Letters from Iwo Jima

The nominations:

  • Best Picture
  • Directing – Clint Eastwood
  • Screenplay – Original
  • Sound Editing

The Black-and_White:

(Review by GKS:)

I’d like to say that this was the Best Motion Picture of the Year. I’d really, really, really like to.

Does Clint Eastwood deserve the Academy Award for Directing? Indeed, he does.

Letters from Iwo Jima and Flags of our Fathers were released a companion movies, with the latter being released first, and the Letters in December when, I suspect, the producers realized that there were a lot of crappy movies in 2006, and they had a legitimate chance at winning the big prize.

As I’m sure everyone knows, the two movies explored the epic WWII Battle of Iwo Jima from opposite perspectives: Flags was told from the American perspective (and truly focussed less on the battle, and more on the aftermath and impact on the lives of the surviving flag-raisers), whereas Letters was the story of the Japanese soldiers fighting, without hope, a battle to delay for as long as possible the invasion of the Japanese mainland.

Here’s what IMDB had to say about Flags of our Fathers:

“In February, 1945, one of the fiercest battles of the Pacific theater of World War II occurs on the tiny island of Iwo Jima. Thousands of Marines attack the stronghold maintained by thousands of Japanese, and the slaughter on both sides is horrific. Early in the battle, an American flag is raised atop the high point, Mount Suribachi, and a photograph of the raising becomes an American cause celebre. As a powerful inspiration to war-sick Americans, the photo becomes a symbol of the Allied cause. The three surviving flag raisers, Rene Gagnon, John Bradley, and Ira Hayes, are whisked back to civilization to help raise funds for the war effort. But the accolades for heroism heaped upon the three men are at odds with their own personal realizations that thousands of real heroes lie dead on Iwo Jima, and that their own contributions to the fight are only symbolic and not deserving of the singling out they are experiencing. Each of the three must come to terms with the honors, exploitation, and grief that they face simply for being in a photograph.”

and Letters from Iwo Jima:

“The island of Iwo Jima stands between the American military force and the home islands of Japan. Therefore the Imperial Japanese Army is desperate to prevent it from falling into American hands and providing a launching point for an invasion of Japan. General Tadamichi Kuribayashi is given command of the forces on the island and sets out to prepare for the imminent attack. General Kuribayashi, however, does not favor the rigid traditional approach recommended by his subordinates, and resentment and resistance fester among his staff. In the lower echelons, a young soldier, Saigo, a poor baker in civilian life, strives with his friends to survive the harsh regime of the Japanese army itself, all the while knowing that a fierce battle looms. When the American invasion begins, both Kuribayashi and Saigo find strength, honor, courage, and horrors beyond imagination.”

These were both very, very good movies. I understand why Flags had a tougher reception; I think its message may have hit too close to home in the American psyche, given the propaganda we here daily about the War on Terror, and the fight against the Axis of Evil. nevertheless, I thought it was a deep, multilayer, entertaining, illumating insight into one of the most iconic images in American history.

Letters from Iwo Jima had a completely different voice. Indeed it had a completely different language, being almost entirely in Japanese, and subtitled in English. And so many, many things worked exquisitely in this movie:

The pacing was brilliant. Understated, and yet the tension of impending doom lit every scence. It’s not easy to make the audience care for people who we all know are all gonna die. And by the way, didn’t we want them all to die, since they were the “enemy”? It turns out the answer is no, and that is a big part of why this movie works so well.

There were true sympathetic heroes among the Japanese soldiers (General Tadamichi Kuribayashi played by Ken Watanabe; Saigo played by Kazunari Ninomiya; Baron Nishi played by Tsuyoshi Ihara, to name a few). Interestingly, the conflict these characters experience, and their enemies, are not the opposing American forces, but are rather internal to themselves, or among the Japanese soldiers.

The important result of this is that I cared. True, I was taken on a horrific journey through a gruesome battle, and there never really was much hope for any of them. But I still wanted to watch. I wanted to see them live, and die, and somehow hope-against-hope that something good would come out of so much carnage.

The acting was superb. The cinematography was excellent. The story was tight. Letters just about had it all, and I wish I could say it was the Best Picture of the Year. It almost was, but my heart was given to Little Miss Sunshine.

But let me qualify that judgement with two thoughts:

– I view Letters and Flags as really one movie, told in a two-part, “to be continued” fashion. If you put the two films together, and view them as one, then, I think, you have not only the best picture of 2006, but one of the classics of all time.

– The fact that Letters took my so far down a road I really didn’t think I could walk. How could I “cheer” for the enemy of the allies? After all, my father is a WWII air force veteran, and he fought against the heroes of this movie. And how could I become so immersed in the lives of characters, and so impressed with the performances of the actors, when the nuances of their speech must have been only partially conveyed in the subtitles? This movie got me, hook, line and sinker. I cared.

Maybe given all the obstacles it had to overcome, maybe, just maybe, it is the Best Motion Picture of the Year.

There is no doubt, given the nominees, that Clint Eastwood deserves the Directing nod.

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