Last fall, amidst a wave of Oscar-attracting hype, the first of Clint Eastwood’s two movies dealing with the World War II battle of Iwo Jima, Flags of Our Fathers, arrived in cinemas. Flags was a solid drama, sincere with its subject matter and featuring fine performances by Adam Beach and Ryan Phillipe. But it also suffered from a story structure that was all over the place and characters that were close to impossible to connect with. Given the talent involved, one could not help but feel a bit let down by the end result. Fortunately, Clint and company had an ace up their sleeve: Letters From Iwo Jima, the companion piece to Flags that takes a look at the same island conflict, only this time from the side of the Japanese army.
Iwo Jima focuses on five Japanese men, two soldiers and three officers, who are sent to the island knowing that in all probability they will not come back. Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya) is a baker who wants only to live to see the face of his newborn daughter. Baron Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara) is an Olympic equestrian champion known around the world for his skill and his honor. Shimizu (Ryo Kase) is a young former military policeman whose idealism has not yet been tested by war, and Lieutenant Ito (Shidou Nakamura) is a strict military man who would rather accept suicide than surrender.
Leading the Japanese island forces is Lt. General Tadamichi Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe), whose travels in America have revealed to him not only the hopeless nature of the war but has also a strategic insight into how to take on the vast American armada streaming in from across the Pacific. With little defense other than sheer will and the volcanic rock of the island itself, Gen. Kuribayashi’s unprecedented tactics transform what was predicted to be a quick and bloody defeat into nearly 40 days of combat, one that claimed nearly 7,000 Americans and at least 20,000 Japanese.
Letters is technically brilliant, from the production design to its near black-and-white cinematography to its sparse, beautiful score co-composed by Clint’s son, Kyle Eastwood. But at its center beats a superb screenplay by Iris Yamashita and Paul Haggis, partially based on the actual letters Kuribayashi wrote to his wife and children during the war. Along with the soldiers on the island, we feel the slow buildup of dread as the battle draws near. We feel their isolation, their longing just to go home and be with their loved ones and live ordinary lives, and their resignation that they are not only being used by their government, but also the possible fact that their one and only way off the island is death. Yamashita and Haggis” screenplay provides the rock-solid foundation from which the actors develop their characters beautifully (in particular Watanabe and Ninomiya, both of whom should have been up for Oscars this year).
Of all the American filmmakers to tackle the point of view of America’s sworn enemy in the Pacific during World War II (and do it almost entirely in Japanese, no less), Clint Eastwood would definitely not be on the short list to direct. It’s not a question of Eastwood’s filmmaking ability, far from it. It’s just that Eastwood is the working definition of an All-American motion picture icon, one of the last remaining ones at that. And an American-produced film about a famous WWII conflict from the enemy’s point of view is not a subject you would expect someone like Eastwood to tackle. But he does and does so in a way that makes Iwo Jima not only the best directorial work of his illustrious career, but also one of the all-time great motion pictures dealing with the nature of war. Eastwood steps back and lets the power of the screenplay and his acting ensemble shine through.
But there is a bit more to his work here. Eastwood displays an even-handed and non-clichéd approach to the material. It would have been easy for Clint to load the film up with your typical genre stereotypes (it doesn’t matter which army you are dealing with in which war, clichés are universal) and even easier to manipulate viewers by whitewashing the Japanese and making the Americans the bad guys. But he doesn’t do that. The soldiers that populate Letters From Iwo Jima are neither heroes nor villains. They are just everyday human beings forced into situations (some quite ugly) which are fueled by government lies and deception that offer no easy way out. This is a point of view that proves to be as relevant to today’s global situation as it was to it sixty years ago, and it’s Eastwood’s clear-eyed, non-judgmental approach to the material that gives Letters an unprecedented level of humanity and empathy, which allows it to stand head and shoulders above the rest.
Warner Home Video’s HD releases of Letters From Iwo Jima (both the HD DVD and Blu-ray editions are identical in content) coincides with Dreamworks and Paramount Home Entertainment’s HD releases of Flags of Our Fathers. While it is not as elaborate as that release, Warner’s release is worthy of addition to any HD DVD or Blu-ray collection.
The video on Letters is nothing short of spectacular. Presented in a 1080p/VC-1 encode (2.4:1 theatrical ratio), “Letters” offers everything you would hope for from a high definition transfer of a recent movie. Details are as sharp as a tack, black levels are excellent and despite the near black-and-white appearance of the movie, the low-key color scheme is impressive. Every so often, I noticed that some background details are just the slightest bit on the soft side, which is something I have noticed on other titles using the VC-1 codec. But it is definitely not enough to stop me from saying that this is one excellent transfer.
When it comes to the audio, things get even better. Warner has included a Japanese 5.1 TrueHD track on the Blu-ray release. In comparison to the 5.1 Japanese Dolby Digital track also included on the disc, the TrueHD is the clear track of choice here. A lot of the time, the movie is on the quiet side, consisting only of dialogue and the low-key music score. But when the battle scenes kick in, you might find yourself ducking and covering. Both audio tracks contain clear dialogue, immersive sound effects and surrounds and some very deep uses of bass. But the TrueHD track feels fuller, has more range and makes more of an impact.
The supplemental materials mirror the standard and HD DVD releases. While they are a bit on the lean side in comparison to the recent 2-disc edition of Flags of Our Fathers, the extras included are quite good. Given the fact that the movie was an afterthought following the production of Flags, I am guessing that we should be lucky we got any extras at all. A few are presented in 1080p high definition (which look great) and the others in 480p standard definition (which are decent but pale next to their HD brethren).
Red Sun, Black Sand: The Making of Letters From Iwo Jima (20:21) is an impressive behind the scenes look at the making of the film. Featuring interviews with Eastwood and fellow crew members, this short documentary explores Eastwood’s reasoning for telling this side of the Iwo Jima story, and the challenges of shooting the movie in Japanese with a largely Japanese cast. Costume and production design are also examined during this brief but solid supplement, and is well worth checking out.
The Faces of Combat: The Cast of Letters From Iwo Jima (19 minutes) is an interesting look at the talented cast of Japanese actors assembled for the film. Each of the lead actors are interviewed and give their thoughts on the person they are playing and the motivations the actors had for their portrayal. November 2006 World Premiere Coverage at Budo-kan in Tokyo (15 minutes) is exactly as the title implies. In this short feature, Eastwood and several cast members address the audience assembled for the film’s world premiere. Interesting for a watch, but nothing you will watch more than once or twice.
More thoughts from Clint and crew can be found in the approximately twenty minute short, November 2006 Press Conference. There are some thoughtful comments offered up by the cast members and Clint, and offers some further insight into what the film is about. Rounding out the supplemental section are the Images From the Frontlines: the Photography of Letters From Iwo Jima, a three-minute montage of still photographs from the film set to the movie’s haunting main theme (unfortunately overused in the supplements), and the excellent Theatrical Trailer, which is sadly not in HD (it is also, oddly, not subtitled in English).
Letters From Iwo Jima is yet another masterpiece from one of America’s finest directors. It would be easy to express disappointment that neither Eastwood nor the film won the Oscars they were up for at this year’s awards, but that would be taking away from the fact that we have received a powerful, beautifully made production that pulls the viewer in and stays with them for many days afterward. I’m not sure what Eastwood may have up his sleeve for an encore, but it is going to have to be something pretty damn remarkable to top this picture. Warner’s Blu-ray Disc presentation perfectly compliments Eastwood’s drama, with stunning picture and audio quality and a host of informative, interesting supplemental material. My pick for best film of 2006; both the movie and the HD presentation come highly recommended.
– Shawn Fitzgerald