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Letters From Iwo Jima: Special Edition

Though it was common practice in old Hollywood to shoot a picture in two or three weeks, nowadays when a director makes two movies in a year it's either a big deal (like when Steven Spielberg did Jurassic Park and Schindler's List in 1993, or War of the Worlds and Munich in 2005) or due to one film being so heavily reworked by the studios that it was delayed for ages (such as when John McTiernan's The Thomas Crown Affair and The 13th Warrior hit in the summer of 1999). It's all the more impressive when the pictures done back to back and released in one year are not only epic war films, but also are directed by a septuagenarian. But when that aged director is Clint Eastwood, perhaps nothing less can be expected — 2006 delivered his two films about Iwo Jima: Flags of our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima. The former was considered an Oscar front-runner until people saw it, after which heat suddenly faded and it floundered at the box office. Though Fathers did not earn any greater fiscal rewards, Iwo Jima was received more favorably by critics and was recognized by the Academy, grabbing four nominations — including one for Best Picture.

It's strange to think that the one-time TV star, that the most iconic spaghetti-western leading man, that the lead in Paint Your Wagon (one of cinema's greatest flops) that Dirty mother-f'in Harry is now an Academy darling. John Huston in Chinatown opined that "Politicians, ugly buildings, and whores all get respectable if they last long enough," and though Eastwood only served one term as the mayor of Carmel, Calif., weathering a half-century of cinema has definitely earned him the role of icon and auteur. And, to be fair, that's the main reason for Letters' nomination — it seems a sign of respect as much as anything else. That said, it's easy to see why in 2006 one was better received than the other: Flags was doubly damned, first for initially appearing to be a jingoistic war effort during the 2006 election season (one which was colored by the country's negative attitude toward the Iraq occupation), and then secondly for not actually being that sort of movie at all, but instead focusing on the costs of propaganda and the tolls of being labeled a hero. Letters, on the other hand, presents the Japanese view of Iwo Jima, and in doing so reveals men engaged in a fatalistic, doomed enterprise. Considering the cultural climate of the time, it's no surprise that this was the side of World War II that critics and the Academy gravitated towards. But Eastwood's accomplishment is more impressive than the thing itself — he never cracks the code or pathos of the Japanese ethos (the Japanese were notorious for their suicidal belief in country), nor can he display the true horror of war as effectively as Kon Ichikawa did with his end of the war film Fires on the Plain. Instead, he gets a modest, well done, but ultimately underwhelming war movie with noble intentions, and a uniformly good cast, but far from definitive portrait of the Japanese struggle on Iwo Jima.

*          *          *

Letters from Iwo Jima follows two characters: Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe), the leader of the Japanese conflict on Iwo, and Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya), a baker with a pregnant wife, who's drafted into the conflict. Both men have more American sympathies than many of their counterparts: The general prefers retreat to suicide, and Saigo is more interested in returning to his wife than dying for his country. The film begins with a Saving Private Ryan-esque wraparound (as does Flags, and here seems the best place to mention the film was produced by Steven Spielberg), noting discovered papers from the men, and their letters fill out the film. But from the outset, defeat is preordained, and though the men go about their duties with honor, as the conflict intensifies their struggles become all the more dire. Letters has what amounts to a make-or-break sequence: Once a group of men at one position on the island realize that they're defeated, six of them grab grenades and explode themselves. The repetition of suicides is either shocking, or — by the final two — so over the top that it becomes numbing and/or funny. That more soldiers fall on their swords throughout the film does nothing to remedy this. There are, as to be expected, some wonderful moments and strong passages that suggest the elegy that Eastwood was attempting, and it gets an A for effort… but not for execution.

Warner Home Video presents Letters from Iwo Jima in both a standard DVD edition and a two-disc Special Edition. The feature is presented on Disc One in a solid anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio and optional English subtitles (the film is mostly in Japanese, with a few passages of English). Disc Two offers "Red Sun, Black Sand: The Making of Letters from Iwo Jima" (21 min.), "The Face of Combat: The Cast of Letters from Iwo Jima" (19 min.), "Images from the Frontlines: The Photography of Letters from Iwo Jima" (3 min.), "11/15/2006 World Premiere at Budo-Kan in Tokyo" (16 min.), "11/16/2006 Press Conference at Grand Hyatt Tokyo" (24 min.), and the film's theatrical trailer. Dual-DVD keep case. Also available in Warner Home Video's "The Battle for Iwo Jima: Commemorative Collector's Edition," which includes Flags of Our Fathers and the documentary Heroes of Iwo Jima.

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