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February 6, 2007 > Letters from Iwo Jima-A Movie Review

Letters from Iwo Jima-A Movie Review

By Steve Warga

In a war that engulfed nearly the entire planet, a battle was fought in the South Pacific for an island called Iwo Jima. Pitting United States Navy and Marine forces against soldiers of the Japanese Imperial Army and a few Imperial Navy sailors, the Battle of Iwo Jima was one of the bloodiest engagements in one of the bloodiest wars ever fought on Earth.

Oscar-winning director, Clint Eastwood set out to tell a two-part story of this battle as perceived through the eyes of both sides. The first installment, Flags of our Fathers, tells the story of the vicious fighting and dying to secure the island's high point, Mt. Suribachi. It was here that Associate Press photographer Joe Rosenthal staged his famous photograph of the flag raising by a group of Marines.

Eastwood then turned his cameras to the Japanese side of that battle, releasing Letters from Iwo Jima last October. With the exception of Eastwood - and all the Hollywood panache his name implies - this film is almost entirely a Japanese effort: writing, dialogue, cast and crew. Screen writer, Iris Yamashita, relied upon a treasure trove of letters to home written by Iwo Jima's ill-fated defenders; letters written, but never delivered. According to the story line, they would never have survived except for one Japanese soldier who disobeyed a direct order from the island's commanding officer, Lieutenant General Tadamichi Kuribayashi.

In an ensemble cast, Kuribayashi's role is the closest thing to a leading character and it is well-played by one of Japan's top film stars, Ken Watanabe (Memoirs of a Geisha). The general, like nearly all characters in the movie receives very sympathetic treatment. He spent time in America prior to WWII and gained considerable professional and personal appreciation of the people he would end up fighting on a remote pile of volcanic rock. The film's favorable treatment may well be deserved, but it is not the usual fare for American movie-goers. Take away this attention-getting hook and the entire purpose of this movie comes into question. One thing's for sure, this is not uplifting entertainment.

Sure, the Japanese soldiers were mostly citizens, drafted to fight a war they didn't really understand and, most likely, would have preferred to avoid - just like most of their American enemies. They left wives and families; they endured all the deprivations and humiliations of military postings in distant, hostile environments. Finally, nearly all Japanese personnel on Iwo Jima fought to their deaths, precisely as ordered by their supreme ruler, Emperor Hirohito.

The problem with all this is that it makes for poor movie fare. Eastwood's fine directing skills cannot overcome a very thin story line. To compensate, either Eastwood, or Yamashita, or both, went well overboard trying to fatten the plot with flashback vignettes from the lives of various soldiers featured in the script. Most of this is predictable stuff, sobbing young wives, crying children and so on. Given the film's exceptionally long runtime of two hours and twenty-one minutes, Eastwood should have suspended his love affair with his own efforts and littered the cutting room floor with another twenty minutes or so of footage. This movie is just too darn long!

Another fault laid at Eastwood's feet is his choice of lighting. For reasons entirely unknown to the viewers, this too-long movie employs a curious and annoying lighting technique that produces a finished product that drifts uncertainly between full color and black-and-white. The effect is reminiscent of the old, low-budget westerns that once entertained several generations of young, cowboy wanna-be fellows. To avoid the expense of nighttime filming, directors employed heavily tinted camera lenses, but only to limited effect. Brief patches of blue sky backgrounds always exposed the trick.

There's nothing cheap about Letters from Iwo Jima, but Eastwood's lighting choices come across as the film equivalent of so-called modern "art" that consists of little more than paint splashed on a canvas, cheap and tacky except for all those pseudo-sophisticates who seem to think it's haute-couture! "Give us color, Clint; or give us black and white; for that matter, do it in sepia tones, if you must. But spare us the heavy symbolism of a nearly colorless movie!" Check out the poorly lit clips available at websites like and see how much talent it takes to film in poor lighting conditions. Amatuerish!

In the end, the largest puzzle of this film is its nomination for the Best Picture Oscar. Huh?! Sure, it's Eastwood, and that guy named Spielberg gets a front-end credit but only because he originally purchased the rights to these Iwo Jima stories. Not even the sainted Spielberg's name is enough to explain this film's nomination in that category.

It's war and like General Sherman wrote before burning Atlanta to the ground during the Civil War: "War is hell." War means young men sent to fight and die by old men who always seem to survive. What's new, or different, or award-winning about this?

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