Title: Letters from Iwo Jima
Director: Clint Eastwood
Writers: Screenplay by Iris Yamashita, story by Yamashita and Paul Haggis
Stars: Ken Watanabe, Kazunari Ninomiya, Tsuyoshi Ihara, Ryo Kase
The Story: A brilliant general arrives on Iwo Jima island to prepare it for an American invasion, only to discover that no reinforcements are coming, dooming the mission. Nevertheless, he and his men dig tunnels to prolong the fight for as long as possible, as each deals with the horror of the situation in his own way.
How it Came to be Underrated: When I saw this I thought it was a shoo-in for best picture, and it was nominated, but everybody immediately laughed it off as the no-chance pick of the year. Sure enough, it won nothing. It didn’t help that it was paired with Eastwood’s misconceived companion movie about the American side of the battle, Flags of Our Fathers, which will be the subject of this week’s Meddler.
Why It’s Great:
- When writing a historical piece, you have two jobs that you have to do right away: you have to make the familiar strange (to re-orient your audience to the rules of this new setting), then you have to make the strange familiar (to let them know that they can still identify with these people). The script does this beautifully in the first line of Watanabe’s narration as he writes a letter back home: “I am determined to serve and give my life for my country (this guy’s not like us, folks). I believe that I have organized everything at home, but I am sorry I wasn’t able to attend to the kitchen floor before I left. (Or is he?)”
- This is a classic split-protagonist movie: We have one bold, honorable hero who acts the way we wish we would act, and then we have a scared, easygoing hero who acts the way we’re sure we actually would. In the bad version, the moviemakers arrange the events so as to make it clear to which guy is right and which guy is wrong. (See: Saving Private Ryan) Eastwood lets the audience decide.
- We see one of their commanders callously tell his men to shoot at the American medics first, then in the next moment we see faceless American bombers kill the camp’s beloved horse. Done poorly, this sort of juxtaposition causes the audience to check out and say “What do I care who wins?” But done well, it sends us on an emotional rollercoaster. In scene after scene, Eastwood masterfully jerks our sympathies back and forth, and it’s thrilling.
- One of the many problems with Flag of Our Fathers was that it was hampered by the participation of the men involved and their families, denying the moviemakers the necessary ability to manipulate personalities and events so as to better serve the story. The deaths of almost all the Japanese liberated this to become a real story, not just a hagiography.
- Another problem facing Flags of Our Father was that it was about honorable guys fighting in a righteous cause and winning. It tried several tricks to generate irony, but it never could overcome that fundamentally unironic set up. On the other hand, nothing is more ironic than the sight of men fighting honorably for a dishonorable cause, which is the engine that gives this movie its tremendous power.
- Eastwood got his start playing an American antihero for an Italian director who didn’t understand a word he said, but still found a way to show us a vision of our own West that was more honest in its moral ambiguity than most of our own Westerns. It is only fitting that his greatest achievement as a director is in a language he himself does not speak, finding in our enemies’ story a universal tragedy that transcends nationality.
If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Eastwood learned his clean, honest, no-nonsense style of directing from his mentor Don Siegel. Two underrated movies they made together are The Beguiled and Two Mules for Sister Sarah.
How Available Is It?: There’s a nice two-disc special edition with several documentaries.