By Elliott Feedore
Flags of Our Fathers was a sententious dirge. The lives of the soldiers made famous when photographed raising the flag at Iwo Jima were documented in a way that was both grim and maudlin; it alternated between wallowing in a dismal gloom and chuckling audibly at soupy snippets of melodramatic obsolescence. The only character that sticks to memory is Ira Hayes (Adam Beach): a weepy cartoon version of the injustices heaped upon Native Americans. Like the others, he was merely a symbol proving a point: war is bad, but soldiers are heroes. It wasn’t a critique of the military-industrial complex so much as a broad, single-minded tirade on war and the United States in general that simply didn’t hold water. Whether or not it had a valid premise, there’s a definite flaw in the undertaking if I feel compelled to guffaw at the results.
Its counterpart, Letters from Iwo Jima, is a superior movie, even if some of the pedantic earnestness is kept intact – particularly in the guise of a dum-dum American heiress and the callous shooting of a dog. Letters is unique in that it shows the same battle featured in the previous movie but from the perspective of the vanquished. Clint Eastwood, who directed both films, should be commended for his social conscience if not for his skills as a filmmaker – in this instance. The trouble is that his new film still feels like the same banal lecture that we’ve heard so many times before. And, like its predecessor, it lacks the humble language of a World War II vet’s recounting: every line of dialogue is terribly pithy. There may be a culture barrier that I’m unable to traverse, but every line sounds like a bomb going off.
The recurring presence of writer Paul Haggis is telling; Crash won its Academy Award for being meticulously contrived, and, like this picture, overwrought and purposeful. Haggis and Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby, a far more personal endeavor, was marvelously charming; it’s disappointing that their new works are drenched in pontification. Thankfully, this new epic is partly saved by an inability to translate their drab American sentimentality and guilt into Japanese.
The film is also rectified by Ken Watanabe’s portrait of a general whose mechanical restraint is slowly deteriorating. This unusual point of view is able to flesh out an equally unique character for the canon of war flicks and Watanabe’s complex performance is accurately moribund. Kudos too to our “comic relief,” Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya). He is also a refuge from the weightiness; he acts like a human being most of the time.
Letters is far from a terrible movie. It’s visually appealing if bleak and, although the direction is sometimes old-fashioned and blunt, it is also at times fluent and well-paced. However, I suspect Letters from Iwo Jima is more worth your time with the subtitles – and rhetoric – turned off.