by RISHI AGRAWAL
I think the key to making a good war movie is presenting both sides of the issue. On one hand, we need to be presented with the futility of war, its cruelty and ugliness. That theme is apparent in so many films that it is almost obligatory. One of the brilliant things about Letters from Iwo Jima is we see another perspective: 1940s Japan, a country that was caught between its ancient notions of patriotism and honor and finding a place in the modern world.
The struggle of the Japanese to find their place in the world was exemplified by the portrayal of the soldiers on the island. Some were blindly bound by honor, such as the Japanese officer who defied his superiors by ordering his entire unit to commit suicide rather than retreating. Others were motivated by self-preservation, like the soldier who faked dysentery in order to sneak off to surrender to the Americans.
Director Clint Eastwood has done a remarkable thing here. He truly made a war movie about individuals, which still maintaining the big picture. The stories are varied, but fascinating: the former Olympian who brings his horse to the island, the simple baker who thinks of nothing but his wife and newborn child, the former Kempeitai (military police) who is exiled to Iwo Jima for refusing to shoot a dog.
In this film from the Japanese perspective, Eastwood does something that I never would have thought possible: he makes the Americans seem strange and otherworldly. Though there are a few isolated moments that humanize the American soldiers, they generally just loom on the horizon. They are the enemy that the Japanese have to defeat and the face of their impending doom. At times the Americans even seem cruel and savage. This is something that is vital for the film to work; if the viewer sympathizes with the Americans, then the entire premise of the movie collapses.
Eastwood has made a beautiful film, with its muted colors and judicious use of gore. The violence seems even more horrible when it is not omnipresent. But, most importantly, we sympathize with the characters. This is not to say that we can forgive an empire that encourages blind allegiance from its citizens, but we can understand that the soldiers were victims of circumstance. Although some may have embraced their role, Eastwood shows us that the Japanese soldiers were not simply robots. This is a movie which teaches us that humanity is universal.