Clint Eastwood’s companion piece to Flags of Our Fathers, Letters from Iwo Jima may very well be the best offering of 2006. It is easily the most ambitious and accomplished of Eastwood’s career, which says a lot when you consider this director supposedly peaked when he won his Oscar for Unforgiven back in 1992. It turns out, Eastwood was just getting started. In his late ‘70s, he stumbled into a Renaissance. He made Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby, for which he won a second Oscar for directing and Best Picture. And now, he’s taken on two films that tell different sides of the same battle. What emerges is a breathtaking, epic saga of the fragility of the human soul.
Flags of Our Fathers is a good film. But it doesn’t become great unless you pair it with Letters, the more poetic and thoughtful of the two. Both stories take a hard look inside the young hearts that are sent so casually into battle, and as they frantically fumble around with bullets whizzing past them and wounding their comrades, it brings us flush against the edge of our time. How can you look at them and not see our boys fighting the futile, unending war in Iraq?
Eastwood has taken the battle of Iwo Jima, one we have counted as our success, the heroic moment when American flags were raised in victory, and colored in the shapes and faces in the background. In Letters From Iwo Jima, written by Iris Yamashita, from a story by Paul Haggis, the losing side, the Japanese, are still there to fight to the death. They are told that they aren’t allowed to die without killing at least ten men first. There is no doubt that Iwo Jima was a bloody battle. But we don’t imagine those moments in the caves when the Japanese soldiers came to terms with the idea that there was no getting out alive.
To save their honor some of them kill themselves. This isn’t a story about those men, however. This is the story about the men who want to live. One has a child and a wife to get back to. One is just afraid of dying. Eastwood does not linger on the sentimentality of it. Like Flags there doesn’t seem time for that. What we see is panic, fear and bad decision-making because there simply is no other option.
The beauty in Letters is that it contrasts Flags enough to make the better points of it reveal themselves in retrospect. Where the American soldiers are careless, ballsy and funny, the Japanese are loyal, honorable and tough. But visually, the contrast is astonishing. Flags is shot on top of the caves, out in the great wide open. These men were shooting but they were being shot at by soldiers they couldn’t see. When Eastwood reverses the story, we’re deep inside the brains of the island. The caves.
Eastwood also draws connections between ideas of false heroism and honor. One shot reveals the flags as they were stabbed into the ground from the point of view of the trapped Japanese. He somehow manages to make us sympathize with people we’ve always assumed were our enemy. He does this with point of view. We’re inside looking out. The American soldiers are as scary to them as the Japanese were to the Americans in Flags.
Perhaps some people thought it wasn’t the right time to release these war movies. We’re at war, and at times like this people want escape. They want Borat. But really, being a great artist isn’t about timing. It isn’t the artist’s job to make the public ready for his vision. It is the public’s job to keep up.