Monday, 15 October 2007

Flags of our Fathers/Letters from Iwo Jima

Many months too late, I finally watched Flags of our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima (on the same day). It was not worth the wait. Both films were disappointing to me, though not in the same way or to the same degree.

Clint Eastwood, who directed the fantastic Mystic River in 2003 and the very good Million Dollar Baby in 2004, directed, in 2006, these two depictions of the battle of Iwo Jima during the later stages of World War II. The idea of showing the war in two parts and from the point of view of the two opposing forces is a brilliant one and certainly worth celebrating. Unfortunately, he could have done so much more with these films.

Flags of our Fathers concerns the soldiers who were in the famous photograph of the planting of an American flag on Iwo Jima. It is a well-made war film, with strong acting and great cinematography. But that’s really all it is. Sure it’s realistic and it’s cynical about using the soldiers for a fund-raising drive and it’s honest in its depiction of racism. These are all good things. But at an academic conference in July on Peacemaking in Film, Flags of our Fathers was presented as an anti-war film. It is most definitely not an anti-war film. Like Saving Private Ryan, it celebrates the heroes who died in this most necessary of wars and is just rather schmaltzy Hollywood as it does so. The only problem is that this war (like every other war in history) was not remotely necessary – it’s just that we have been trained for millennia to think that wars are a legitimate way to respond to international crises when they are only a way to exacerbate all such crises.

Letters from Iwo Jima is a much better film than the first and comes much closer to being an anti-war film. Showing the war from the point of view of the “enemy” (and the losers) is a brave undertaking, and generates powerful results. It is rare indeed for filmmakers to try to show what it might have been like on the other side, and to show the Japanese in WWII as humans. For this attempt at humanization, and for the way the two films together show both the bravery and compassion as well as the brutality and coldness of the soldiers involved, I applaud Eastwood. And, again, the acting and cinematography are outstanding in Letters from Iwo Jima. But there is still a lot of Hollywood schmaltziness as well as a huge hole where something more was needed; perhaps more of the context of this battle that would bring into question why all these lives were lost. Most disturbing, however, was the way the film depicted two Japanese soldiers who had lived in the U.S. before the war. These two men were shown to be far more compassionate than their fellows, as if to say that all the Japanese would have needed to be decent people was enough American influence. Tsk-tsk.

Good effort, Mr. Eastwood, but still flawed. *** for Flags; ***+ for Letters.


  1. So glad I read this. I kept feeling that I should watch these movies even though I didn't really feel like it. Now this feels like one of those situations where my procrastination seems vindicated. I know you still gave them decent ratings (still confuses me a little how your ratings tend to be more positive than your reviews sound), but what you said is enough to stroke them off my list.

  2. Well, I know this is old movies, but I still can enjoy watching Flags of Our Fathers , this movie great as directed masterfully by Clint Eastwood, "Flags of Our Fathers" plays both as a war film and a sensitive human drama. It begs comparison with Orson Welles' screen masterpiece "Citizen Kane" in the film's scope and its structure.