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LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Ken Watanabe, Kazunari Ninomiya, Tsuyoshi Ihara, Ryo Kase, Shidou Nakamura
Director: Clint Eastwood
Audio: Japanese Dolby Digital 5.1 (with English Subtitles)
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.40:1
Studio: Warner Bros.
Features: See Review
Length: 140 Minutes
Release Date: May 22, 2007

“If our children can live safely for one more day, it would be worth the one more day that we defend this island.”

Film ****

Clint Eastwood never ceases to amaze me. In his late 70s, Mr. Eastwood is making one phenomenal artistic triumph after another. His cinematic reflection on the battle of Iwo Jima resulted in two of the truly best films of last year.

The first was Flags of Our Fathers, a look at the battle from the American perspective. In particular it dealt with the effect that the famous photograph of the American flag being raised on the island had on three U.S. soldiers upon returning home. The three soldiers also deal with the unwarranted branding of the term “hero”, as the U.S. government urges them to use their publicized heroics as a way to sell war bonds.

The second film is Letters From Iwo Jima and, very understandably, it was proclaimed as not only the stronger of the two films but one of the finest war films to ever be brought to the screen. I can certainly say that such a labeling is most appropriate. This is a war film that takes you to a place you would never expect to go as a viewer, and leaves such an amazing impact that you will never forget what you have just seen.

This film is the battle of Iwo Jima as seen from the Japanese perspective. Ever since World War II took place, we’ve come to give the Japanese one simple title when referring to it, that of the enemy. Watching the film, you come to realize something about the people who were deemed as the opposing side; they were no different than us.

This chapter in the Iwo Jima saga details the Imperial Japanese Army’s intention of defending the island against American forces. The story is told mostly from the perspective of General Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe), a man who can very much be described as the Japanese answer to General Patton. He regrets being forced into the position of going to war with the United States, but nevertheless he goes forth with the plan, doing his duty for honor and for his country.

And much like The Thin Red Line, the story delves into the souls of a few soldiers in Kuribayashi’s unit. We are given flashbacks to moments in their lives before going off to fight. We learn a great deal about these men, both fascinating and heartbreaking. The most surprising of which involves Baron Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara), who before the war was a champion equestrian, and was even friends with a number of famous American movie stars.

Just as he did with Flags of Our Fathers, Eastwood doesn’t hold back in displaying the brutal war violence. What’s more riveting this time around is that by the time the island of Iwo Jima comes under attack, we have already become emotionally involved with Kuribayashi and his men that we don’t want to see them killed in battle anymore than we did our men. And we also are shown the brutal effects of war from both sides, as in one scene we see the Japanese brutally attack a couple of American prisoners, and later in the film we see the same thing happen when two Japanese soldiers are captured by the American side. It a bold statement that no matter what side one is on, war casts a horrifying effect.

There’s no doubt in my mind that Letters From Iwo Jima will become one of the most important war films of our time. For once, we are given a glimpse of a historic war from a different perspective, ignoring the stereotyped characterizations we’ve seen in so many other movies about WWII and bringing a great deal of humanity. The result is harrowing and unforgettable.

Both this film and Flags of Our Fathers should be considered an altogether masterpiece. Both films show us moving chapters from this period in our history. And with these two films, Eastwood has made his most bold and arguably his most artistic work to date.

Video ****

A superbly terrific anamorphic presentation from Warner Bros. Like Flags of Our Fathers, Eastwood provides a fitting monochromatic picture to the film. While this might present a challenge for a DVD picture to look good, the quality on this picture is absolutely amazing. There is much rich detail to be seen here, and Tom Stern’s cinematography is beautifully rendered. Quite beautiful and absorbing.

Audio ****

The 5.1 mix is stunning as can be. The dialogue is strongly delivered and is clear throughout. The battle sequences provide furious and explosive surround sound, and the riveting score by Kyle Eastwood is delivered beautifully. Top notch sound quality all the way!

Features ***

The two-disc Special Edition offers some nice insight into the film’s production. The extras are all found on Disc Two, and they include the featurettes “Red Sun, Black Sand: The Making of Letters From Iwo Jima” and “The Faces of Combat: The Cast of Letters From Iwo Jima”, as well as a photo gallery titled “Images from the Frontlines: The Photography of Letters From Iwo Jima”. Also featured is a November 2006 World Premiere at Budokan in Tokyo, a November 2006 Press Conference and a Theatrical Trailer. 

Summary:

Letters From Iwo Jima is without question one of the most powerful and absorbing war movies ever made. Clint Eastwood has crafted an unforgettable masterpiece with a great deal of humanity. It is truly a film to be remembered for years to come.

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