"Flags" Soundtrack
Cinema Signal:

Flags of Our Fathers:
Heroes of Iwo Jima

by James Bradley, Ron Powers

The Last Lieutenant:
A Foxhole View of the Epic Battle for Iwo Jima

. "Letters From Iwo Jima"
(aka, "Red Sun, Black Sand", "Iou Jima kara no tegami")

There's an epic quality contained in Clint Eastwood's dedication to the telling of a single battle from the perspectives of opposing sides. Tackling the project as two separate movies seems to suggest a deep desire to impart meaning and significance to the issues of war as symbolized in one batle, and perhaps convey part, at least, what World War II involved, for the benefit of later generations. At the same time, and maybe because any such lofty goal is really not achieved, the film pair is first and foremost a cinematic concept.

I believe that all will agree that this 2nd panel in the Iwo Jima diptitch by Eastwood is the less dynamic, less engaging of the two. For reasons that are more cinematic than cultural, Eastwood's effort to create an emotional connection to the characters is wanting, and it has nothing to do with being able to feel something for the "enemy." It's perfectly clear that the characters here are human being with much the same mental and emotional makeup as any soldier in any war.

The matter of interesting us in unknown actors in leading roles is a challenge for any filmmaker, but before you start thinking that because Eastwood is the director this vital part of storytelling must be adequate, see how Mel Gibson accomplished so much more in his character introduction scene of a band of tribal hunters in "Apocalypto." The level of sympathy for the japanese boys on the island of Iwo Jima doesn't compare to your how you see your own humanity represented in the Mayan fellows. The limited connection here may account for a certain level of boredom in the relating of events here, on the Japanese side of this conflict. The magisterial presence of Ken Watanabe helps, as do the revealing details of a doomed army, but it stretches far enough to swamp interest.

The U.S. needed to take the island because of its strategic importance in the fight against Japan, with it's famed Mount Suribachi on which the victors flag was planted (as recorded in one of the most iconic photographs in our history). The need was so great, that the size of the force sent to carry out the mission was massive enough to assure victory. The only question was how quickly it could be done and at what cost in our soldiers' lives.

As for enemy life, all those remaining to defend the island were pretty much committing hari kari. At a time when Tokyo was receiving so many losses on the seas and other battlefields, when the possibility of reinforcements was just about gone, as was ammunition, the fact of their soldiering on tells something about the ethos of the Japanese mind set at the time. Some might call it a misplaced sense of honor. Just ask those Japanese troops who wanted nothing more than to surrender to the U.S. army.

This stubborness in the face of increasingly certain defeat explains why it took two atom bombs to bring a final surrender.

So it was, in the mind of General Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe) when he took cammand of the island, (as his letters record) to acquit themselves well and bring honor to the Imperial homeland, even if defeat was to be the eventual outcome. To this end, one his first orders to his troops was to kill 10 enemy soldiers before dying.

Kuribayashi had two things going for him: he was schooled in America and therefore knew the American character and mindset-- knowledge that could be applied in the defense of the island; and a superior intellect with which to devise the most effective strategies. The record will show just how effective they were. The conflict raged much longer than anyone might have expected, and the U.S. sustained far more casualties before the last few Japanese flew the white flag.

Kuribayashi's first order of business is to tour the island and study the maps in order to anticipate the attack. He becomes clear in the judgement that the beach defenses planned by his predecessor and subordinate command is all wrong. They'd be decimated in hours. Instead, his call is for defensive positions from on high, in the many caves and revetment on Mount Suribachi itself.(p) But this plan receives nothing but disdain from his staff officers who can't get off the track that they should have defended from the beach. This disgreement with the superior but untraditional mode of defense develops into a virtual mutiny that manifests itself as self-destructive during the battle itself. But, even with that internecine rebellion, his plan proves to be visionary and costlier to the invaders than the more traditional defense would have been.

Beside the general, the central character for our understanding and sympathies is Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya), a young baker who leaves a pregnant wife for the island battle. The third best casting goes to Baron Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara), an old friend of Kuribayashi's, a horseman and known womanizer whose dashing and energetic presence provides some needed spirit to the proceedings despite the limited time he's on screen.

Eastwood provides some visual and contextual escapes with flashbacks -- his characters' key memories of home, loved ones and, in the case of the general, a party in his honor in the U.S. prior to the outbreak of the war.

Just as he did in the predecessor film, "Flags of Our Fathers," with which it was shot back-to-back, Eastwood's cinematographer Tom Stern desaturated the color, giving both films a gunmetal tonality appropriate to the theme and setting.

Eastwood himself composed the music and he relied on a collaboration between Iris Yamashita and Paul Haggis ("Crash") for the screenplay. Other literary contributions came from Tadamichi Kuribayashi's own book, which clearly inspired the movie, "Picture Letters from Commander in Chief" and from the books' editor, Tsuyoko Yoshido.

No one has ever said that Eastwood, as a filmmaker, lacks courage. If this film proves anything it's exactly that he does. He'll as soon do a film for the arthouse ("Bird") as for the mainstream ("Million Dollar Baby") determined, I infer, by one factor: his belief in the subject. His belief in the need to tell the story of this battle in such comprehensive detail is to be commended even if it's more National Geographic than a fully engaging action movie. It is what he wanted it to be and it will appeal greatlyly to those who put value on the faithful re-creation of military battles. Others may consider it an effort to sit through and a failure but no one will disagree that it comes with a pedigree.

One may argue with general Eastwood's filmmaking strategies but it would be futile to do so. The general just gravitates toward blazing new film trails; it's in his genetic makeup as much as in his ammo belt.

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                                      ~~ Jules Brenner
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Ken Watanable as general Tadamichi Kuribayashi
His letters home inspired the movie.
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