Clint Eastwood has become one of our finest and most important directors. The year 2006 proved that definitively, as he delivered the amazing one-two punch of Flags of Our Fathers and the Oscar-nominated Letters From Iwo Jima (now on DVD). The two films serve as companion pieces, telling the story once from the American perspective and once from the Japanese perspective. Flags has been on DVD for a while; if you missed Letters in the theater, now is your chance to see it. If you missed both or want to see them again, there is also a magnificent way you can.
Ken Watanabe (The Last Samurai) stars as General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, who is sent to Iwo Jima to lead the troops in battle. It is his idea to build bunkers in the hillside rather than on the beach. Prior to the war, he spent time studying in America, making many prominent friends in the process. Despite his fondness for the country, he is completely willing to fight – and even die – for Japan. Among Kuribayashi’s soldiers whom we meet are: Baron Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara), a former Olympic equestrian with Hollywood connections; Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya), a baker who wants to avoid dying in battle so he can go home and see his newborn daughter; and Shimizu (Ryo Kase), a former military policeman whose presence arouses the suspicion of the others.
The movie isn’t necessarily a plot-heavy affair. Instead, it focuses on the attitudes and emotions of the men fighting. One of the things most heavily emphasized is that the soldiers are trained to expect that they will not survive. It’s completely counter to the American version of war, where the emphasis is on encouraging soldiers to come home safely. The characters in this film don’t have any such luxury; they are constantly dealing with the psychology of presumed death. As their hold on the island loosens, some of the soldiers die, while others are forced to make difficult decisions. In one of the most harrowing scenes, a few of them opt to take themselves out with grenades. Later, the frightened Saigo decides to abandon orders to stay put in his bunker, instead deciding to move to another part of the island to fight (but, more accurately, to try living a little longer).
The screenplay for Letters From Iwo Jima was written by author Iris Yamashita, from a story she conceived with Crash director Paul Haggis. Together with Eastwood, they have fashioned a film that forgoes politics and instead illustrates the similarities between soldiers of every stripe. This is a very humanistic movie, one that reminds us of the bravery of any soldier who steps up to fight for his country. We are often accustomed to viewing our nation’s enemies as being less than human, and sometimes even as demonic. Letters shows us a famous battle from the point of view of our “enemy,” and we can see that there’s not much difference between their troops and ours. Although the moral perspective is naturally different between warring sides, the Japanese troops under Kuribayashi have loved ones they miss and want to see again. They are nervous going into a kill-or-be-killed situation. They wish that there was no need to fight a war. Sometimes war movies tend to be jingoistic affairs; Letters From Iwo Jima has devastatingly authentic combat scenes, but its heart is with the human beings who stand nervously on the front lines, wondering what would become of their lives were they not assigned to die on the island.
At two hours and 20 minutes, I think the picture is just a bit too long given the loose plotting. However, that is a minor quibble considering how much is to be gained by watching Letters. Eastwood has made a film that is thoughtful, poignant, touching, and philosophical. It stands as one of the best works in his long, illustrious career.
( 1/2 out of four)
Letters From Iwo Jima hits DVD in a number of fashions. You can get a “movie-only” version, or you can spring for the 2-disc Special Edition, packed with bonus features. First up is “Red Sun, Black Sand,” a comprehensive look at the making of the film. In the feature, Haggis talks about how he and Eastwood looked for a Japanese writer to do the screenplay so that the culture would be accurately reflected on screen. Eastwood additionally discusses how he hatched the idea to make a companion piece while in the midst of shooting Flags of Our Fathers.
Also included is the feature entitled “The Faces of War,” which introduces us to the actors and allows them to discuss the characters they portray. Although most of the actors are unfamiliar to American audiences, we learn that great care was expended to get the best cast possible to bring the story to life. “Images From the Frontlines” is a collection of photographs from the set. One the second page of features you’ll find footage from the film’s premiere at Budo-kan in Tokyo, as well as the press conference held at the Grand Hyatt Tokyo. Both segments find Eastwood and his actors discussing the deep personal meaning Letters has for them.
The 2-disc set is definitely awesome, but if you want to go all the way (and I highly recommend that you do), make sure you purchase the 5-disc Commemorative Collector’s Edition. It contains the 2-disc Letters set, as well as the previously unreleased 2-disc set of Flags of Our Fathers. The special features on Flags are just as engrossing. After an introduction from Eastwood comes “Words on the Page,” a feature detailing how James Bradley’s book (based on his father’s experience) was adapted for film. “Six Brave Men” looks at the soldiers seen in that famous photo of the flag-raising on Iwo Jima. “Rising the Flag” shows how Eastwood and crew recreated the photo and told the story behind it.
There’s more. “The Making of an Epic” is, as the title suggests, a making-of feature. “Looking into the Past” presents fascinating newsreel footage of the real battle of Iwo Jima that history buffs will relish. There is also a mini-doc about the movie’s visual effects, as well as the theatrical trailer.
Capping off the set is a bonus fifth disc, Heroes of Iwo Jima. Gene Hackman narrates this feature-length History Channel documentary that includes interviews with James Bradley. Also included on this disc is To the Shores of Iwo Jima, a 1945 Oscar-nominated short film.
As you can tell, there’s a lot of great stuff in this Commemorative Collector’s Edition. Owning it serves as a reminder of one of history’s most famous battles, and it also beautifully highlights the amazing cinematic achievement of Clint Eastwood. This is the kind of box set that belongs in the DVD collection of any serious film aficionado.
Letters From Iwo Jima is rated R for graphic war violence. The running time is 2 hours and 20 minutes.
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