Letters From Iwo Jima

February 22nd, 2007 Film, Film Reviews, Xpress

As a species, we have a love/hate relationship to war. As risen apes, we’re as satisfied as any other animal when we’ve removed threats to our offspring, territory or access to mates by killing our adversaries. As fallen angels, we know killing people is wrong and that war is our most tragic folly.

Nowhere is this dichotomy more apparent than in war movies. In less enlightened times, they were an easy sell; the noble, God-fearing pioneer or GI valiantly overcame the dirty, godless hordes of Japs or Injuns swarming over the hill to take his women and cattle.

Now, we’re left with the distaste of western hegemony on the rest of the world, and we find the notion of goodies or baddies in any real depiction of war almost offensive. War movies are solemn, dignified and bloody affairs, but we’re also hugely driven by the thrill of the hunt, the seductive power of our tools of destruction and the excitement of the kill. If a war movie is missing either element, it’s not a war movie. They must whoop with the excitement of battle and scream at the agony and injustice of it all.

Following in the footsteps of their progenitor Saving Private Ryan (and before that, Platoon), both Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima drive both the action and the horror off the scale.

The real battle, as director Eastwood tells us with his own two-part wartime Kill Bill, isn’t between the Americans and the Japanese; it’s between the desires of commanders and politicians sitting behind faraway desks and the boys sent to die far from home. He says as much by telling the same story he did in Flags of Our Fathers, from the point of view of the equally terrified, ill-equipped and outnumbered Japanese forces.

It’s as dignified, noble and reverent as any of the serious war films of recent times, and it’s as technically brilliant and as heart wrenching as Flags. Where Iwo Jima fails is its ironic dusting down of the Japanese way with a few too many American touches. In making the statement that the frightened forces stalking other across the god-forsaken island were the same, Eastwood instead makes the Japanese out to be just another kind of Americans.

Yes, you can take the broad strokes of ritual suicide and death-for-desertion as evidence the script by Iris Yamashita has the customs in the right place. But watch for the soldier discharged from an elite training unit when he refuses to kill a barking dog; the smart and kind commander who tells his bedraggled men to retreat rather than kill themselves honourably; the officer who tends a wounded American GI back to health when his colleagues want to dismember the man; every character who truly believes in giving his life for his homeland is portrayed as either a villain or a psychotic. They’re all telling the American story, the way we want to believe everyone is because that’s the way Americans behave.

And if you want to get really nitpicky, how likely is it that a Japanese soldier in the 1940s would use the phrase ‘taken out’ for ‘destroyed’. Sure, Eastwood might not have aimed for Titanic-like realism, but the tone, the heartbroken admiration of the film wants you to believe every word and every detail, and there are too many little asides that derail Iwo Jima’s honesty.

We see the battle over Japan’s last offshore stronghold through the eyes of incoming commander Kuribayashi (Watanabe), a master strategist who immediately shakes up rigid traditions — another distinctly American idea — and Saigo (Ninomiya), a baker press-ganged into serving in the military by the unforgiving Japanese conscription, wanting nothing more than to return home to his young family alive.

It’d bloody, violent, tragic and worthy of entry into the genre of films as remembrance, but a little clumsiness in the details renders it a flawed masterpiece.

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