Friday, February 09, 2007

Movie Review: Letters From Iwo Jima

Letters From Iwo Jima

In Brief: What's Good

  • Compared to its compainion piece, Flags of Our Fathers, Letters has better acting, better directing, a more cohesive and linear storyline, and better closure.

  • Excellent action sequences, and the story contains a little more military strategy than Flags of Our Fathers.

  • Sympathetic main characters.

In Brief: What's Not As Good

  • At times, the visual look of the film is even more over-processed than Flags of Our Fathers. In Flags, colors were muted toward shades of grey and green. Much of Letters feels closer to total greyscale. An interesting visual technique but taken a tad too far.

B Story
B+ Acting
A- Directing
A- Visuals

Letters From Iwo Jima is Client Eastwood's companion piece to Flags of Our Fathers. This time the battle of Iwo Jima is told through the viewpoint of the Japanese officers and soldiers that tried despearately to hold the island, especially the pivotal Mount Suribachi, at the extreme southwest of the island.

Ken Watanabe plays Lieutenant General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, the officer in charge of defending Iwo Jima. Kuribayashi is portrayed as a likeable, intelligent, well-rounded character. He does not deny the likelihood of defeat against the impending American forces, but he is determined to fight to the last man. He has a different concept of honor compared to some of his lower officers, and this causes him problems later in the film. During a flashback, we see that he has spent some time in America and can speaks decent English.

At the opposite end of the rank structure is the young Private Saigo (played by Kazunari Ninomiya) who, in his civilian life is a simple baker and husband to a pregnant wife. We get to see much of the battle through his perspective.

As Saigo makes his way throughout the island's many caves and tunnels during the battle, he sees ritual suicide by a group of fellow soldiers, is almost executed himself, witnesses the initial aerial assault by American bombers, crosses paths with General Kuribayashi, witnesses an officer conversing in English with a wounded American prisoner, is tempted with thoughts of surrender, and is entrusted with an important final assignment by his commanding officer. He could easily be most people's favorite or 2nd favorite character in the film.

Also highlighted among the officers are: Kashiwara, Saigo's good friend and sidekick; Lieutenant Colonel Takeichi Nishi, an equestrian gold medalist and tank commander who could also speak some English; and Shimizu, an officer suspected of having ties with the Kempeitai (secret police and intelligence service).

One of the strengths of the film is how it examines war from so many different angles. We see some soldiers who believe that an honorable death means dying by your own hands rather than those of the enemy. Other soldiers believe it is more honorable to fight to the end even if it's a lost cause. We even see one character who compromises and believes honor is in taking your own life but only in a fashion that takes the enemy along with you. Closer to the end of the movie, we can feel the desparation of some soldiers and the senselessness of war. And, we are shown why just giving up isn't always safer than the risk of dying in battle.

In Flags of Our Fathers, the story bounced back and forth a lot. One minute we see the battle of Iwo Jima, then the aftermath when three of the six soldiers who raised the flag are on a war bond tour across the U.S., then the present day when old veterans are being interviewed by another soldier's grown son, then back to the battle, etc. Other than the occasional flashbacks, which are actually pretty informative, Letters From Iwo Jima is far more linear. I really liked that most of the story focused on Saigo. It really helped being able to follow one central character throughout the story.

Since much of the movie takes place in caves and tunnels, Letters is not quite as visually interesting as Flags. But what the movie lacks in vivid images it makes up in story and characterization. Together, these two films form a solemn, informative, and respectful--yet occasionally slow--war epic that may remian the definitive dramatization of Iwo Jima for quite some time.

Oscar Awards

  • Win - Best Sound Editing

  • Nomination - Best Picture

  • Nomination - Best Director: Clint Eastwood

  • Nomination - Best Original Screenplay: Iris Yamashita

Golden Globe Awards

  • Win - Best Foreign Language Film

  • Nomination - Best Director: Clint Eastwood

Fun Facts from Internet Movie Database

Letter From Iwo Jima was shot back-to-back with Flags of Our Fathers, but none of the actors from either movie appear in both films. Originally titled, "Red Sun, Black Sand."

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