A Great Movie
On Saturday night, Mrs. Bartender and I went to see our fourth of the Best Picture nominees, Letters from Iwo Jima. (Babel is on tap for next weekend.) Despite the fact that throughout the film, Mrs. Bartender kept saying to me, "Why do you take me to war movies? You know I hate war movies?," after the fact, she commented on how great a film it was and how much she enjoyed it. Crazy, sure, but it also captures the power of this film.
Simply put, the concept of this movie is astounding. How often does a movie get made about the enemy that not merely humanizes them but makes them the heroes of the film? (Do we think that 60 years after the Iraq war ends (whenever that will be), someone will make a film making the members of the Sunni militia the heroes?) On top of that, this film was made by Clint Eastwood--if someone had asked 15 or 20 years ago, if Dirty Harry would make such a movie, there would only have been laughter. But he has done so and done it in a way that praises (many of) the Japanese soldiers who fought and died on Iwo Jima, it raises their commonality to the Americans they were fighting on numerous levels. One sees the diversity among the Japanese forces from baron to simple baker, their fears and desires for home, and, among the officers, a friendship with Americans, whether from serving in the United States in the 1930s or as a gold medalist in the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics.
One particularly powerful moment is when the wife of an American officer asks the man who will ultimately command the Japanese forces defending Iwo Jima what he would do if the US and Japan ever went to war. After commenting that such a war would be a major mistake, then-Col. Kuribayashi comments that he would fight for Japan; while his wife is taken aback at this response, the US officer comments, that this is the attitude of all good military men. And so it is, and so we end up on Iwo Jima.
The cast is superb. Led by the justly praised Ken Watanabe as the commanding general in what is, as he quickly realizes, a suicide mission to defend this island, the cast also includes numerous other Japanese actors who are unknown in the US. Kazunari Ninomiya as Saigo, the baker conscripted into a mission of which he wants no part, is particularly outstanding. (I subsequently learned he is a Japanese pop star.) That the movie is in Japanese is something that is of no matter to one's enjoyment of it. The acting brings the characters thoroughly to life, and one is so engrossed in the movie, the subtitles merely add to a realism that would be lost were the cast speaking in English (either with hideous Japanese accents or, as is the case too often in films, with British accents).
One small quibble (and it is quite small), the movie does not let you know how many soldiers were on Iwo Jima trying to prevent the US occupation. The answer, as I subsequently learned, was slightly more that 20,000 of which 95% were killed. The massive American forces numbered about 4 times that amount and about 7,000 Americans were killed. To put that in perspective, that is more than twice what was killed on 9/11 or, to date, in Iraq. All in securing an island of 8 square miles.
My final question is I wonder how this movie has been received in Japan. I know it has been released there, and one would think it would be popular, but who knows. Update: Here is an article from the Christian Science Monitor on its Japanese reaction.
So I strongly recommend this film. If you don't like war movie (or even if you do), be prepared for some pretty violent scenes. War is not pretty and Eastwood does not pretend that it is. There is nothing glorious in this film, but there is something noble in many (but certainly not all) of the soldiers simply trying to survive.