Review by Yunda Eddie Feng
Audio: Dolby TrueHD 5.1 Japanese, DD Plus 5.1 Japanese
Subtitles: Optional English, French, and Spanish
Extras: Red Sun, Black Sand: The Making of Letters From Iwo Jima; The Faces of Combat: The Cast of Letters From Iwo Jima; Images From the Frontlines: The Photography of Letters From Iwo Jima; November 2006 World Premiere at Budo-kan in Tokyo; November 2006 Press Conference; trailer;
Released: 22 May 2007
When Clint Eastwood and Steven Spielberg teamed up to make Flags of Our Fathers, they created instant Oscar buzz. For sure a war movie from two of Hollywood’s biggest icons would sweep everything, right? The movie was released in October 2006 accompanied by unexpectedly lukewarm reviews and tepid box-office response.
Enter Letters From Iwo Jima, which was drafted on a lark by Eastwood. Why not show the other side, the veteran moviemaker wondered. Produced with a $15 million budget (Flags had $55 million at its disposal), Letters was intended to be an art-house booster to Flags during Oscar season. However, with Flags losing steam, Eastwood and Spielberg pushed for Letters to be released in December 2006. Perhaps the Japanese-language half of the Iwo-Jima saga could carry the day.
Letters From Iwo Jima received four Oscar nominations--Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, and Sound Editing. It lost Picture and Director to The Departed, which is hugely disappointing considering how The Departed trashed excellent source material that was found in Infernal Affairs. The losses are all the more disappointing because I consider Letters From Iwo Jima to be Eastwood’s best directorial effort.
I’ve always been surprised by the positive critical response to Eastwood’s movies. They have undoubtedly strong acting (especially Mystic River), but they have sloppy tangents that really take me out of cinema reverie (the English Bob scenes in Unforgiven, Eli Wallach’s grotesque cameo in Mystic River, the Danger character in Million Dollar Baby). Eastwood has said that he delivers final cuts in about a week’s time. I wish that he had spent a few more days trimming the fat away from his movies. Flags really needed additional editing sessions to bring its stories and themes into focus. De-mystifying war-time propaganda is a legitimate and serious issue, but Flags reduced a social concern into a I-can’t-believe-I-left-behind-my-buddies tear fest.
This is why I was so surprised by Letters. It is the kind of no-nonsense moviemaking that a man of Eastwood’s reputation should be delivering consistently. As a Chinese American, I walked into the movie thinking that I would hate Eastwood for “sanitizing” or “valorizing” the Japanese during WWII. Happily, my good friend John Puccio is right--Japanese leaders may have been evil and wrong, but most soldiers on both sides of the war were simple folk who were the unfortunate victims of pernicious zealotry. Some of the Japanese officers on Iwo Jima are aware of their leaders’ lies, but they resolve to fight to save their country’s children, in the hopes that perhaps future generations of Japanese could avoid falling into the hands of fascist nationalists once again.
Ken Watanabe has been the go-to guy for big-budget American movies with Japanese characters (The Last Samurai, Batman Begins, Memoirs of a Geisha). He’s not quite “The New Toshiro Mifune”, but if he keeps this up, then he’ll etch his name in international cinema history, too.
I have two quibbles. First, the movie is a tad long. Since the soldiers scurry from one dark tunnel to another, it is difficult to assess what scenes exactly are “necessary” and what scenes are repetitive. My other complaint is with the music score. The main theme is haunting and beautiful, but it is used so frequently that it feels as if the movie were released with a temp score.
Like many movies touched by Steven Spielberg, the movie was given the “bleach bypass” treatment, though I don’t know if this was done chemically (to the film) or digitally (in computer post-production). Letters has an intentionally grainy style that simulates the appearance of movies made in the 1940s.
The sharpness and detail is vastly improved compared to the SD-DVD. By comparison, every object in the SD-DVD picture looks like it has a halo.
This release demonstrates the kind of integrity that is rare in Hollywood. The only spoken language is Japanese in Dolby TrueHD 5.1 and Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 guises. The movie won an Oscar for Sound Editing, and the HD-DVD’s audio is demo quality. It has subtle nuances and appropriately thunderous moments. The actors’ voices are always intelligible without sounding artificially sweetened.
Optional English, French, and Spanish subtitles as well as optional English Subtitles for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing (SDH) support the audio.
Upon loading, the disc plays trailers for Flags of Our Fathers and other Warner releases. On 22 May 2007, Warner is also releasing a movie called American Pastime, which depicts the story of Japanese Americans who were interred in American concentration camps during World War II.
There is no “main menu”; the movie simply starts playing once the HD-DVD loads. Menu selections appear while the movie runs in the background.
“Red Sun, Black Sand: The Making of Letters From Iwo Jima” details the movie’s genesis. (HD)
“The Faces of Combat: The Cast of Letters From Iwo Jima” covers how the casting process gathered perhaps the best ensemble group of any 2006 movie. (HD)
“Images From the Frontlines: The Photography of Letters From Iwo Jima” is a self-advancing photo gallery set to music. (HD)
As with The Last Samurai, Warner hosted a big bash in Japan. The disc includes footage from the movie’s world premiere in Tokyo as well as footage from a press conference attended by Eastwood, screenwriter Iris Yamashita, and some members of the cast.
You get one of the film’s theatrical trailers (it’s not the same as the one in the two-disc SD-DVD release).
Finally, you can zoom-and-pan during the movie to get a close look at whatever piques your interest.
An insert instructs viewers about using the combo disc’s two sides.
The SD-DVD side comes from the exact same authoring as Disc 1 of the two-disc SD-DVD release.