Clint Eastwood has proven himself (if there was ever any doubt after Million Dollar Baby) to be a master filmmaker. With Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby under his belt (2 bonafide masterpieces), one wondered how he would top them. His answer was to direct not only one but TWO films about WWII (the other being Letters from Iwo Jima. To make 2 great films at 76 (back to back no less) is no easy feat. But to make 2 films of such depth, poetry, humanity, and poignancy is even more beautiful and moving. When you realise that 90 percent of what Hollywood puts out ranges from atrocious to mediocre, and then you watch these 2 magnificent films, it restores your faith in filmmaking and that even Hollywood, which has been maligned (quite rightly) over the last 30 years or so, can still contribute to film as an art form. Clint has been compared (rightly, I believe) to John Ford. There has been beauty and poetry galore in Clint's last 3 films in particular, and in many others as well. Ford's films also had that poetry and lyricism, and a depth that most filmmakers rarely posses. In these 2 films, there is poetry, subtlety, and substance to spare.
Flags of Our Fathers generally got mixed reviews from critics, and many were disappointed. Out of the two films, it was the one that most people disliked. I wasn't disappointed at all, and I think the film is a masterpiece. It is truthful, sad, cynical, heartbreaking, and yet, somehow uplifting in some ways. It centers on the offical lies about the famous Iwo Jima photograph. We find out the exact circumstances as to why this photo was rendered, and we find out on the 3 servicemen who were exploited by the Roosevelt Administration (showing that exploiting servicemen is a bipartisan enterprise) and how they were pretty much jettisoned after the government had no further use for them. In many Eastwood films, there are a few bad performances in the minor roles. Here that isn't the case. The trio of lead actors, Adam Beach, Ryan Phillipe, and Jesse Bradford, are superb. There isn't a false note or performance in the entire film. One of the best aspects about this film is how it's edited. The film has graphic war footage, but it's interpersed in the film in an interesting way. The war footage, unlike other overly graphic war films like Saving Private Ryan, doesn't revel in its cruelty. It's there to move the film along. This film also really gives you a sense of the battle for Iwo Jima. You see the military strategy in how they take the island, painful step by painful step. The military people here are not the stupid, gung ho types that often are portrayed in Hollywood films. They are much more down to earth and real. Regardless about your feelings about war and the cause of, you can't help but feel for all soldiers after seeing this film (and its companion Letters). The ending of this film is one of the more beautiful that I've seen. It flashes back to a rather simple scene that ends up being unexpectedly poignant.
Letters is equally extraordinary. Despite its depiction of war, it is a much quieter, serene, and moving film that Flags. It does touch on how soldiers are pawns in politicans' schemes like Flags, but this film concentrates almost exclusively on the Japanese soldiers themselves. Ken Watanabe gives a towering performance as the commander of the island, a vastly intelligent, articulate, caring man, who nevertheless does what he feels is his duty to his country, knowing very well that he will most likely be killed. Like Flags, we really get to know these soldiers like we were in the platoon ourselves, and aside from a few war speeches, Letters and Flags never feel like they are propaganda, gun-ho garbage that Hollywood and others have been known for putting out. Clint's direction is breathtakingly assured. When you take into account that Clint speaks no Japanese, and he directs a film almost exclusively in Japanese, it makes the film even more extraordinary to behold. There has only been a few films in history that have managed to do this, a film where a foreign director immerses himself so much in the culture that if you didn't know it was a foreign director directing the film, you'd swear it was a native of the country (Kurosawa's Dersu Uzala, Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange, and Tarkovsky's The Sacrifice are examples of this phenomenon).
Perhaps the best example of Clint's direction is in the following scene. One of the Japanese soldiers arrives at the island, and the other soldiers believe him to be a spy sent by the officers. He eventually tells them his story, and why he was sent to Iwo Jima. He was enforcing curfew in a local town with one of his officers, and they pass by one of the houses where a dog is barking rather loudly. The officer informs the soldier to take the dog inside the house, and shoot it. The soldier takes the dog into the house, and the family is horrified. The soldier shoots a bullet in the air, and tells the family to keep the dog quiet. The soldier then leaves the house, but the dog barks again. The officer becomes furious, and he goes into the house to shoot the dog. But you never see the dog being shot, you only hear the shot, and see the soldier's reaction (only the officer goes into the house). This makes the scene so powerful and sad. The soldier was sent to Iwo Jima because he let the dog live, and the officer was furious that the soldier disobeyed him. The way Clint films this scene is why it's so memorable. A lesser director would have shown the dog getting shot, with hand held shots and hysterical screaming. He would have tried to justify his decision by saying "it's more realistic", which it is, but there is no art, poetry, or intelligence in that. It's lame shock value, which will always lessen the dramatic impact of a scene.
This is a great set. It's worth picking up for the films alone. Kudos to Warner Brothers for funding this immensely ambitious project, and for Clint Eastwood for making it so memorable and moving....