I was looking forward to Clint Eastwood’s new film Letters from Iwo Jima, the companion piece to his excellent Flags of Our Fathers. Unfortunately, Letters is a far lesser film than Flags. Produced in the Japanese language and screened with English subtitles, it is a serious attempt to give an honest view of the Iwo Jima campaign from the Japanese perspective. Apart from standout performances by Ken Watanabe and Kazunari Ninomiya, the movie is crammed with stock characters and situations.
Letters opens with a demoralised and under manned Japanese force on Iwo Jima preparing for the American invasion. The lead-up is strangely un-involving and dramatically limp. Thankfully, this is overshadowed by the great performances of Watanabe and Ninomiya who play, respectively, Japanese General Kunbayashi and lowly foot slogger, Private Saigo. Both worlds apart culturally, they see the futility of their tasks and an unlikely bond grows between them. Both recognise each other as outsiders trapped in a military / political machine driven by blind patriotism, and where death is the highest accolade.
If Letters had concentrated more on these characters it would have been a much better film.
Letters does look great, as with Flags the black sand killing fields of Iwo Jima are as menacing as ever. This barren and desolate island says more about the futility of war than any of the human drama being played out on it. A comment by a Japanese soldier in the opening minutes of the film puts the island’s value in sharp focus.
I think that this movie was probably much longer; there are definite cuts that affect the narrative, some characters seem to drift in and out of the film for no real reason i.e. Lieutenant Fujita. Plus, an officer who is intent on leading a suicide charge against the Americans inexplicably disappears from the picture altogether (was he successful or wasn’t he?)
The title is also a misnomer, as the letters are sent from Iwo Jima, but to whom, and only the smallest snippets of back story are given airtime to many of the loved ones back in Japan. When done properly, this is a potent form of storytelling as shown in Terence Malick’s wartime drama The Thin Red Line. But in Letters the viewer is kept emotionally at arm’s length.
As I said, I had high expectations for Letters from Iwo Jima but hardly any of them were met by this under-performing film.