Every once in a while, you stumble across a movie that sears through to your very core and reminds you why we go to the movies in the first place. Tonight, I've found just such a movie. Letters From Iwo Jima(2006).
To say that this film was "good" would be an understatement. Letters stretches beyond the mechanics of a great war movie to reach places in the heart we might not even realize are there. Exploring the human capacity to sacrifice and endure, this film brings grim reality to a famous battle most of us know only from our history textbooks.
Movies about World War II aren't all that hard to come by, and most of them have taken the same dramatic form in treating the conflict. This one finally breaks free from the patriotism-soaked melodramas of norm and breathes life into the ever-silenced American enemy. Told almost entirely in Japanese, the story follows shockingly relateable soldiers from the Imperial ranks as they prepare for and suffer through the bloodiest battle in the bloodiest war of all time. I use the word "shockingly" because I know that none of us would expect to have something in common with a Japanese soldier from the 1940's, as we have been taught our whole lives that they are cold, calculating killers of American soldiers who deserved every bit of the pain we inflicted on them. One of the greatest achievements of this film is proving our long-standing perception wrong, and forcing us to stare unblinking into the eyes of our "enemy"-- one who is now hardly distinguishable from our own brother.
Remember when I said that Clint Eastwood is the man? This movie pretty much cements that statement. His directing here is absolutely flawless, and as if that weren't enough, he had to help compose the tearfully beautiful instrumental score(his aid for this composing job was his own son, Kyle Eastwood!). Seriously, Clint? Let's at least give the other poor schmucks in Hollywood a chance at looking good. As it stands now, basically every other movie-maker in the world pales in comparison to this cinematic demi-god. The way he blends terrifying, sweeping battle scenes of violence with tender, deeply human moments is something only an expert like him could do right.
Ken Watanabe (top) has impressed me before. His turn in Inception (2010) was certainly nothing to scoff at. But here, he one-ups everything he's done before while bringing life to the strong, compassionate General Kuribayashi. Despite his best efforts, though, he doesn't get to win this movie.
Hollywood newcomer Kazunari Ninomiya (bottom) gets to be this movie's winner. His raw, fearless portrayal of young foot soldier Saigo breaks down all the walls surrounding a foreign fighter and makes us fall in love with him--in ways we never expected. Eastwood did a tremendous job selecting Nino, because he is the absolute perfect choice for this type of role: besides his considerable acting chops, he's got the correct look to pull it off. His lovable baby face and short, scrawny stature instantly catch us off guard because we're expecting him, as an enemy soldier, to be hulking and homely. By puncturing this first stereotype, Kazunari is able to crash through all others by showing us the human side of the other side.
I can't believe how much I liked this movie. I honestly did not anticipate that it could capture my attention at all...but it ended up capturing a whole lot more than my attention. A visceral, heart-breaking, daring examination of the human soul, Letters tops the list of the vast body of work on World War II...and throws itself to the heights of the decade's greatest pictures.