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A proud leader: Watanabe in Letters From Iwo Jima.

Blood of Our Enemies

 By Ann Morrow

Letters From Iwo Jima

Directed by Clint Eastwood

You needn’t have seen Flags of Our Fathers to appreciate its companion film, Letters From Iwo Jima. Directed by Clint Eastwood in the same restrained, classical style (the movies were filmed back-to-back), Letters tells the story of the crucial battle for Iwo Jima from the side of the Japanese defenders (partly adapted from memoirs, the screenplay is by Iris Yamashita, with Flags’ author Paul Haggis). A Golden Globe winner for Best Foreign Language Film, Letters can assuredly be described one of the most objective, gripping, and affecting war films ever made. Though it doesn’t go into the carnage of the battle—one of the deadliest of the war—its build-up to the American invasion, and the defenders’ desperate attempts to do what’s right in a hopeless situation, are just as horrifying as a full-scale massacre.

The film opens in the present day, with the excavation of one of the caves that served as a Japanese holdout. Bodies are found, and during the course of the film, we find out, dismayingly, whose bodies they are. After the discovery of a knapsack, the film fades to 61 years ago (the evocative cinematography retains a muted, timeworn palette throughout), to the sight of grunts digging trenches in the rocky beachfront. Baby-faced Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya) is complaining bitterly to his comrade about the bug-infested, disease-ridden island. He will be beaten for his unpatriotic bitching—though the first casualty will die from dysentery. Saigo and the other grunts (worthless “peasants” to their lieutenant) have little understanding of the island’s strategic importance, and their isolated commanders, who revere the volcanic outpost as part of Japan’s “sacred homeland,” have only the sketchiest information of the larger war effort. One of the many, many aspects the film gets exactly right is how cross-purposes and miscommunication between the commanders—the island is under the jurisdiction of both the army and the navy—contribute to its eventual defeat.

Hope arrives with a new commander, the modern-thinking General Kuribayashi (the great Ken Watanabe). But the general’s optimism is quickly tempered by a tour of the facilities: What few tanks there are can’t be repaired until spare parts arrive. Educated in the United States, the general remembers (in one of several masterfully integrated flashbacks) how there were “cars everywhere,” an indication of America’s superior industrial might.

The logistics of the doomed defense, and the hubris of imperial directives, are brilliantly interwoven with the characters involved, whom we get to know—and care about—through narration taken from the letters they write home. Mostly, the story centers on Saigo, a young baker with a wife and baby, and the worldly Kuribayashi, whose courage is daunted more by the suicidal honor system (chillingly enacted) of his underlings than by the impending American juggernaut. In between the ditch diggers and the high command is a fascinating array of personalities, such as the general’s confidant, Baron Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara), an Olympic gold medalist in equestrian show jumping, who is regarded as a dashing beacon of Japanese chivalry.

Though most of the action occurs in ditches, tunnels, and volcanic-rock dunes, the lean cinematography (not a word or image is wasted in Eastwood’s characteristically spare but nuanced style) strikingly opens up at times, with images that serve as narrative shorthand. Most memorable is the arrival of the American fleet, which appears in the serene waters like the harbinger of a Greek tragedy. Yet amid the film’s sympathetic treatment of the Japanese, the actions of the Americans (whether venal or honorable) are more intensely realized. Letters From Iwo Jima is equally an enthralling war movie and a landmark document in the cinema of World War II.

Bloody-Minded Children

The Last King of Scotland

Directed by Kevin Macdonald

After receiving a brutal beating at the hands of Idi Amin’s goons, Dr. Nicholas Garrigan bubbles through bloody lips at the Ugandan dictator, “You’re a child; that’s what makes you so scary.” This pronouncement is the moral linchpin of the movie and the key to both its artistic success and its frustrating shortcomings.

Garrigan (James McAvoy) is Amin’s personal physician, a position the young Scot earns with an impressive display of ethical pique during a chance encounter with the new president, played by Forest Whitaker. Garrigan has traveled to Uganda in a fit of aimless adventurousness, leaving behind a staid upper-middle-class family and, one assumes, the shadow cast by his own physician father. His Oedipal recklessness is reiterated by his attraction to, first, the wife of a doctor at the rural clinic where he begins his Ugandan residence and, later, one of Amin’s several wives. (Spectacularly bad idea, that.) So, Amin is established as a surrogate father—a relationship made explicit by Amin himself, who claims Garrigan as his son—and a grim classical tragedy unfolds.

Director Kevin Macdonald’s background in documentary filmmaking serves him well through much of the movie. The Last King of Scotland is as much the story of a particular place at a particular time—Uganda in the early ’70s—as it is about particular characters. Without bogging down in tedious exposition, the movie effectively situates the viewer: convincingly presenting the disorienting combination of Uganda’s stunning natural rawness and the artificial, almost surreal, opulence of its corrupt political class. The documentary feel (and the viewer’s knowledge that Amin is a historical figure, though the film is based on a novel) lends an air of inevitability to the story.

However, something in this approach robs the characters of agency: They act as they act because they have no choice, it seems. Inevitability is an appropriate—even a required—aspect of classical tragedy, but in a film it can be unsatisfying.

Whitaker has been highly praised for his portrayal of Amin, justifiably. Resisting the temptation to play the fabled fiend like Hannibal Lecter in khaki, Whitaker instead plays him like an unruly child. His Amin is charming, expansive, funny and prone to solipsistic tantrums. Unfortunately, this child has an army—and as Garrigan points out, that does make him scary. Garrigan, too, is a child—and scary in his way. He readily succumbs to the blandishments of a man he must know is incredibly dangerous, even sociopathic. He actually facilitates some of Amin’s ruthless decisions. He suffers, and grotesquely, for this participation, but at movie’s end the viewer is left to wonder what lesson there is to be gained: There is evil in the world? Hubris will be punished? Boys will be boys?

It’s a fair point that movies needn’t have a lesson: You want to send a message, call Western Union. But the The Last King of Scotland’s tragic structure cries out for a catharsis that the film does not wholly produce.

—John Rodat


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