Dropped into the year-end schedule as quietly as his “Million Dollar Baby” was two years ago and inspiring a similarly forceful reception from critics, Clint Eastwood’s “Letters From Iwo Jima” went from an obscure passion project to a forerunner in the awards race. But while its deft direction and Oscar-bait source material prove more than a match for that turnaround, can a man, even one as peerless as Eastwood, sell a film that dares to humanize America’s fiercest enemy in its deadliest international war – and do it while war again holds sway over the nation? Oh. And there are subtitles, too.
Like most films that seek precision and tact in their depiction of war, “Iwo Jima” is a character-rich story in which the war serves as both backdrop and driving force. As the Allies bring Germany to the brink of capitulation on the European front of World War II, American forces inch closer to Tokyo, encountering the vehement resistance of a cultural philosophy they could never hope to understand. Perhaps the grittiest battle of all was fought on the eight square miles of sulfur from which the movie takes its name – Iwo Jima, a crucial foothold for the American invasion of the Japanese mainland.
Just months ago, “Flags of Our Fathers,” Eastwood’s sister film to “Iwo Jima,” told the American side of this same struggle, and the two films are tied together by more than just Eastwood’s direction. Both explore the incomprehensible despair of war, the kind that envelops soldiers even as they struggle to bring it upon their enemy. While “Flags” pointed out that even “the right war” may have been fought with indelible wrongs that linger decades later, “Iwo Jima” allows an even more personal portrayal of the Japanese war front, seen through the eyes of Lt. Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe, “The Last Samurai”) and a motley handful of his doomed division.
A young soldier named Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya) serves as our guide to the private insecurities of the Japanese infantry, and the film takes great care to portray him and the rest of his unit as drafted civilians whose reluctance and uncertainty define the audience’s view of them. Raised in an empire that touts giving one’s life for the emperor as the greatest of all duties, it’s inconceivable for these soldiers to privilege their own lives, or even those of their families. Kuribayashi puts the mentality best in his solemn farewell to one young soldier: Though he swore to fight till death to protect his family, just the thought of his family makes that a difficult task.
The film explores in great detail the Japanese army’s strict code of honor, particularly the belief that suicide is better than capture. While American audiences may recoil at the thought of entire regiments killing themselves, it’s fascinating to note that we’re not nearly as repulsed by hundreds of thousands of young men killing each other.
Besides its endearing young soldiers (whom no audience could mistake for enemies), the film’s portrait of Kuribayashi is what makes the film a worthy character piece. In reality, Lt. Gen. Kuribayashi was among the most daring and brilliant officers on the Japanese side, and Watanabe brings sufficient honor and reverence to the role while still humanizing him to non-Japanese audiences.
Having lived and studied in America, Kuribayashi considered the country to be the world’s foremost armory and thus opposed Japan’s course of provocation. His time in America also put him in the unenviable position of understanding, and perhaps even pitying, the young marines who stormed the beach he was commissioned to protect, and the diligent officer was then seen by his peers as weak and, even worse, an enemy sympathizer. One of this film’s harshest wartime cruelties is simply that its bravest minds end up its most dismissed.
Much like “Flags,” “Iwo Jima” isn’t perfect – it lacks thematic coherence, which leads it periodically to fall back on war-movie clich