18 January 2007

MOVIE REVIEW: "Letters From Iwo Jima" and "Flags of Our Fathers"

Letters From Iwo Jima and Flags of Our Fathers are two full-length feature films that deserve to be screened together. They both tell the story of the battle for a small volcanic island, Mount Suribachi, in the Pacific Theater during World War II. Letters From Iwo Jima takes us to the island and shows us the gritty and challenging problems of living on and defending a volcanic island from the Japanese POV; Flags of our Fathers gives us the opening two days of the battle and then brings the story back to the States to tell the American soldiers personal stories on an Iwo Jima Tour in the USA.

Director Clint Eastwood (Million Dollar Baby, Unforgiven, Mystic River, Bird), rather than resting on his laurels as an American treasure, captures the heart of the story with his focus on the real story of both sides. Flags of Our Fathers is based on a New York Times best-selling book by James Bradley and Ron Powers published in May 2000 by Bantam Books. It’s about five United States Marines and one United States Navy Corpsman (a medic) who were made famous by award-winning news photographer Joe Rosenthal in his memorable photograph of the flag raising at Iwo Jima. John Bradley was the son of the navy corpsman, and it through his voice-over that Eastwood tells the story of one moment caught in time in an iconic photograph of six men who raised an American flag over Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima on February 23, 1945. While most everyone has seen the photo at some point in their lives, few know the real story behind the one captured moment in the photograph. Eastwood sets out to enlighten us.

Letters From Iwo Jima (formerly titled Red Sun, Black Sand) was based on two Japanese books; Picture Letters from Commander in Chief by Lieutenant General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, and Sadness in Dying Gracefully by Kumiko Kakehashi. The story follows General Kuribayashi (played by the always wonderful Ken Watanabe) as he tries in vain to organize the defenses of his isolated and unsupported troops, and that of his good friend and former comrade in the cavalry, the aristocratic Lieutenant Colonel Takeichi Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihar), a 1932 Olypmic athlete and Gold Medal winner for Show Jumping. The audience will most identify with a lucky young draftee, Private Saigo (Kazumari Ninomiy), who yearns to return to his wife and newborn child back on the Japanese mainland, and who buried the letters we are reading. The men write these letters home telling their stories to their families, never knowing if any of the letters will ever reach their destination.

Letters shows us the horrid and claustrophobic conditions the Japanese were forced to survive in; they had to dig out the remains of the volcano’s lava tubes to create tunnels they could both live in and fight from to defend their land from what they considered to be the American invaders. The Japanese had little water, less food, and absolutely no support from their mainland; as they bicker among themselves we see flashbacks establishing the characters’ pasts and their repressive and restrictive society. They were suspicious and anxious and the stress forced them to turn on each other and override commanding orders. They faced an overwhelming American fleet and armed force that they could not match. In a horrific scene towards the end Eastwood shows us what they felt they had to resort to, and it is in this scene where both films collide in explanation.

Both Letters and Flags were shot concurrently at the same location in Iceland and it certainly does look like hell on this Iwo Jima. Iceland was only other place on earth with a similar terrain and appropriate sulfurous smoke trailing up to the sky from any crack in the ground. Eastwood chose to shoot Letters in a very desaturated manner, effecting a color-less black and white view of the island while Flags was shot with a more colorful look.

In Flags, for the US soldiers caught in the famous Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph by Joe Rosenthal the war for Iwo Jima was only just beginning; the first of two flags that were raised was only after the first few days of a fight for the island that actually went on much longer. Only three of the six men survived the assault and the two surviving Marines and the one surviving Corpsman were pulled out of action and sent back to the U.S. to bolster sales for the government’s seventh war bond tour. Through their efforts they were able to raise $24 billion for the war effort though their war at home and within themselves continued on after they returned.

But these men couldn’t leave behind their friends they fought with and they felt guilty every step of the way once they left Iwo. They were selected to be heroes, but they never felt they had done anything heroic. Their compromises with the truth leave them troubled and in emotional pain. Hayes can’t stop drinking and all three men can’t stop thinking about the men they left behind on Iwo Jima. Confusion about exactly which soldiers were actually in the photo – and the fact that there were actually two different flags raised - only added to their personal problems.

The men were ill prepared for the war bond tour or the greeting they received and felt guilty that they had been forced to leave their units behind. Their guilt is best typified by the complex and enigmatic Marine, Ira Hayes, a Native American played with great fluidity by the excellent Adam Beach (Windtalkers, Smoke Signals), which just might garner a Supporting Actor nomination for his work here. On the other hand, Ryan Phillippe (Crash, Cruel Intentions, Gosford Park, I Know what You Did Last Summer) plays Corpsman John “Doc” Bradley in a performance could have easily been phoned in, and it is his character’s son that narrates this film. Phillippe just does not have the gravitas necessary to play grownup men, nor does he have the acting chops to create a believable war hero. It’s a shame casting went so awry and he ended up in the lead role. He plays the role with the same expression for the full 132 minutes of this film.

Director Clint Eastwood (Million Dollar Baby, Mystic River, Unforgiven, Bridges of Madison County, Bird) does his usual spare job in Flags, preferring to leave the actors to relate to bring out the spirit of the characters they play. Where Eastwood really excels is in the huge establishing shots of the American fleet steaming their way towards their destiny on the tiny island of Iwo Jima. What is most interesting is his meditation on the chaos and horrors of war, heroism, and inside look at instant media darlings created for ratings. The close-in fighting scenes are graphic and shocking, and we see the men who died in this battle were little more than boys themselves. Eastwood’s score is haunting and his music appropriate and memorable for this meditation on the chaos of war.

Eastwood makes the war personal in Flags as the film opens with a shot of a sailor falling off a carrier. The first thing we learn about war is that these ships can’t stop to pick up anyone who falls. The men on the ship toss a life preserver at him as they watch him struggle in the wake of the big boats that won’t stop to save his life. The battle scenes are close and dirty and pure chaos, the beach landings dangerous, the caves of Iwo swarming with dug-in Japanese soldiers, and the scenes of the U.S. fleet in the bay are huge.


Eastwood truly excels when he turns to the Japanese story in Letters. A brilliant nuanced performance by the charismatic Ken Watanabe (The Last Samurai, Memoirs of a Geisha, Tampopo) shows the deft touch of a director and actor working in synergy; the rest of the Japanese cast is equally as compelling. If there were an award for Best Actor in a Foriegn-Language Film, Watanabe would be a shoo-in.

Letters From Iwo Jima is the more moving and emotionally honest of the two films and it’s somewhat ironic that Eastwood does his best work in a Japanese-language film with a non-English speaking cast. His touch is deft and sure, intimate and broad, and one can only look forward with anticipation to his next outing. It's a particular joy to see such a creative genius still being relevent, interesting, not to mention physically tough enough at 76 to still challenge his own artistic expression in making two films in two different languages back to back. Both Flags and Letters deserve a screening and together serve as a complete a picture as could be possible of one historic moment in time from both perspectives.

Another triumph for Eastwood puts Letters From Iwo Jima in the front-runner position for Oscars Best Foreign Language Film of the Year

Letters From Iwo Jima:

Digital Dogs rating: A

MPAA rating: Rated R for graphic war violence.

Running Time: 142 minutes

Producers Clint Eastwood, Robert Lorenz, Steven Speilberg, Director Clint Eastwood, Screenplay & Story Iris Yamashita, Story Paul Haggis from the book Picture Letters from Commander in Chief by Tadamichi Kuribayashi, Editor Joel Cox, Gary Roach, DP Tom Stern, Original Music Kyle Eastwood, Michael Stevens, Actors Ken Watanabe, Saigo, Tsuyoshi Ihara, Ryo Kase, Shido Nakamure, Hiro Watanabe, Takumi Bando

Flags of Our Fathers:

Digital Dogs rating: A-

MPAA rating: Rated R for sequences of graphic war violence and carnage, and for language.

Running Time: 132 minutes

Producers Clint Eastwood, Robert Lorenz, Tim Moore, Steven Speilberg, Director Clint Eastwood, Screenplay William Broyles Jr, Paul Haggis, Editor Joel Cox, DP Tom Stern, Original Music Clint Eastwood, Actors Ryan Phillippe, Jesse Bradford, Adam Beach, Barry Pepper, Jamie Bell, Robert Patrick, Judith Ivey, Harve Presnell, George Hearn, Len Cariou, Gordon Clapp, David Clennon, David Rasche


© 2006 by Digital Dogs



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