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Movie Review: Letters from Iwo Jima

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Letters from Iwo Jima is the second part of Clint Eastwood's ambitious project. When I first heard that he was planning to make two films, back to back, featuring both sides of the Battle of Iwo Jima, I was hooked. It is an amazing idea, and one that completely pays off.

The first film was Flags of Our Fathers, which centered on those involved in the raising of the flag on Mount Surabachi and the resulting photograph which captured the imagination of a nation. This second film focuses more on the battle itself, albeit from the perspective of the Japanese. Still, it is not an action movie – it is a brave and moving film that focuses on a few of those in the trenches and what they experienced.

Is this film complete fact? No, but neither is it complete fiction. There are a lot of holes on the Japanese side of the event. There are few survivors of the battle and the battle is not taught in Japanese schools. There are a number of letters from General Tadamichi Kuribayashi that were found, although the final fate of the leader is unknown. Despite that, the film — with its intriguing screenplay from Iris Yamashita — paints a compelling picture of what it may have been like for those who were there. 

Letters from Iwo Jima puts a face on the enemy. It shows something that is probably true in many wars, that they are fought by the leaders, and that many people on both sides of the line in the field are the same. It is a brave film for Clint Eastwood, showing us something that we have not seen before.

The politics of the war are stripped away and the focus is placed squarely on those on the island. It shows the philosophical differences, the importance of honor, and how not everyone shared the view of the imperialist state, just wishing to do their job and return home. A good portion of the fighting force was conscripted and sent off to fight, and most likely die. In fact, they were pretty much told to expect to die, either by the hand of the enemy, or by their own. I cannot imagine what it would be like to be on the receiving end of those orders.

Eastwood, along with cinematographer John Stern, shot the film in a severely muted palette, giving the film a near black and white appearance, save for the striking explosions and scenes of the ocean with the Marines landing on the beach. It puts you right in the line of fire, entrenched with the Japanese soldiers seeking to defend the small, desolate island.

One of the soldiers we meet is Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya), a conscript we will spend a lot of time with. He is a baker, taken away from his shop and his pregnant wife. He is there to serve his country, but also looking to survive the war and return to his family. The other character we spend a lot of time with is General Kuribayashi (the excellent Ken Watanabe). He is leading the defense of the island, an impossible task considering the size of his force and the sheer numbers that are heading his direction. He also has philosphical differences with his other officers and his government, differences that actively work against his efforts to defend the island.

Bottomline. This is an amazing film. It is bold in concept, brave in execution, and completely satisfying. I was not sure what I expected to get from the movie, but I left the theater knowing I had seen something great. From the performances, to the music, and the time spent with the men, this is a movie to see. This is Eastwood at the top of his game, and the superior half of his Iwo Jima project.

Highly Recommended.

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