How do we act in the face of our impending demise? In Letters from Iwo Jima Clint Eastwood explores this difficult question once again. Here we follow Japanese soldiers defending a desolate island, the last stepping stone to Japan proper, from an overwhelming assault by US forces.
To fight against the inevitable isn't always heroic; it is can also be tragic, if not downright stupid. This is the kind of war experience that Eastwood shows us. Slim hopes for victory evaporate under withering fire; scenes of 'honourable' suicide shock with their pointlessness (and messiness). Even the option of surrender, for those desperate enough to contemplate the culturally unthinkable, quickly vanishes.
Although Spielberg gets a producer's credit, this is an un-Spielbergian film in many ways. It's not just that it's slow, with its 1940s-style look and pace, or that the CG is often unconvincing, or that the action lacks excitement and grandeur. Where Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan seeks truth and a higher purpose amid the carnage of war, Letters finds only doubt and disruption of normality. Spielberg never questions the uniform evil of his German enemy; in Letters the 'enemy' are actually the protagonists, and every one responds differently. Compare the Ryan scene where GIs gun down surrendering Germans, impelled by the heat of their righteous battle, and the audience moves on without a thought. The Japanese who surrender in Letters are killed for being unwanted burdens, cold-bloodedly; for Eastwood, no side can maintain honour under war's ruthless logic.
It's only natural to sense a change in mood here. For Americans to relate to people who start wars of aggression, and lose them, isn't nearly as hard as it used to be. While Letters from Iwo Jima is not a political film, it gives plenty of opportunity to reflect on the wisdom of political solutions. For the soldiers who were painted into a corner at Iwo Jima peace would have been the only way out. Scenes in which the Japanese realise that their foes are not the pushover they were led to believe drip with contemporary relevance.
Yet it would be wrong to reduce this film to a mere analogy. This is a much more existential piece than a study of any particular time or setting. Hence the somewhat jarringly un-Imperial Japanese thinking of a couple of main characters, which would have been quite out of place in World War II; but this does help to make them accessible to a modern audience. Perhaps Eastwood did shoot a great movie, yet it failed to come together in post. The edit isn't tight enough (a common problem with 'epic' films), the music fails to inspire, and when battle scenes are drained of thrills they lose their sense of urgency as well. On the other hand, the Japanese actors acquit themselves well, all things considered, and what we see is undoubtedly the film that Eastwood had in mind — something that few directors get to achieve.