The thing that’s so frustrating about Letters From Iwo Jima is that the overall concept is fantastic. Following the Japanese side in the battle of Iwo Jima, focusing on letters sent to and from the battlefields, revealing universal truths about the condition of man; well clearly this is worthy stuff. But, like the honors student who starts drinking in eighth grade this one starts squandering potential about half an hour in. All the beauty of the concept, the ripe story there for the pickingÃ¢â‚¬Â¦ it all ends up rotten because of shoddy execution.
You may have heard by now that Clint Eastwood received Golden Globe nominations for both Letters From Iwo Jima and Flags of Our Fathers. The good news is that this is a better movie, and thus a better nomination than Flags, the bad news is neither are among the truly great movies of the season. Letters follows the story of a general and a lowly soldier in the Japanese Imperial Army in the days leading up to and in the battle. They are both introspective but highly bound to the Japanese code of honor which pretty much blatantly states “death before giving up.” I can’t stress enough just how seriously the Japanese take this credo, it’s a featured theme throughout the movie.
Additionally, a set of flashbacks are used to flesh out the characters. Ken Watanabe (The General) traveled extensively in America before the war and it is with a heavy heart that he faces his former friends. Kazunari Ninomiya (the lowly soldier) approaches war with a tremendous amount of heartache as his wife and child are waiting for him at home. There’s the story broken down for you, a war existence spent in caves fighting an overwhelming enemy force.
The problem is that almost nothing happens, and when it something finally does it doesn’t exemplify the brave choices filmmakers are obligated to make. By going too subtle with this piece Clint has left the cupboard bare, there is nothing for an audience to attach to. Yeah, there are times where you can relate but mostly you’re hoping for scenes to end so that a new scene can start, with the expectation that this new scene will tell you something besides 1) War is bad and 2) War is complicated. Could those have been vibrant themes? Sure, plenty of war movies have gone down that path and remained interesting, but Letters wants us to be thrilled with pensive glances and shoulder shrugs. It’s just not compelling. You get so detached during the build up to the battle that when it’s finally there you kind of just wish they’d get on with it already, surrender or die, whichever is more efficient to get you on your way out of the theater.
I won’t remember much about this as the years go by and that’s a small cinematic tragedy. The table was set and all Clint needed to do was put some steak on it. As it is you’ll be praying for a biscuit with a little butter, or even a morsel of action and storyline. You’ll end up hungry.