Well, I can't say, along with so many others, that I preferred Letters from Iwo Jima to Flags of Our Fathers. My main misgiving about the earlier, the latter film — its artily desaturated color, a possible hand-me-down from co-producer Steven Spielberg — is also applicable to the second part of Clint Eastwood's Second World War diptych, the Japanese-language, Japanese-perspective counterpart. (Could the English subtitles in some measure have mesmerized the critics?) Once more there is only the stray splash of color to clash with the near black-and-white: the bright red Rising Sun disk at the center of the flag, the luscious amber liquid in a bottle of Johnny Walker, the orange-y blossoms and plumes of flame. If anything, though I don't have a convenient DVD against which to check my memory, the earlier film dipped a little deeper, a little oftener, into the color pots. But no real advantage either way.
The apparent trump card of the newer film — the exercise in empathy whereby the filmmaker re-examines the same subject, the costly Battle of Iwo Jima, from the opposite side of the firing line — can stand some scrutiny. (Let's first of all reject as too roundabout, too far a stretch, any suggestion of repayment of debt on the part of an American icon whose screen career was launched in a spaghetti-Western remake of a Japanese samurai film.) For an American production to attempt to view an American war through the eyes of the other guys — to attempt to portray the sameness, the oneness, of fighting men on whatever side — is in itself nothing new. It is, by one gauge, as old as the prototypical antiwar film, All Quiet on the Western Front, although that one, or any of its successors (A Time to Love and a Time to Die, The Blue Max, etc.), didn't attempt to do so in the other guys' native tongue. In addition to which, any number of films have attempted an internal balancing act, our side and theirs, sometimes even permitting the others to speak in their own tongues (The Young Lions, The Enemy Below, Hell in the Pacific, Tora! Tora! Tora!, etc.). More, then, than in the opposing-viewpoint angle or the foreign-language angle, the uniqueness of Letters lies in its distinction as part of a matched pair, an external balancing act if you will, sharing numerous points of intersection with Flags while sharing no actual cast members. (The momentous flag-raising on Mount Suribachi now rates as no more than a speck in the distance.) The singularity of Letters, paradoxically put, lies in its complementarity.
Then, too, I would not want to underestimate the extraordinariness of making such an offering in a time of ongoing war. The Japanese of yore may bear little resemblance to our Islamic jihadists beyond the broad label of "enemy," and in truth the film grants scant representation to the more fanatical Japanese imperialists, and it makes no accounting whatsoever of the capturers and torturers of "Izzy," for example, in the earlier film. The more difficult a thing is to explain, the less Eastwood is inclined to try. He seeks out commonality, not difference. (The American soldier who would rather shoot his prisoners than guard them provides a dim equivalent.) Even so, September 11, we are told, is our generation's December 7, and the kamikaze mentality lives on in very few cultures, and the same holds true for the decapitation mentality, and the caves of Iwo Jima look very much as we might envision the hiding places of Osama bin Laden and his cohorts. The connections are easy to draw, the conclusions clear. And this, to repeat, is extraordinary. Audacious. Courageous.
The new film begins at the exact spot where the earlier one ended, the clifftop monument that today overlooks the tranquil beach of black sand, and it proceeds from there to pick out further reminders — abandoned cannons, vacated bunkers -- before it settles upon a present-day Japanese excavation crew, digging in the floor of one of the caves and uncovering what will be revealed in the film's final shot as the cache of correspondence that gives the film its title, and gives its script some snatches of voice-over narration from differing points of view. Pending that revelation, the present-day diggers give way to some previous diggers, the trench-diggers on that black-sand beach in 1944. ("Am I digging my own grave?" ponders one of them in a letter to his pregnant wife.) The focus of dramatic interest ranges democratically from the high to the low. A couple of aristocratic figures at one end of the spectrum: first, the humane but firm and fatalistic commander (the truly commanding Ken Watanabe), a one-time resident of the United States, now packing a pearl-handled handgun as a souvenir of that time, fully expecting to die on the island ("I am sorry I wasn't able to attend to the kitchen floor before I left," he writes in a letter home), but striving for the Alamo-like goal of holding out against overwhelming odds as long as possible, seeing every passing day as another day of safety for his homeland; and second, the dashing gold-medal equestrian from the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics, a national celebrity who has entertained Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford at dinner in Tokyo. In the middle: the rigid, iron-fisted disciplinarian and the highly trained but disgraced military policeman, demoted for his softhearted failure to carry out orders. And at the bottom: a select handful of humble grumbling grunts ("Weed soup again?"), interchangeable with those in any other army.
Letters is much more a straightforward battle film than its predecessor, which was more a memory film of battle and had as much to do with the aftereffects as with the immediate effects, filing away the warfare as indelible mental snapshots. (The flashbacks in Letters, within the film-long flashback, are few, brief, and succinct, nothing to compare with the complicated time-weave of Flags.) Eastwood, in the result, falls back here on a different, simpler, less effective anti-violence strategy, delaying the combat with evident distaste — fifty minutes to the first American air strike and another ten to the beach landing, announced, in a hair-raising moment, when the poor little baker is ordered to empty a shitpot outside the cave and gets an eyeful of the American armada — and then drenching the combat in maximum horror. This constitutes a conventional plan of attack, at first getting us to know and to care about the men and then cutting them to ribbons in front of us; and the conventionality is both a strength and a limitation: solid but inflexible. And despite the greater concentration on the battle per se (and the two-hour-twenty-minute running time), there is little sense of how long the battle lasted, and little sense, from what we are shown, of how it could have lasted as long as it did.
There is indisputably some strong stuff in the film: the death-with-honor serial suicides by hand grenade, the engulfing shower of flame from an opening in the roof of a cave, and the like. But the frenzy of the battlefield is not Eastwood's forte as a director. He often seems, there, to be cribbing from other models, if not turning over the reins to the second unit or the special-effects men: the stitchery of machine-gun fire in the dirt, the mushrooming fireballs, the jostled camera. His forte is, or relies on, stately, graceful, limpid classicism, conveying an Old World chivalry generally lacking in his on-screen persona, always treating his subjects, as well as his audience, with the utmost respect. And although the novelty of a commercial American director making an art-house Japanese film is in a strict sense invisible to the viewer, outside the picture frame, beyond the range of the camera, Eastwood's fingerprints are all over the screen. We all know (don't we?) that film is a visual medium; and the present film, subtitles notwithstanding, is a triumph of style, a triumph of manner, still more a triumph of tradition. It comes across as a bit preachier than Flags, where the filmmaker, with firmer footing on home turf, may have felt freer to let you draw your own lessons, may have felt less necessity to show his personal "understanding." Nonetheless, it offers a useful, a purposeful, a further refinement of his evolving views on violence. And if it runs the risk of collapse under the cumulative weight of his solemnity (four and a half hours total), the risk proves to have been a risk worth taking. A risk rewarded. The sensible preference, finally, is not for one film over the other, but for both.