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Letters from Iwo Jima

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Looking for America: Ken Watanabe (right) portrays Japanese Gen. Kuribayashi
  • Looking for America: Ken Watanabe (right) portrays Japanese Gen. Kuribayashi

Now that Clint Eastwood is an artist, and not a cowboy or a vigilante, I still don't like his movies very much: What some find to be profound simplicity, I find to be simplistic, or at best merely simple, although Million Dollar Baby was nicely done, a good solid drama in a Hollywood style with an issue (euthanasia) at its core.

This past year, Eastwood made an unusual pair of films. First came Flag of Our Fathers, the story of the taking of Iwo Jima during World War II, and how the American government exploited a famous photograph, using it to tell some necessary lies to bolster a flagging war economy. And now, there's Letters from Iwo Jima, based on some actual letters, written by Japanese soldiers, found buried in a fortified cave on the island decades after the end of the war.

It would be nonsense to call Letters from Iwo Jima the story told "from the Japanese point of view." Every scene in Eastwood's movie is straight out of every other Hollywood anti-war movie about brave men dying for their national honor. The Japanese characters in Letters talk a lot about Emperor and Country, but the screenplay offers no historical or ideological substance or context, just another story about the bloody young carnage of war.

In Flag of Our Fathers, Eastwood spent quite a while showing American boys arriving on the beach and getting slaughtered by the Japanese arsenal. In Letters, all of that lasts for a few minutes, and then the Japanese begin their slide toward defeat. Was Eastwood afraid to show the Japanese celebrating their initial victories? I thought this was the Japanese point of view.

In the bunkers, the Japanese army is led by a general (Ken Watanabe) who once dined elegantly in America with his American military counterparts. He forms an immediate friendship with an Olympic equestrian gold medalist who, before the war, lived in Los Angeles and mingled with Hollywood royalty.

These flashbacks ask us why we can't all get along, as do other vignettes: A banker wants to see his wife and newborn child; a husband regrets that he didn't have time to finish the kitchen floor. Letters from Iwo Jima has its powerful moments, like a circle of ritual suicide involving hand grenades clutched tightly to the gut. It's all exquisitely filmed, in faded colors that highlight only the reds of blood and fire, by a director who knows his craft.

But in the end, it's all rather dull, and only enlightening if you live in the dark. "Do what is right because it is right," one soldier tells his troops. But what's the cause? What's right about it? When a Japanese soldier says he was taught that Americans were cowards and savages, and that he's now learned it's not true, I thought: Yes, and this is our lesson, too, about our long-ago enemy. In Japanese, with subtitles.

Starts Fri., Jan. 19.

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