Tuesday, March 18, 2008

LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA: MOVIE REVIEW

Cast: Ken Watanabe, Kazunari Ninomiya, Tsuyoshi Ihara, Ryo Kase, Shido Nakamura
Director: Clint Eastwood
Rating: *****
Runtime: 141 min.
Genre: War, Drama, History

Andy Dufresne declares, in The Shawshank Redemption, one of the pillars of life I hold with great belief near to my heart– Hope is a good thing, probably the best of things, and good things never die. Clint Eastwood is one I revere, and his films mean more to me personally than they should. I have resisted numerous moments of temptation where the lure of an easy download was seemingly too much to bear. Yet, I hoped that I’ll one day get to watch this film on the big screen, the viewing it so much deserves, and that hope carried me through. When I finally installed myself on the seat, with one half of the ticket-stub in my hand, it was a great moment for me and my belief. Small moment in magnitude, but a great one it will be in its everlasting significance.
The greatest of films echo what you bring along with yourself, irrespective of the subject they are based on. Hope was what I brought with myself this day, and satisfaction, and spiritual inspiration. I have never been much of a letter-man myself, in that the emotional gravity supposedly surrounding the written words has always managed to bypass me, inspite of being far from home for considerable stretches of time. But then again, I have not nearly managed a distance the soldiers at war feel every moment of the day. And one doesn’t need to be there to understand it. Those simple words written in those letters carry all the hope in all of the wide world, and few things in our world bind every one of its peoples with such resonance and maybe, that is what overwhelmed me.
Letters from Iwo Jima is Clint Eastwood’s companion to Flags of our Fathers, the two films that look upon the Battle of Iwo Jima from the points of view of both camps, the Japanese and the Allies respectively. The battle for a barren, volcanic piece of land that wasted innumerable soldiers. The battle that lasted for 40 odd days with the Japanese digging a labyrinth of tunnels, and probably their graves. What these films attempt is to exist at their core as mirror images of each other, the Japanese soldier trying to understand if the man on the other side is any different. At times, it seems, one is providing answers to the questions posed in the other. There’s a sequence in Flags of our Fathers where Ryan Philippe walks into one of the caves and his face is filled with absolute horror at the carnage before him. The carnage is never revealed to us, and we’re only left to imagine what could have been so haunting. In Letters from Iwo Jima, when a group of Japanese soldiers on Mount Suribachi blow themselves with their own hand grenades, in an act of Seppuku (ritual suicide) honoring the Bushido code of honor, it is a powerful sequence of unending meditation upon the nature of a soldier. The soldiers who perform it aren’t Samurais by any stretch of the imagination; they’re simple family men who write grieving letters to their loved ones in a hope to return home. Yet something drives them, to cry out loud and pull the grenade near to their hearts and pull the pin and shred themselves to pieces. And I choose to believe it has little to do with the fear of the commanding officer and the firearm in his hand.
One reason for the greatness of the film, and its profundity is it subverts the temptation to go the easy way and show graphic war images and rouse the anti-war pro-soldier feelings. The good war films always manage to find a channel to the emotional aftermaths of a war the soldier has to undergo and those aren’t limited to combat. That most films of this genre decide to show bullets blazing on all sides with limbs going for a toss is just another manner of entertainment through shock because few of these have any level of understanding. It is just a pretense under which they hide the ignorance of their intellect. More so after Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, probably the only good film of its kind. Clint Eastwood is a man of 75, and one of great intellect and wisdom. One that has been earned, not learned. He carefully sidesteps these obligatory landmines for more emotionally intense and claustrophobic sequences set inside the tunnel, affecting us with the soldiers. It is not about the courage behind the Banzai attack but the vulnerability behind the fear of imminent death. It is a better film than its companion purely because each of its characters leaves an indelible impression. Flags of our Fathers did get a bit heavy-handed, but this here as all the maturity that a film made by Eastwood so very much deserves. The soldiers die of dysentery borne out of unhealthy water and unlivable heat. They are grossly undersupplied and their leader, General Tadamichi Kuribayashi knows more than well that defeat is a foregone conclusion. Yet the man plans unendingly so as to give his men another day to live. Most of whom having never ever even ventured near a firearm, let alone a war zone. As the greatest of war films, this film so very much exemplifies the enormity of an ordinary man stuck in an extraordinary situation.
Eastwood for most of his career has examined the very nature of killing. In Unforgiven, in Mystic River, in Million Dollar Baby. Killing is far more than taking a man’s life, and beyond it, and more than anything else, Eastwood’s career can be summarized through the various facets of it he has presented, and the reasons he thinks lurk behind each of them. Kuribayashi was a vastly learnt man, and in the United States he carried out extensive research on the technological front and its military implications. It was long before the war, and he won over many friends. In a superb sequence showcasing the excellence of Ken Watanabe as an actor, he is presented with a Colt 1911 as a farewell gift. When he’s asked by the wife of one of his US military counterparts if he would kill her husband in case of a war, Kuribayashi nonchalantly replies in the affirmative. For his country, he says. Most of the soldiers here live under the impression that the guy on the other side is a savage, and a coward. A relatively lesser human being, for none of them have known anyone. And for most of them, I believe, it was easy to pull the trigger. There’re two soldiers, Kuribayashi and the Olympic gold medalist show jumper Lt. Colonel Baron Nishi, who have stayed in foreign lands and met its people, and they happen to know better. They even understand the other man, and more than any other man they are better capable of putting a face on him, yet they kill. Out of patriotism, out of professionalism. It is fascinating. The killing isn’t limited to there. A higher ranking officer asks of his men to kill themselves by passing an order. Kuribayashi confesses to his men, in a poignant speech that their defense is a futile attempt and at best an exercise in delaying the inevitable, yet he asks of them to die defending in honor. Not surrender. The real Kuribayashi died under mysterious circumstances, and his letters are one of the great artifacts of the war. Eastwood might have made a war about Japanese, but through them he addresses every soldier of every army who has ended on the losing side and in turn has been ignored royally through the medium of cinema.
At this point of time I’m not sure if what I have seen is a masterpiece, but I know that I’ll be watching this film again. It is the kind of film that needs to be watched twice to feel every moment put on screen, and get enriched by it. There’s behind it the wisdom of one of cinema’s great knights, and its soothing touch is humbling. Alongwith its companion, Eastwood has lent the genre with an altogether different and profound viewpoint. As they prepare for the final suicide attack, Kuribayashi promises his men – “A day will come when they will weep and pray for your souls.” I don’t know if the real man claimed thus, but I’m sure of one thing. If ever a soldier who fought there in those trenches could watch this film, he would weep in gratitude for the acknowledgement. And I don’t think there is any greater achievement for a picture on war.

7 comments:

Sadanand Renapurkar said...

About your last note, doesn't every Indian soldier who fought against China in 1962 war command that acknowledgment. Or in 1971, one of the greatest covert operation ever in the history of the world. What we have is pseudo-patriotic, ultra melodramatic movies made which missed their very point.

Anonymous said...

Hi Satish,

You have captured the essence of this movie beautifully. I tried to hold myself but failed miserably and somehow started comparing this movie with Gadar , LOC and even Border and then I realised I committed a sin. J

Manish

Sadanand Renapurkar said...

A reelthought,
There's an article in today's THE TELEGRAPH about the manner in which the arms deal with Israel are being conducted, an issue raised by CPI-M. There have been many instances of accusation about the use of a middleman by certain arms firms. Be it Bofors (Sweden), IAI, Rafael (Israel), Denel (South Africa), we have something going on here that's untold.
So I was thinking a good script can be written (maybe like what Soderberg's Traffic did for illegal drugs nexus(I read the movie Traffic was base on a BBC show Traffik)), this picture will do the same for arms deals issue. It'll give a different perspective to people to think. Accurate/factual or otherwise it'll be very intriguing.
What happened with the movie Trade(base on a news article) shouldn't happen. It was a weak movie lacking dramatic tension.

Sadanand Renapurkar said...

I just read the link you supplied in the review of TWBB. I must tell you, I lean towards Jim Emerson. I don't hate Day-Lewis, but did feel he keeps viewer at a hand's length trying to dictate what we should feel. I also agree that he does manipulate certain nuances of the character so well that it becomes eerie. When it comes to technique, he's the master. But when it comes to getting under the skin of the character, I have my reservations. I've seen Unbearable Lightness of the Being, Gangs of New York, In the name of the Father, he's never Gerry Conlon, hardly trying to be him instead trying to show "us" he is.

Sadanand Renapurkar said...

When I see Day-Lewis and Philip Saymour Hoffman, an actor I revere, in 'Before the Devil Knows you're Dead', I can see the difference. But I'll maintain that any argument about acting and cinema is not authentic unless it has something to do with emotion and subjectivity.

Sadanand Renapurkar said...

I find it strange when certain critics (actually many of'em) choose to raise question about the subject matter of a film. How can one possibly argue one shouldn't make a movie on a particular subject? If you are commenting on the colors/shades used in a painting, that's fine. But if you're objecting the very theme about which the painting is, that's not healthy criticism. e.g. Funny Games, Half the reviewers dislike subject itself. If movies can be made about laughter and pain and insecurities, hell they can be made about torture and sadism, don't you think?

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