Flags of Our Fathers are
the natural benchmark, both artistically and in terms of box office appeal, but
it will be this second half of Eastwood’s thematic double bill — a more
striking and memorable work — pushing each project on to almost certain Oscar
and Golden Globe nods.
While Flags is
ostensibly the more naturally alluring picture, it has thus far stalled at
under $35 million domestically. Told as it is entirely from a foreign perspective,
and subtitled in Japanese, Letters from
Iwo Jima lacks a narrative bent that suggests much better Stateside returns.
Early critical plaudits — the film was just named Best Picture by both the Los
Angeles Film Critics Association and National Board of Review — will help the movie
with upscale arthouse patrons, but parlaying that elite audience into
significant box office success seems an uphill climb. This may ultimately dent Letters’ chances at some top-shelf
prizes, particularly coming on the heels of last season’s Crash Oscar victory, which came amidst the lowest-grossing, least
populist slate of Best Picture nominees in recent years.
Shot back-to-back with Flags
of Our Fathers, Letters from Iwo Jima
centers more explicitly on battle and its human toll, telling of the events
leading up to the same central siege, but from the Japanese perspective.
Whereas its predecessor was at its core about the machinations of government
image-making and the media’s complicity in war, Letters is a more straightforwardly ruminative and plaintive work,
if also one whose identifications and point of focus will mark it as a tough
sell for mainstream audiences.
With an American invasion looming as a certainty, and the
dusty, rocky island of Iwo Jima being pounded on and off by Allied aircraft
loosening it up for a beachhead assault, Lieutenant General Tadamichi
Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe, above) is assigned to marshal forces and formulate a
strategy of defense. More than 20,000 Japanese soldiers have been sent to the
atoll knowing that in all probability they will not come back. Among them are
Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya), a baker who wants only to live to see the face of
his newborn daughter; Baron Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara, below), an Olympic equestrian
champion known around the world for his skill and his honor; Shimizu (Ryo
Kase), a young former military policeman whose idealism has not yet been tested
by war; and Lieutenant Ito (Shidou Nakamura), an unyielding and devoted military
man who would rather indulge suicide than surrender.
Glimpsed in flashback, Kuribayashi’s travels in
have revealed to him the hopeless nature of war in general, but also given him
strategic insight into how to take on American forces that vastly outnumber his
own. Against the vehement protestations of his advisors, he orders the
abandonment of shoreline defense structures, and instead concentrates on the
digging and construction of a vast honeycomb of more than 18 miles of tunnels, caves
and pillboxes from which the much smaller Japanese forces can shrewdly target
The first hour-plus of the film details in if not languid
then certainly somewhat relaxed rhythms the several weeks of planning leading
up to the battle. It’s here that most of the interesting character bits lay.
When the conflict comes, things change. “Everybody’s got a
plan until they get hit,” boxer Mike Tyson once famously said, and Letters from Iwo Jima provides rich evidence
of that, with Japanese discord within the ranks erupting into ritualistic suicides
and mutinous disobedience upon the massive arrival of American forces.
Several of the combat scenes within Letters fit neatly within the chronology of Flags of Our Fathers, but the lack of “crossover” cameos by significant Flags cast members or even many American
soldiers — indeed, the films are almost wholly discrete experiences — render these
sequences a bit hazy. Furthermore, Eastwood doesn’t do a particularly keen job
of establishing the spatial relationships necessary to make full, working sense
of Kuribayashi’s underground network.
There are some other intriguing parallels between the two movies,
though, particularly with regards to the disparity between actuality and the
public face that governments put on matters. Letters, though, doesn’t plumb any representation of a spin
machine; Kuribayashi merely receives dispassionate word via courier of his
abandonment by various superiors, and the fact that his forces will be bereft
of air defenses.
sometimes struggled in juggling of different timelines, Eastwood’s characteristically
unembellished style better naturally suits Letters’
story, which is more traditionally linear and character-driven.
isn’t wildly cathartic, we see his cynical nature transform movingly into resolve.
As in The Last Samurai, meanwhile, Watanabe
projects a preternatural calm and confidence, while also letting us see
Kuribayashi’s tender side. He and Ihara, who plays erstwhile equestrian Nishi,
provide the film with its moral gravity.
Technical category awards noms seem certain, with longtime
Eastwood collaborator and cinematographer Tom Stern’s washed-out work delivering
an apocalyptic vision so desolate it makes one almost taste the sand. Though they don’t fit together seamlessly, nor are they
necessarily meant to, Flags and Letters stand next to one another in an
interesting fashion, and the relative novelty and pluck of the entire endeavor
will likely be enough to garner Eastwood, a beloved figure amongst Academy
voters, strong consideration for yet another Best Director Oscar nod. (Warner Bros./DreamWorks, R, 141 mins.)