In his landmark book of military history The Face of Battle, John Keegan did something extraordinarily rare for his field when describing a battle -- he didn't just tell us how many forces fought in what manner at a certain time, he told us what it was like for those soldiers. Keegan knew it wasn't just important to know how British archers defeated the French knights at Agincourt, but also that prior to the epic battle the British had been waiting for their better-armed and horse-mounted enemy, on foot, in several inches of deep mud, freezing from the cold and aching with hunger from a lack of food. Clint Eastwood
's Letters from Iwo Jima has just such a similarly humane touch about it. As a chronicler of one of the most monumental battles in modern history, Eastwood not only has the scope of vision to show how, on a grand scale, the battle progressed for the defenders in strictly military terms, but also the little details about the Japanese soldiers themselves: They wrote anxious letters home, many feared the battle itself was meaningless, they fought while suffering from dysentery. It's this compassion which raises the film far above some of its shortcomings.
Eastwood made cinematic history by being the first director of his stature (or any stature, really) to make two feature films about the same battle, each one about a different side in the fight. Flags of Our Fathers
, which came out a few months ago, was about the American soldiers in the Iwo Jima invasion force involved in the raising of the flag which was captured in the iconic photograph. It was a skillfully made, if sometimes dramatically stagnant, piece about the dehumanization of wartime propaganda. In Letters, which tells the battle story from the Japanese perspective, Eastwood also deals with the same issues -- there are almost as many Japanese soldiers who are fiercely patriotic as those who are embittered by years of cynical manipulation -- but he achieves a greater effect by making us more privy to these men's inner lives. Article continues below
The structure of Letters is fairly basic, following a mix of soldiers from different ranks as they get ready for the inevitable American invasion. It's the dead end of the war, with the Japanese fleet and air force almost entirely destroyed, and the island's garrison digging in for a desperate last stand -- Iwo Jima was the first island considered actual Japanese territory to be assaulted by the Americans, and so had extra significance. Iris Yamashita's clever and spare screenplay uses the device of letters home (based on ones written by the actual soldiers) to elucidate the soldiers' inner lives, their worries about family and patriotism. When the Americans finally appear, swarming ashore in well-armed, well-fed waves, the starving, sickly Japanese fight, but more out of a sense of their backs being to a wall (propaganda having told them that the Americans are not only weak and emotional soldiers, but savages who won't take them prisoner) than any airy notion of Duty or Honor. A lesser director would have gone for stock heroics or brave samurais committing suicide. This is a quieter, braver film than that, preferring to focus instead on real-life people like General Tadamichi Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe
) or Baron Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara
), both of whom had lived in America prior to the war and fight with a feeling of sad resignation.
Letters has some of the same problems as Flags, most notably a certain cool remove from its subjects, though it benefits from a much tighter focus and a higher quality of acting. Eastwood seems at times unwilling to really throw the viewer into the savagery of the fighting (Iwo Jima being one of the most vicious and drawn-out battles ever waged), almost as though he knows that by giving us more thrilling battle scenes, he may be shocking viewers, but he'll also be thrilling them. It appears that one of the great progenitors of American cinematic violence has finally just become sick of it all. He knows that however brave the soldiers, smart the strategy, or necessary the struggle, war is always by definition a bloody waste. The tragedy of this film is not just that the Japanese soldiers on Iwo Jima died for no reason, but how many of them died knowing it.