Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #209
Director: Clint Eastwood
Starring: Ken Watanabe and Kazunari Ninomiya
It's odd that it's taken me this long to see Letters from Iwo Jima; when it was released at the same time as its companion piece, the also Clint Eastwood-directed Flags of Our Fathers, I went to the theater with the history club at my high school to see that film – my first Eastwood picture – and loved it. Critically, the rumination on life on the home front for the raisers of the American flag in the iconic photograph taken at Iwo Jima that Flags of Our Fathers offered was considered a fairly pedestrian effort by Eastwood, while Letters from Iwo Jima, told instead from the Japanese perspective and taking place almost entirely on the island of Iwo Jima itself, raked in all the praise and Oscar nominations. The theaters in my hometown didn't get Letters from Iwo Jima, though. They probably thought that the kind of people who go to movies here wouldn't like to read subtitles to a Japanese script for two-and-a-half hours, and they were probably right. Either way, I didn't see the film until now when I decided to watch it for this blog, and I can't quite side with the critics. While Letters from Iwo Jima provides a perspective on one of the most famous battles of World War II that is rarely seen in the West, Flags of Our Fathers is simply the more interesting film. That doesn't mean Letters isn't a good movie, though, because it certainly is.
The most notable thing about this movie is that it sees Clint Eastwood directing in a language that he presumably doesn't know. Bilingual actors and on-set translators may have helped, but any way you slice it, it's incredibly impressive that Eastwood managed to get such moving performances out of people speaking a language that he – and the majority of his audience – couldn't understand. Ken Watanabe, one of the hardest-working and best actors of the last decade, shines in a rare leading role as the Japanese general in charge of defending Iwo Jima, and a cast of unknowns (unknown to American moviegoers, anyway) backs him up with poise.
As far as what we actually see onscreen, Letters from Iwo Jima isn't so different from, well, every war movie in the All Quiet on the Western Front tradition ever made. There's character development about the lives that the soldiers left at home (In this case, we learn about their lives in the form of letters they write from the island, which is a nice deviation from the standard trope.), there's scenes that graphically show the horror of war, there's some discussion of the war's futility, there's tragedy, and there's eventually resolution. There's nothing wrong with that – All Quiet on the Western Front was a phenomenal movie, after all, and aping the formula of something that works is always better than aping the formula of something that doesn't. But even though the film is in Japanese and the letters home written by the general and the private add a bit of another dimension to the movie, it's just hard to get excited about something we've seen this many times. I'm a Clint Eastwood nut, and hell, I bought this movie and would even give it something like an 8 out of 10, but I'm not seeing how this gets on the list and Flags of Our Fathers doesn't. It's worth your time, and at the very least it will hold your attention, but I'm afraid Letters from Iwo Jima belongs in the same category as Million Dollar Baby as a very good but still highly overrated film from one of the best directors of all time, Mr. Clint Eastwood.
The Good: Clint directing in Japanese impresses the hell out of me.
The Bad: The plot is a carbon copy of every war movie plot ever. It's more interesting than something like The Thin Red Line or The Longest Day, but it's still no masterpiece.
The Skinny: I can deal with it being on the list because it's so good at what it does, but there's no real excuse for this being rated nearly a full point higher on IMDb than its companion film.