Letters From Iwo Jima (2006)
Directed by Clint Eastwood
Screenplay by Iris Yamashita, story by Iris Yamashita & Paul Haggis, based on the book Picture Letters From Commander In Chief by Tadamichi Kuribayashi
Produced by Clint Eastwood, Steven Spielberg, Robert Lorenz
In his research for the $90 million World War II drama Flags of Our Fathers, Clint Eastwood had his interest piqued by the general who designed the ingenious defenses for Iwo Jima. Pitched as an audacious companion piece that would illustrate the battle from the perspective of the Japanese — budgeted at $20 million and shot largely on the Warner Bros. backlot — Letters From Iwo Jima turns out being vastly superior to the unwieldy Flags of Our Fathers and more complex than Saving Private Ryan or any other war movie of the past 20 years. Rejecting genre clichés like a beachhead, Eastwood’s film is both a vision and a discovery, of actors we’ve never seen before, of a place we’ve never seen portrayed on film in this way and a discovery of a culture and people reduced to caricature in other movies.
Letters From Iwo Jima owes its eyes and its heart to Iris Yamashita, a Los Angeles web programmer who’d won a screenwriting contest with a spec titled Traveler to Tokyo and whose work was referred to Paul Haggis, who Eastwood had hired to structure a screenplay. In addition to keeping the dialogue in Japanese, Yamashita paints a vibrant depiction of men sent to war; some descend into pettiness or barbarism, but for the most part, these are men who miss their families and want to go home, a quality they either already understand or soon learn they share with their enemy. Like all great movies, this one feels like it’d been waiting to be made, at least by an American filmmaker as intuitive and skilled as Eastwood. Letters From Iwo Jima is the best picture he’s directed without acting in so far.
Japanese archeologists sifting through the island of Iwo Jima in 2005 discover a mail pouch buried in the cave network abandoned in World War II. Moving back in time to 1944 — as outmanned and outgunned Japanese forces fortify the beaches of the volcanic rock against an impending American invasion — Private Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya) runs afoul with his sadistic superior Captain Tanida (Takumi Bando) when he’s overheard making comments deemed unpatriotic. A baker and comparatively weak soldier drafted into the army, Saigo writes letters home to his wife Hanako. His friend Kashiwara (Takashi Yamaguchi) becomes stricken with dysentery while Nozaki (Yuki Matsuzaki) gossips about the newly arrived General Tadamichi Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe) who received his military training in the United States.
Notified that reinforcements have been destroyed off the Marianas, Kuribayashi shifts his defenses from the beaches to Mount Suribachi, where the Japanese begin digging a cave network that will hold out much longer than a frontal assault against the Americans. The contemplative general finds an ally in Lieutenant Colonel Takeichi Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara), a charismatic cavalry officer who won gold as an equestrian in the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics. Newly arrived superior Private Shimizu (Ryo Kase) reveals to Saigo and Nozaki that he received his training as a military policeman, raising concerns that he might be a spy; the truth behind Shimizu’s deployment to Iwo Jima reveals another side to him. Drilled that Americans are weak and inferior, once the invasion begins, Saigo and the others quickly learn otherwise. Their only honorable course of action is to embrace ritual suicide.
Rotten Tomatoes “Tomatometer” average among 195 users: 91% for Letters From Iwo Jima
Metacritic “Metascore” average among leading critics: 89 for Letters From Iwo Jima
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