Monday, March 12, 2007

A Better Eastwood

Late last year I reviewed Clint Eastwood's Flags of our Fathers, the first of his diptych about the Battle for Iwo Jima, which I found well-intentioned but worthy and dull, and ultimately devoid of sufficient tension to make it a memorable war movie. The companion piece, Letters from Iwo Jima, which was surprisingly nominated for a number of Oscars and which treats of the Japanese soldiers who died defending the island, is curiously a more interesting film. The film, based mainly on the letters of Imperial General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, who is played by Ken Watanabe, is an old-fashioned Renoiresque slice of humanism, that, even if it does not quite realise the ambitions either of its subject matter or its lenght, is for the most part engaging.

As well as Gen. Kuribayashi, an equestrian champion at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics, the film focusses on the lives of a young conscripted baker Saigo, played by Japanese boyband singer Kazunari Ninomiya and the cynical but good-hearted Shimizu, played by Ryô Kase, who has been seen in such excellent Japanese films of the past few years such as Katsuhito Ishii's The Taste of Tea and Kore-Edu Hirokazu's Nobody Knows. Shimizu is a former Tokyo policeman mobilised as punishment for insubordination when he fails to kill a family pet on his beat. What makes the film most interesting is its gradual pull towards the ineluctable military humiliation seen through the eyes of men who by the end of the film have been thorougly sickened by both the ravages of the battle and the Imperial propaganda fed them. Iris Yamashita's screenplay is a bit creakily schematic in its exposition of the change in heart among the men but the performances alone are persuasive and it is good to see a film that shows the losing side of war, especially that fought by ordinary people whose cause was abominable.

Eastwood's diptych is a refreshing redressal of the simplistic hagiography of US soldiers that followed Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers, something that has since fed into bullying of any American that dared to criticise the US' involvement in Iraq. One senses that Spielberg, as co-producer on these two films, has a tinge of regret at the way his own laudable message has been used. While the film has been a huge hit in Japan, possibly the first American film about the war to be so, it is also unmistakably an Eastwood film, bearing the unfussy but well-crafted stamp of his entire oeuvre, which, even when the films are not that good, always delivers a few qualities. My opinion might be tinted by having recently seen the second half of the series, but I even think that the earlier, inferior film might be enriched by proximity to Letters from Iwo Jima. Well worth seeing.