It has been said that with age comes much wisdom, so it shouldn't surprise anyone that Clint Eastwood is in the midst of an astonishing streak as a director -- one masterfully realized film (Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby; to a lesser extent, Flags of Our Fathers) after another has been neatly deposited in multiplexes since the early part of the 21st century. With Letters from Iwo Jima, Eastwood has rendered another finely textured cinematic achievement, one which will perhaps stand out above the others, not least because of its focus: Letters from Iwo Jima is an empathetic war film, a rarity in that it burrows deep into the psyche of the enemy and emerges with a shattering portrait of the sacrifices war imposes.
Functioning as a bookend to the much less effective Flags of Our Fathers, Eastwood's dissection of the Iwo Jima conflict from the American perspective, Letters from Iwo Jima approaches that bloody siege from the opposing side, tucking into the network of caves dug beneath the blackened sand and watching as options decrease in number. Ken Watanabe delivers a mesmerizing performance as Kuribayashi, the Japanese general in charge of holding it all together; adapted from Kuribayashi's posthumous memoir "Picture Letters from Commander in Chief" by Iris Yamashita, Letters from Iwo Jima is a penetrating, poignant glimpse into the rigid, prideful ranks of the Imperial Army. Using missives home to loved ones as a loose sort of narrative, Letters from Iwo Jima follows Kuribayashi, along with soldiers Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya) and Shimizu (Ryo Kase); Baron Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara), a champion Olympic equestrian, befriends Kuribayashi while serving as a buffer between the learned general and some of his more fanatical subordinates.
The arc of the story is hardly surprising (unless you haven't picked up a history textbook at some point during your life), but what amazes throughout is the nuance and rich sense of humanity that Eastwood brings to this chapter of our nation's history, not to mention a people, that has been routinely marginalized and stereotyped in American war films in the ensuing decades since World War II. As the Japanese battlefield strategy begins to crumble, Letters from Iwo Jima doesn't flinch and pulls the viewer even closer to madness, as panicked soldiers begin contemplating suicide as an honorable exit from an unwinnable situation -- much like another brilliant, recent World War II film, Downfall, you're placed alongside these men, the panic palpable, as they face their final moments.
Nearly drained of color, save for a few explosions and the Japanese flag, Letters from Iwo Jima feels, at times, even more rooted in reality than did Flags of Our Fathers, where the Saving Private Ryan vibe undermined, rather than enhanced, the final product. Here, where scant few familiar faces are on display, you have an easier time engaging the film. Taken together with Flags of Our Fathers, Eastwood's examination of a crucial moment in history is a breathtaking, if slightly strained, achievement, one that lays bare the ugly realities of war and captures a master filmmaker at the height of his abilities.
The almost-monochromatic visuals nevertheless look lush and richly detailed in this 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer, retaining the evocative grit cinematographer Tom Stern's images had in theaters and providing the sharp, clean look that befits a recently created film. A beautiful digital rendering.
The Japanese Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is active and immersive, with plenty of kick to the explosions and gunfire and appropriate warmth and clarity afforded the passages of dialogue. It's a clean, distortion-free mix that matches the visuals step for step. Optional English subtitles are included, as are optional French and Spanish subtitles.
All of the supplemental material in this set is housed on the second disc; the first disc contains only the movie. As is customary with Eastwood films on DVD, there isn't much to sift through, but what's offered is of a level that merits at least a cursory examination. The 20 minute, 58 second featurette "Red Sun, Black Sand: The Making of 'Letters from Iwo Jima'," is presented in anamorphic widescreen and includes comments from most of the film's major players. The 18 minute, 36 second featurette "The Faces of Combat: The Cast of 'Letters from Iwo Jima'," is presented in anamorphic widescreen and will no doubt help familiarize American audiences with the largely unknown Japanese cast. The three minute, 24 second "Images from the Frontlines: The Photography of 'Letters from Iwo Jima'," is likewise presented in anamorphic widescreen; it's basically a stills gallery, accompanied by the film's plaintive score. Rounding out the disc is 16 minutes of fullscreen footage from the film's Nov. 15, 2006 world premiere at Budo-kan in Tokyo; 24 minutes, 26 seconds of fullscreen footage from the Nov. 16, 2006 press conference held at the Grand Hyatt Tokyo and the film's theatrical trailer (inexplicably presented in fullscreen).
Taken together with the American-oriented Flags of Our Fathers, director Clint Eastwood's examination of a crucial moment in history -- the bloody siege of Iwo Jima -- is a breathtaking, if slightly strained, achievement, one that lays bare the ugly realities of war and captures a master filmmaker at the height of his abilities. Highly recommended.
Portions of this review were reprinted from the Oklahoma Gazette.