas.