The modern war film, whatever else it believes, is lately certain of one thing: that war is hell. Perhaps to reinforce this point, Clint Eastwood has set much of his dreary new WWII drama 'Letters From Iwo Jima" in subterranean caves, where fire rains down from above and the only available means of nourishment are earthworms dug from the soil. These visual allusions to hades, though potent, are not, however, the most striking feature of this film. Rather, the difference between this and any other gritty, realist post-saving-private-ryan war film is its perspective: it's told through the eyes of the Japanese.
The story of Iwo Jima is not a heartwarming one. The battle that raged there cost the United States some seven thousand lives, and Japan more than three times that many. It is principally remembered in the American psyche for the famous picture, taken by Joe Rosenthal, of five marines hoisting the stars and stripes up on Mount Suribachi. That event, and the shameful parading of its participants as war-hero-props by the U.S. government, was the subject of Mr. Eastwood's previous film about Iwo Jima "Flags of our Fathers". What's interesting about "Letters from Iwo Jima" is that it is not, as many dual-perspective stories end up being, an attempt to display two sides of an argument. It's after something more noble: the humanization of the enemy.
Indeed there is not much to argue about, the Japanese were outnumbered and undersupplied, and thus in a characteristic display of martial honor, dug themselves in and were brutally routed. One of the narrative failures of this film, is the utter lack of suspense with which we head towards this conclusion. From nearly the first frame of the picture, there are knowing asides and whispers among the top brass on Iwo Jima, that seem to suggest that this is a doomed mission and the likely place of death for nearly all involved. Our two chief companions, in this march towards utter ruin, are General Kuribayashi, head of the operation on Iwo Jima, and a young soldier, ripped from his pregnant wife, named Saigo. Both, I will say, give performances of considerable pathos. But that is not enough to make a great war film.
The general, an Eastwood study in hallowed male stoicism if there ever was one, arrives on the island and wastes no time in chastising an officer for being excessively brutal with the troops. In other words, he is immediately established as a compassionate leader, foreshadowing which, you would think, would mean the climactic battle is close at hand. No such luck. Instead we are made to sit through a seemingly interminable buildup towards the eventual, somewhat (if we're being honest) awe-inspiring American bombardment. Surely it wasn't Clint's intention that we should greet the sight of the encroaching yankee battleships with such relief, not out of saber-rattling patriotic pride, but out of sheer gratefulness that finally the main action is at hand. It's a pity because the device does work in some unexpected ways: so enveloped in the Japanese story do we become, that the southern drawl of the freshly landed marines sounds, at first, rather jarring. Foreign, you might even say. This contextualizing effect, unfortunately, is lost in the two plus hours of bookending drudgery that precedes and follows it. This would have been a much better film had that minor epiphany, the realization that anyone in the fog of war can be made foreign, been encased instead in a compelling storyline. Instead, this flick begins to resemble it's visual scheme: color-drained, and preaching, like a term paper and not a movie.
I will say, however, that in the final shot Eastwood accomplishes something profound: a concise, single-image statement of his thesis. The film ends with Saigo, our most beloved, and vulnerable, Japanese soldier, laid down in a row of stretchers by an American medic, his face streaked with blood. The faces next to his hail from both sides of the Pacific, and each has on it that particular agony, surely not confined to any nationality, of war. I suppose it might be too much to ask that the rendering of war as hell not be, itself, quite so much like eternal punishment.