Portrait of the Enemy: Eastwood's Humanizing Letters

Clint Eastwood’s Letters from Iwo Jima has been made from a screenplay by Japanese-American first-timer Iris Yamashita, which was based on Tsuyoko Yoshida’s Picture Letters from Commander in Chief Tadamichi Kuribayashi, and the story by Ms. Yamashita and Paul Haggis. The “picture letters” in question are shown being dug up at the beginning and end of the film, and in sequences in between in which the embattled commander is shown composing them. Letters describes the furiously waged 1945 battle for Iwo Jima from the Japanese point of view, and thus serves as the second part of Mr. Eastwood’s flag-raising—but hardly flag-waving— Flags of Our Fathers, released earlier this year to disappointing box-office returns, prompting the Warner Bros. studio to rush the domestic opening of Letters from Iwo Jima from its scheduled early 2007 premiere to late 2006 for award purposes. The strategy seems to have paid off critically, if not yet commercially, with Letters receiving Best Picture nods from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the National Board of Review.

Curiously, Letters, like Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto, is essentially a foreign-language film with English subtitles, but neither film is technically eligible to receive an Academy Award for Best Foreign-Language Film, which leaves them in a kind of no-man’s land as far as Oscars are concerned. But this kind of quandary is appropriate for a year in which there is likely to be no consensus on Best Picture, now that Bill Condon’s Dreamgirls seems to have fallen by the critical wayside.

Friends and foes of Mr. Eastwood—and both are legion—may differ on the artistic quality of his massive diptych on a ferocious bloodbath that took place on a tiny volcanic island in the Pacific more than 60 years ago. But no one can deny the sheer size and scope of the effort and achievement. The film opened earlier this year in Japan and was reportedly well-received—as well it should be for its sympathetic portrayal of the Japanese officers and men trapped, in effect, on the desolate island of Iwo Jima. This humanization of a one-time bitter enemy by an American filmmaker is not entirely unprecedented. Richard Fleischer’s 1970 Tora! Tora! Tora! comes immediately to mind for its dramatization of the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor from both the Japanese and American points of view, with a little revisionist history thrown in the mix. The once-demonized Germans in World War I were morally rehabilitated in Oscar-winning fashion by Lewis Milestone’s 1930 All Quiet on the Western Front, adapted from German writer Erich Maria Remarque’s international best-seller, which won acclaim for its pacifist viewpoint on a war regarded with revulsion in both Europe and America in retrospect for its perceived uselessness and futility. Similarly, Jean Renoir’s sympathetic treatment of German officers and enlisted men—who were despised two decades before in France—in The Grand Illusion (1937) manifested itself as a pathetic plea for European brotherhood on the eve of World War II.

By contrast, Mr. Eastwood’s Letters from Iwo Jima arrives at a time when neither pacifism nor international brotherhood figures very prominently on the nation’s agenda. We have long since overcome our most virulent prejudices unleashed by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, but 9/11 has opened up a new can of worms with Al Qaeda, the Taliban and Islamic extremists in general. At the very least, however, Letters may help modify our thinking about our present enemies as a monolithic mass of malevolence, as we were once conditioned to think of the Japanese people as a whole.

The story told by Mr. Eastwood and his collaborators—both living and dead—consists of a very gradual mutual understanding of Japanese and Americans that neither was as lacking in humanity as each side’s wartime propaganda preached. Two of the characters who come most vividly to life in the film are aristocrats who know America firsthand from having visited there long before international travel became as commonplace as it is today. Ken Watanabe’s General Kuribayashi has been to America on a very friendly military mission, and Tsuyoshi Ihara’s Baron Nishi had won an equestrian event at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics and still carries a picture of himself on his winning mount. Quixotically, he makes his entrance at Iwo Jima on another horse, a relic of his onetime membership in the military cavalry—its horses now replaced by colder and more technologically advanced tanks. The ex-cavalry man joins the baron in lamenting the loss of their animal companions and soulmates. The baron’s horse is later killed in an air raid on the island, and he mourns the beast’s demise.

The common soldiers are represented by Kazunari Ninomiya’s Saigo, a baker in civilian life, with a wife and child left behind. It is Saigo who declares that the island is not worth defending, echoing many other voices of dissent among the troops. Curiously, there are no battle scenes as copious and furious in Letters from Iwo Jima as there are in Flags of Our Fathers, but the characters are more effectively depicted and differentiated in Letters than they are in Flags, and the tone is much less cynical with the losers of the battle in Letters than it is with the winners of the battle in Flags. But isn’t this always the case with winners and losers, from The Iliad to Letters from Iwo Jima— one of the better movies of this maddeningly overcrowded holiday season?

The Anti- Casablanca

Steven Soderbergh’s The Good German, from a screenplay by Paul Attanasio, based on the novel by Joseph Kanon, turns out to be, sadly, a failed attempt to pay homage to Hollywood romances of World War II and its aftermath, most notably Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca (1942) and Billy Wilder’s A Foreign Affair, (1948), with an infusion of political ex-post-facto sophistication. The point of the tortured narrative of The Good German seems to be that there was no such thing as a “good” German during the Nazi era, but it is the silly and chilly plot-twist ending that makes The Good German less of an homage to Casablanca than its coldly anti-romantic antithesis. And let’s not talk about the idealism of the Ingrid Bergman and Paul Henreid characters; their likes do not appear in The Good German.

I have long championed Mr. Soderbergh for his canny survival skill in the New Hollywood, with his shrewd alternations between art and commerce. In this context, The Good German bombs as both art and commerce in its puzzling inept­ness. After almost 60 years, it is of course impossible for Mr. Soderbergh to cavort in the bombed-out ruins of Berlin as Billy Wilder did at the time on location in A Foreign Affair, one of the few Wilder movies I didn’t like because of its brutalization of Jean Arthur so as to enhance Marlene Dietrich. Ms. Dietrich has been invoked recently to demean Cate Blanchett’s Lena Brandt, a fatally tentative attempt to replicate the Dietrich character’s amoral-temptress persona.

With black-and-white, fake-looking backgrounds and badly synchronized process shots, Mr. Soderbergh finds himself becalmed on the kind of Hollywood backlot on which Curtiz fashioned his fantasy world of Casablanca. George Clooney may be the closest replica we have of a ’40s leading-man hero—certainly not as distinctive as Bogie in Casablanca, but just as certainly more talented than John Lund in A Foreign Affair. The only problem is that Mr. Clooney’s character, foreign correspondent Jake Geismer, is repeatedly beaten up like no romantic lead should ever be. Tobey Maguire’s callow Tully, Geismer’s terminally corrupt personal driver, delivers one of the beatings to Geismer when the latter tries to prevent Lena, Geismer’s old girlfriend, from running off to the Russian zone of Berlin with Tully for one of his scams. Tully is later found dead on a riverbank, and when Geismer tries to investigate, he is beaten up a few more times for his efforts.

Eventually, as the Potsdam Conference gets under way with Truman, Churchill and Stalin determining the shape of Europe after the war, we suddenly learn that the Cold War has just begun, which was the last thing on the minds of Curtiz and Wilder when they fashioned their simple anti-Nazi love stories. This revelation in The Good German only compounds the confusion in the picture.

Open Up!

Isabel Coixet’s The Secret Life of Words, from her own screenplay, builds its very convoluted, almost abstract narrative around the contrasting personalities of Sarah Polley’s Hanna and Tim Robbins’ Josef, as they partially confront each other on an oil rig off the Irish coast, she as a nurse and he as a badly burned patient. I say “partially” because Josef’s accident has left him temporarily blinded, and Hanna’s own partial deafness—and a still-to-be-revealed traumatic experience in her life—has left her unwilling to communicate with other people.

When we first meet Hanna, she is presented as a solitary and mysterious young woman working in a factory somewhere in Europe—though everyone there seems to speak English. Her self-willed solitude is amplified when she turns off her hearing aid, as if to isolate herself from an outside world from which she apparently feels she has to be protected. When her boss calls her to his office, she turns on her hearing aid, but otherwise she is very sparing in her responses to his questions. Actually, he seems as uncomfortable with the situation as she is. He tells her that she has a perfect attendance record and, strangely, has never taken a vacation in the years she has worked for the company. Some of her co-workers have complained about her long and strange silences. He then virtually orders her to take a vacation, which she reluctantly agrees to do. It is hard not to identify with the boss in this scene. He knows he can’t fire her merely because she chooses to remain silent at her work. The best that he can do is to send her on a vacation and hope that she will be more communicative when she returns. Anyway, he has postponed the problem.

For no apparent reason, Hanna travels to Northern Ireland for her vacation and, on a whim, volunteers to be a nurse on an oil rig in the Irish Sea to tend to one patient, Josef, whose temporary blindness has not diminished his flirtatious impulsiveness. He keeps badgering her with questions about what she looks like, the color of her hair, her name—all of which she deflects with questions about how he feels and what he needs to be comfortable.

She is equally mysterious to the rest of the rig’s crew, even its cheerful, seemingly overqualified gourmet chef, Simon (Javier Camara). There are only a few other men on the oil rig, which may be on the verge of being decommissioned. At this point, despite my unrequited passion for Ms. Polley as an actress, I felt I had to consult the production notes to figure out what was going on with Hanna’s aversion to words.

According to Ms. Coixet: “Someone said that from the moment you have an inner life, you are already leading a double life. Words—like shoals of fish—teem around in our heads and crowd against our vocal cords, fighting to get out and be listened to by others. And sometimes they get lost on the journey from head to throat. This film is about those lost words that wander for a long time in a limbo of silence … and then one day come pouring out, and once they start nothing can stop them.”

This is exactly what happens when Hanna decides to confide in Josef, a kindred wounded spirit; and one can feel with Hanna—as one often does with Ms. Polley in these histrionic climaxes—a veritable blossoming out of a long-suppressed womanhood. Her revelations turn out to be shocking enough to justify the long silences that preceded them.

Julie Christie contributes an extra iconic charge to the film as a mysterious presence in Hanna’s post-traumatic existence. It is ultimately a beneficent presence that enables Hanna and Josef to find solace and mutual redemption in each other’s arms. Though I continue to have strong reservations about the stylistic abstractions in Ms. Coixet’s narrative, the performances given by Ms. Polley, Mr. Robbins and Ms. Christie take me a long way in accepting and recommending the whole package.