Among the Oscar choices “Letters” is the best picture
Looking at war through the eyes of the “enemy” can be illuminating, haunting, and surprisingly touching. So it is with director Clint Eastwood’s “Letters from Iwo Jima,” a companion piece to the previously released and ultimately less effective “Flags of our Fathers.” It is a daring piece of work, especially considering how few American war movies offer any alternative perspective-but its audacious length and rather simplistic story line don’t put it on the same level of more recent epics like “Saving Private Ryan,” or “Black Hawk Down.”
After significant losses in the South Pacific, the American forces saw the little volcanic island of Iwo Jima as an increasingly important military location due to its proximity to mainland Japan. Though its true value was debated for years, at the time many officials felt Iwo’s success as an early warning station used by the Japanese to radio reports of incoming B-29 bombers made American capture a top priority.
For their part, the Japanese, however misguided it may seem now, felt that losing the island would put the mainland at direct risk of takeover by the Allies. By early 1945, the Japanese naval military was decimated and the 22,000 troops that were entrenched on the island had little support, greatly out numbered and outgunned by the invading American forces. “Letters” depicts the ensuing 6 week battle which caused more Allied casualties than any other during WWII.
Due to the superb defensive preparations which involved an elaborate system of caves, concrete blockhouses and pillboxes, (expertly recreated in the film) Allied success did not come easy.
Leading the defense was Lt. General Kuribayashi (nobly and potently portrayed by Ken Watanabe) a fine military strategist and charismatic leader who had lived in the U.S. for 5 years-a fact poignantly underscored in some of the films’ best scenes. Also with ties to the U.S., and featured prominently is Olympic equestrian champion Baron Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara). The most compelling storyline is that of reluctant infantryman Saigo (Kauai Ninimoya). A frail former baker who can’t shoot straight and whose primary motives are not unlike most grunts–pure survival-he dreams of making it home to his wife and newborn child.
Lacking a hero to root for, the film’s 141 minutes seem even more ponderous given that none of the plot points have much of a revelatory resolution or dramatic arc.
“Letters” nonetheless succeeds in its humanistic (and still relevant) anti-war ideology. That is, beyond the complex reasons for military conflict and despite differences in culture, religion, and language, soldiers on opposite sides share much in common.
Less clear, especially coming from a Western mind set are the reasons behind the seemingly futile and horrifically brutal practice of committing suicide by the Japanese soldiers, depicted frequently (with the grenade being the weapon of choice) in the film.
Eastwood, who continues to make flawed but uniquely satisfying movies (“Million Dollar Baby,” “Mystic River,”) well into his 70’s, should be applauded for his sensitive and masterful handling of a concept long overdue. In a field of the weakest Best Picture Oscar nominees in easily 25 years or more, “Letters from Iwo Jima” is the choice by default.
Rated R for graphic war violence.