While I don’t for a moment doubt the sincerity behind Letters From Iwo Jima, I’m still—after two viewings—more interested in the film (and much of Eastwood’s more recent offerings) for what it seemingly says about Eastwood than I am about its subject. There’s something about Eastwood’s need to deconstruct the myth of heroes and heroics that keeps making me think he’s become the Ancient Mariner of film. Having spent so many years involved in heroics himself—in heroics that often pandered to baser instincts and dubious morality—he seems like a man trying to atone for his past. Like Mr. Coleridge’s literary creation, there’s an air of “The man hath penance done, And penance more will do” hovering about these latest films.
While that makes for an interesting look at Eastwood’s body of work, it doesn’t necessarily translate into good films. In the case of Flags of Our Fathers, it didn’t—not in the least because the characters were largely nondimensional, and the film made its point early and then just kept repeating. But more, Eastwood was too intent on demythologizing heroics without really doing so. Worse, it felt like a film that wanted to be angry, but only managed to work up to a state of sadness and defeat. With Letters From Iwo Jima, he’s on much surer ground. The tone is the same—sadness and defeat—but it fits here. Perhaps it’s the distancing effect of dealing with a foreign culture, or possibly it’s the inescapable fact that we know the characters are doomed from the onset, or maybe it’s the inherent sadness that comes with watching the passing of any era—whatever it is, Eastwood’s tone matches the material.
It helps immeasurably that two of the film’s main characters—General Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe) and Baron Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara, Half a Confession)—are not merely officers. They’re more educated and better able to articulate the ideas in the film, and unlike the characters in Flags, they have a knowledge of America and Americans that affords them a better picture of what’s happening. The lack of knowledge on the part of the ordinary soldier is actually addressed in Iwo Jima—and the effectiveness of the Japanese government’s propaganda machine (any contemporary World War II Hollywood film will tell you that we had our own propaganda machine, too)—resulting in one of the film’s most effective and moving scenes. Any scene in a war film where the characters realize that the enemy isn’t all that different is sure to stand out, but this one—especially in view of a subsequent ironic tragedy that portrays the opposite truth when dealing with individuals—is remarkable. There are many such scenes in the film, making it one of the most human of all war movies.
The performances here are also far superior to the ones in Flags. That’s partly due to the seasoned talent of actors like Watanabe and Ihara. (In sheer presence, they would wipe the Flags stars off the screen.) But that hardly explains why younger performers—Japanese pop star Kazunari Ninomiya, for example—respond better to Eastwood’s direction than their immediate predecessors. In any case, the characters in Iwo Jima have a depth totally lacking in the film’s companion piece. The results are always impressive and involving, while the sense of inevitable doom meshes nicely with Eastwood’s standard leisurely pacing.
But successful as Iwo Jima is, it never quite reaches greatness. This, in part, stems from the fact that for all its undeniable merit, it doesn’t bring all that much new to the table of anti-war films. The larger problem, though, lies in Eastwood’s firm grounding in the Hollywood film. His compulsion (probably exacerbated by Paul Haggis’ hand in the story development) to make a traditionally well-crafted movie causes Iwo Jima to finally feel just a little too nice and tidy for its own good, and that’s a pity, because in many ways it may be Eastwood’s most accomplished directing job. Rated R for graphic war violence.