Letters from Iwo Jima

After the mixed bag of Flags of Our Fathers – intriguing but soulless – the idea of a ‘sequel’, to make Clint Eastwood’s study of Iwo Jima something of a ‘saga’, wasn’t the year’s most favourably-received suggestion. While Flags… put across some interesting points, it pretty much boiled down to a ‘war is hell’ moral and, stylistically, appeared to borrow heavily from Saving Private Ryan.

The same is true of Letters From Iwo Jima but it has so much more heart. On this evidence, this enthralling and moving follow-up – the same story but seen from the Japanese perspective – feels like Letters…was the film that Eastwood really wanted to make; it makes Flags… feels even more of a contractual obligation.

Eastwood is clearly more engaged by the emotional depth and unusual perspective offered by the Japanese viewpoint. At a certain level, yes, as said above, it’s more ‘war is hell’ cliché in a bleached out Saving Private Ryan style, but the originality and revelatory nature of the story – based on genuine letters, as the name suggests – piques the curiosity, tugs delicately at the heartstrings and prods subtly at the tear ducts. It also rounds out the previous film, making the war a human experience rather than the usual simplistic ‘good guys’ v ‘bad guys’ Hollywood product.

The main character is Lt General Tadamichi Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe), leader of the Japanese defence but former envoy to the United States. He opposed the war with America – a country he loved and a people he admired – but, for the sake of his country, fought with conviction, turning what was expected to be a short operation for the US military into a fierce 40-day battle. By implication, from our western standpoint, the Japanese are the ‘enemy’ in war films and we have a ‘clear’ image of how they will behave. Eastwood’s film, while a blend of fiction and events inspired by Kuribayashi’s letters home, show’s the truth of the matter: a group of tired, under-prepared and inexperienced young men generally afraid of dying and caught up in the ‘honourable’ traditions of their country.

The washed out look of Letters from Iwo Jima is entirely appropriate. This is a powerful film that blurs the edges and operates outside of the supposed black and white / cut and dried take of most war films: Letters is both shot and told in shades of grey. Intelligent, captivating and poignant. So good, in fact, that you may even be left reconsidering the verdict you passed on Flags of Our Fathers.

Stuart O'Connor is the Managing Editor of Screenjabber, the movie review website he co-founded with Neil Davey far too many years ago. He likes all genres, as long as the film is good (although he does enjoy the occasional bad "guilty pleasure"), and drinks way too much coffee.

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