Published December 11, 2006
Clint Eastwood’s new movie, his second release of the fall, is called "Letters From Iwo Jima." It’s a masterpiece — no kidding — considering that it’s over two hours long, filmed in black and white and spoken almost entirely in Japanese by a nearly all-Japanese cast.
More importantly, "Letters From Iwo Jima" is the biggest, most propulsive anti-war statement to come out of mainstream Hollywood in years. It’s even more sharply pointed because it comes from Eastwood, long a Reagan Republican and probably considered by most Americans to fall to the right in contemporary politics.
But Eastwood has done something nothing short of amazing with "Iwo Jima." He’s made the flip side of his own movie, "Flags of Our Fathers," which was about the American soldiers who planted the Stars and Stripes on Mount Suribachi when they’d won their battle in 1945.
Eastwood literally filmed "Iwo Jima" while he was editing "Flags," too, without a breather in between.
Those would be enough amazing points, but let’s go on. He only got the idea for "Iwo Jima" when a Warner Bros. exec in Japan forwarded Eastwood research during "Flags" about letters written by Lt. Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi (played masterfully in the film by Ken Watanabe).
Eastwood took the letters, found a screenplay through Paul Haggis ("Crash," "Million Dollar Baby") and quickly put together a whole second film that tells the story of the battle for Iwo Jima in reverse, so to speak, from the Japanese side.
Significantly, there are no overlapping scenes from the two movies except maybe for one: the very beginning of the battle as the Americans arrive on the island’s shore, and the Japanese army seems to be absent.
In "Flags" that’s the way it looked, but in "Iwo Jima" we get to see the other side: how the Japanese prepared for the American arrival, and what went into their side of the war.
Because of Iris Yamashita’s remarkable screenplay, by the time the explosions and horrific deaths commence, we are very invested in the Japanese soldiers and their lives.
Ironically, we’re more interested in these characters than the ones from "Flags," and that’s just a fluke. But "Iwo Jima" works almost opposite to "Flags" in that way, making the better movie by miles.
Eastwood told me last night at the movie’s first official private screening here in New York that "Iwo Jima" was the easiest to make of the two "because it was a linear story and not cutting back and forth with a lot flashbacks as we had in 'Flags.'"
He’s funny, I said, since "Iwo Jima" is another language.
"Oh that," Clint said, laughing. "Well, we had interpreters."
This is the fourth top-notch film Eastwood has made in the last five years, including "Mystic River," "Million Dollar Baby" and "Flags."
First of all, this is nothing short of amazing, since he’s 76, and his first Oscar for Best Picture came in 1995 for "Unforgiven."
In between, Eastwood tried a lot of different projects to different effect including "The Bridges of Madison County" and "Space Cowboys." But starting with "Mystic River," he seems like a man possessed to leave an even greater legacy than the one he had.
"Letters From Iwo Jima" is already winning prizes, but it’s most certainly headed for a Best Picture nomination at the Academy Awards.
My list, for better or worse, would then be: "Dreamgirls," "The Departed," "The Queen," "Volver" and "Letters From Iwo Jima." We could not do any better in any year, which in itself is amazing.
But "Iwo Jima" is kind of the movie everyone’s been waiting for — the big, important historical epic. "Dreamgirls" is the big, fun dessert. "The Departed" is the cineaste film. But "Iwo Jima" is this year’s "Saving Private Ryan." It’s serious and fantastically well-made, has two potential acting nominees (Watanabe for Lead, Kazunari Ninomiya in Supporting), plus Best Director (Eastwood) and Best Adapted Screenplay (Yamashita and Haggis).
There’s also potential for production design by the late great Henry Bumstead, since much of the movie was shot in a real cave in Bakersfield, Calif. — and looks realistically like Iwo Jima. The set has almost a lunar feel to it, as the Japanese soldiers carve out their battlements with verisimilitude inside rocky, crumbling Mount Suribachi.
But what I think will make the difference for "Iwo Jima" is that it arrives just at the right time politically in this country. "Flags of Our Fathers" had a hard time finding an audience because people thought it was rah-rah patriotic. It wasn’t, but the marketing department had trouble communicating its sometimes ambiguous message.
"Iwo Jima" should be easy: War is hell. That’s it. And at the end of 2006, with soldiers coming home in body bags, this should be pretty simple to grasp.
Eastwood doesn’t mind if that’s how "Iwo Jima" is viewed. "All war is bad," he told me, "and it’s not a matter of Democrat or Republican. The parties are so screwed up right now."
So here comes Eastwood into the Oscar race for the third time in four years. The whole thing just got a lot more interesting, that’s for sure!
Mel Gibson’s brutally violent "Apocalypto" finished first for the weekend, with $14.1 million.
However: it was only in first place on Friday, taking the No. 2 on Saturday and No. 3 on Sunday. Watch for "Apocalypto" to do a slow sink over the week as the novelty of seeing Mayans getting harpooned in the neck peters out.
More to the point was the disappointing launch of "Blood Diamond" starring Leonardo DiCaprio. After a lot of publicity and talk, the audience just didn’t seem interested. Its fifth place finish for the weekend doesn’t bode well. …
Renee Zellweger got a dinner and screening for her new movie on Saturday night, but it was "no press." Why?
"She’s not talking to anyone," said a publicist.
Why should she? She’s got her Oscar, and Renee is probably worried about questions concerning her two-minute marriage to Kenny Chesney. She had us at "Goodbye." …
Atlantic Records’ Ahmet Ertegun still ailing in a New York hospital after his Oct. 29 fall at a Rolling Stones benefit for Bill Clinton. It’s a serious situation, I am told repeatedly. …
Tomorrow night at Chris Noth’s Cutting Room on West 24th Street in New York: first Jessica Domain, followed by Seth Adam Group. Call 212-691-1900 for info. ...
I hear that the seasonal wrap party at the Cutting Room on Saturday night for "Law & Order: Criminal Intent" was quite the event. Some of the guests may still be hidden in dark corners even on Tuesday.
Beautiful, smart Eileen Davidson has been booted from the "Young and the Restless" soap after 20 years. If Dick Wolf is smart, he’ll make her the next DA on "Law & Order." Davidson should have been on prime time a long time ago. …
And mucho kudos to Vanity Fair for putting Eddie Murphy, Jamie Foxx and Beyonce on its January cover for "Dreamgirls." This is a landmark moment in magazines, what with Will Smith on Premiere at the same time.
A-list Hollywood went to multi-cultural about four years ago. It’s nice to see the publications catch up. But the Q&A in the same VF with "Borat" doesn’t count — even though it’s very funny.