Changes in Angle -- Letters from Iwo Jima, The Good German
By Fernando F. Croce

Letters from Iwo Jima is a dual composition -- it completes Flags of Our Fathers, and it realizes what Tora! Tora! Tora! originally was meant to be. Akira Kurosawa never got to direct the Japanese sequences in that movie, so Clint Eastwood infuses his own view of Imperial conflict with the lapidated rigor of Dersu Uzala or Madadayo or, simply, A Perfect World. A skull is unearthed in modern day Japan, a cut ushers in monochromatic 1944: Iwo Jima is a barren island but still part of sacred Japanese territory, although to Private Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya), who got drafted into the military effort after every bit of his bakery had been taken, there's nothing sacred about disguising your own graves as beachfront trenches. The aside is promptly punished, but justly arrived General Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe) halts his beating, preferring thought over force. "This one is trouble," one of the officers mutters and, soon enough, Kuribayashi orders the fortification to be moved from the island's shores to its rocky caves; the other leaders want to meet the U.S. forces head-on, but, having lived in America, the General knows not to underestimate the prowess of a country with a booming auto industry. The First World War, according to Renoir, signaled the doomed view of honor codes in the battlefield, and Eastwood carries it to the Second World War, with Kuribayashi and ex-Olympian rider Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara) sharing grand illusions over cups of Johnny Walker whisky. The Emperor's fleet has been decimated, the soldiers are expected to die with honor, but dying for the fatherland is no more honorable here than dying of dysentery, and the battle starts as Saigo ventures outside to empty the pail the grunts have been used as toilet.

Flags of Our Fathers diluted its intensity with temporal lateral moves, but Letters from Iwo Jima remains concentrated, a historical perspective firmly dedicated to the here-and-now grimness of its events. When a flashback is in order, the camera tracks towards a character's eyes, and a sliver of remembrance is succinctly evoked: Kuribayashi sketching the American urban landscape, Saigo comforting his wife after receiving the "Congratulations! You're gonna die for your country!" committee, Shimizu (Ryo Kase) following personal moral codes and getting suspended from an elite school for his trouble. The Yankees make inferior warriors because they can't control their emotions, the Japanese soldiers are taught, and the enemy is seen as a technological behemoth (sweeping sprawls of combat planes and battleships), just as the enemy in Flags was but the barrel of a rifle sneaking out of a camouflaged tunnel. The two sides, however, are more similar than different, for Mt. Suribachi is the central mirror that reflects both ways, bridging the halves of the story and illuminating the vastness of Eastwood's achievement. Within the continuous narrative, Letters presents itself as a change in angle -- the underground rumbles heard in the first film are witnessed here as the Japanese blow themselves up with grenades, the victory of one side is another's slaughter. Bushido nobility-in-death is defended by Lt. Ito (Shido Nakamura), who covers himself in mines and lays waiting for a U.S. tank that never comes; meanwhile, blinded by gunfire, Nishi orders the soldiers to survive and calmly turns the gun on himself, the camera tilts up to the smoky void behind him.

A deceptively old-fashioned artist, Eastwood subtly battles tidy slogans: Letters critiques Bush's "stay the course" wrongheadedness as much as Flags roasted "mission accomplished" arrogance, grave manifestations of sadness and disgust at patriotism raided and degraded. Eastwood, supposedly cinema's macho right-winger, has himself been criticized for including a scene where "our boys" shoot a couple of Japanese prisoners while an American prisoner (Lucas Elliott) is humanely tended to -- never mind that another American soldier gets angrily bayoneted while U.S. forces care for Saigo after his capture, sympathy for the "enemy" is verboten when we are required to still be repeatedly alarmed by terrorist reports. Critics complain about muddied morals, as they did with Million Dollar Baby, when Eastwood's cinema is one of resolutely moral images, but then again the ones complaining are the ones who went to Flags of Our Fathers as if doing their homework, therefore richly deserving of having the mother's letter read to them, to be reminded to "always do what is right... because it is right." The directness and simplicity of the reading is as embarrassing as it is cleansing, democratically seeing bewildered victims of fuzzy ideology with straight lines of actions and consequences that completely shame the Rubik's Cube misanthropy of Babel. The battlefield is no different from the rest of Eastwood's world, divided less between good and evil than between shades of light and darkness, where knowing and doing the "right" thing becomes grace: By foregrounding the heft of the choice, Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima offer a needed reversal of today's moral paralysis.

*

Speaking of reversals, when exactly did I start preferring Steven Soderbergh's studio hackery over his personal experimentalism? The Good German similarly features a chiaroscuro-shrouded WWII setting, but where Eastwood's film mourned honor as one of the war's casualties, Soderbergh's hollow xerox-machine blithely camps out in the moral Ground Zero that is its aftermath. Divvied up by conquerors, Berlin following Hitler's downfall is a metropolis of ashes, an open black-market where the new war between Americans and Russians is already brewing; a bemused George Clooney ambles through the ruins as a Yank war correspondent, stumbling upon a nascent atomic age when not catching up with the sad, bassoon-voiced fraulein (Cate Blanchett) whom he loved prior to the war. "I survived," declares the heroine, who wears her tragic past (including getting doggied by Tobey Maguire, who thank God is killed off early) like a cape over her gaunt frame, a Dietrich-Alida Valli parody that plays into the performer's penchant for mannerism and exposes the film for the dreary pawnshop of shout-outs (The Third Man, A Foreign Affair, Germany Year Zero, Berlin Express) it really is. Spending all his energies on fussy textures that recreate a Warner Bros. studio effort circa 1945 (grids of shadow framed in the ancient 1.66:1 ratio), Soderbergh is too satisfied with his meta-onanism to come up with an analytical work (like Fassbinder's The American Soldier) or even a honest genre piece. An utterly gaseous film, The Good German offers little beyond a mock-glamour version of the insipidness of Bubble, Soderbergh's last art-house whatsit.

*

Lost in the dreaded rubble of January is Arthur and the Invisibles, a delightful fantasy by Luc Besson unceremoniously dropped amid "family fare" offal like Happily N'Ever After. Despite the indignities of being recut and redubbed for the U.S. market, Besson's visual restlessness and romantic sweetness ring through -- an early ground-level shot splashing the crimson of a van against the electric blue sky makes the Connecticut setting his own, as surely as the opening traveling shot of Léon turned New York City into Paris. As a visualization of how a child's "world may hide others," it can be as heartening as anything in Pan's Labyrinth: with his granny (Mia Farrow) threatened by debts, young Arthur (Freddie Highmore) sets out to find her missing ruby and in no time finds himself shrunk and plunged into the CGI-animated universe of the Minimoys, sort of cartoon troll-dolls that give the Shrek marionettes a run for their money in disarming singularity. Even the wackiness of the new dubbing (voices by Madonna! David Bowie! Robert De Niro! Snoop Dogg!) adds to the zest and rapidity of Besson's gags, which emphasize the chaos of childhood consciousness without dumbing it down for viewers. The result is a candy-colored fusion of Dahl, Dr. Seuss and the director's own mischeviousness, and a bash.


Reviewed January 19, 2007.

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