Clint Eastwood/USA/2006; R4 (2-disc SE)
Warner Bros, NZ$39/34.95 | Reviewed by Alexander Bisley

CLINT EASTWOOD has invigoratingly interrogated the exciting violence that made his name since Unforgiven. Memorable meditations following that revisionist Western include Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby and now Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima. Flags is based on and around the critical World War Two battle where American troops took Japan’s sacred earth Iwo Jima, a moment captured in an iconic photo of six Americans raising the flag.

Some of these surviving marines were coerced into an America-wide government bonds selling drive to raise 14 billion and give hope. The war was bankrupting America and weakening morale. Ira Hayes (Adam Beach), an American Indian war hero, is the film’s heart. “I can’t take them calling me a hero,” he laments in a heartbreaking scene, talking about the horror he has seen and been part of. A noble war being hell isn’t groundbreaking, but at his best Eastwood conveys it with a sixth sense.

He’s so good at eliciting gutsy performances, even Paul Walker does quite well. Hayes turns to drink, though some pubs won’t serve Indians. Eastwood makes a strong statement about America’s treatment of Indians, without indulging in Dances With Wolves’ chowderheaded condescension. Watch the credits. Flags finishes, as if by a mature, sober Lars von Trier, with a moving montage of real photos from the trenches of Iwo Jima.

EASTWOOD looks both ways in many ways. Letters From Iwo Jima provocatively tells the story from the Japanese perspective. Particularly Saigo, Nishi and Shimizu, who are grunts, and General Tadamichi Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe), who was the real Japanese soldier in charge on the island. (Sadist Lieutenant Ito represents the uncompromising kamikaze, suicide bombing view.) Kuribayashi is an urbane, perceptive man who spent time in America before the war. Watanabe, wasted in the condescending, muttonheaded The Last Samurai, puts in an exceptional performance. It’s not quite Burt Lancaster’s magnificent The Leopard, but a sense of history, culture and mortality moves through Kuribayashi.

Ataturk said “There is no difference between the Johnnies and Mehmets to us.” In Paths of Glory Kirk Douglas’ Colonel Dax enthuses how compassion is man’s noblest impulse. “Their mothers’ words are our mothers’ words,” two Japanese soldiers confer reading a dead American troop’s letter from his mother. Letters eloquently captures these feelings, conveys the commonality of the soldier. Literature has trod here before. As have World War One films Paths of Glory, All Quiet on the Western Front and the sodden Europudding Joyeux Noel. A companion piece to The Fog of War, Letters is iconoclastic, daring turf.

Both Flags and Letters resonate with the wisdom and humility of wise old men. Not just Eastwood, but late legendary nonagenarian production designer Henry Bumstead. Eastwood brilliantly drains the screen of colour, shooting with a palette so desaturated it’s almost black and white, capturing the harshness of Iwo Jima. There are vivid, visceral explosions of colour, blood red and explosion orange. Eastwood must have a killer film about Iraq in him.

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AS A 2-disc Special Edition, Flags DVD release respects the film’s gravity with a number of historical featurettes, namely “Six Brave Men” which looks at the real-life soldiers portrayed in the film. The remaining content extensively details the making of the film, with particular emphasis on the technical challenges and innovations. Letters single disc edition unfortunately isn’t complimentary, with only a stock making-of documentary to supplement the film (the Region 1 SE claims additional featurettes on par with those on Flags’ DVD).