So Act of Valor’s coming out soon, and I’m really not excited about it in the least. I got a huge beef with war movies, not just after seeing horrors like Black Hawk Down and The Thin Red Line, but after a dedicated evaluation of just what was wrong in premise with an entire genre of film. Obviously there are truly great war movies, chiefly Apocalypse Now, but I’ve found that war movies post-Saving Private Ryan, so barring stuff like The Dirty Dozen, have really taken hard to a style of what is essentially the self-loathing action movie. The movie may have all sorts of blood and violence, but it takes no pleasure in cinema violence. How could it? Unless it’s something fantasy like Inglourious Basterds, the movie’s historical, and won’t be all John Woo (not even Windtalkers was John Woo, though I did enjoy that movie highly). It’ll be gritty, showing guys falling apart and screaming. Take no joy in this, audience. This is a learning experience.

That’s fine, if you’re Apocalypse Now, a movie with a clear message and the smarts to back it up, but if you’re Black Hawk Down, what are you doing? That movie is two hours of war action, which as stated earlier, isn’t action to be enjoyed. BHD doesn’t then go on to make a point about war like even The Hurt Locker does, it just… goes on. And on and on… holy shit dude. That is, from the one review and trailer I read/saw of Act of Valor, precisely what Act of Valor is gonna be. I guess it started out as a recruitment film, so it’ll have even less of an anti-war message than anything before it.

Let’s talk then about the antithesis: Letters from Iwo Jima. Like Apoc Now, it’s an anti-war movie, one where the enemy isn’t in the enemy soldiers, but in fighting them. Come to think about it, how could they be the enemy? They’re America!

Letters from Iwo Jima completes, justifies, and stands alone with its companion film Flags of our Fathers as one beautiful statement from one of America’s most beloved filmmakers. Clint Eastwood has truly made one of the most humane and necessary films here, and if we’re speaking specifically to Letters, it’s quite entertaining as well. I say they ‘stand alone’ because we view Letters from Iwo Jima in the context of being American. For outsiders, not that we should care about them, it’s a movie about Japanese soldiers that happens to be more sentimental than most others. Of course, many would know that an American directed and created it, but its position standing next to Flags of our Fathers helps. That movie came first, and establishes the American perspective. Then we get Letters, and it’s the Japanese perspective. This connects the two, saying essentially that the problem here isn’t the damn Japs, it’s combat. Military institutions. War.

Even though general consensus, which I agree with, is that Flags of our Fathers isn’t as good [I don’t think it’s bad], it’s the requisite piece that completes the whole, the Act I of a two act structure — much like Kill Bill Vol. 1. Volume 2 is the important one, but we wouldn’t get there without the first. I do like it when this happens, even in less planned out circumstances like the two Clerks movies or the first two Terminators, where a sequel is created to form a dialogue with the original to say something greater than either individually does.

There are movies whose concept I could gush over, but the praise stops there, like The Expendables, or Avatar, but Letters isn’t one of them. The idea of Letters from Iwo Jima is great, but the film itself is also very good. At first glance, it may look like yet another Saving Private Ryan retread, with its washed out color and everything, but as we discover, the violence is minimal, the action is punctuation, and the photography is sweeping glides and careful composition. The music is also quite memorable, particularly the main theme.

There is a central tragedy going on in the movie, the Japanese answer to “why we fight.” Discussion of honor and being a soldier is brought into the narrative, with one scene laying out explicitly the deadliness of the Japanese way — they’d rather blow themselves up irrationally than continue on when all seems lost. Even our hero Kuribayashi feels he must sacrifice himself for his country; it’s motives so deeply embedded in the culture one couldn’t possibly refuse them, even when they must leave their wife and unborn child behind.

High-brow stuff, intelligently done. While it would be enough to have a good idea, then follow through and have it be well made, it’s also a movie of tremendous affect and emotional weight. It’s a great example of a movie that follows more than one perspective, in this case a commander and a soldier, and actually succeeds come payoff time. When they meet, it isn’t a slambang action moment or the Death Wish III “Got one for you DUDE!” though it is under an extreme circumstance. It’s a priceless moment, one of high emotional intensity — they’ve both been through hell alone, and now we see that no matter where you fall in rank, they’re both soldiers.

As much as I like Unforgiven, Letters from Iwo Jima is to me Clint Eastwood’s finest moment. No matter what he does from now on, whether it’s Hereafter, or J. Edgar, which was received less than positively, because of the level of quality he aspires to and reaches here with his war movie, he’ll always be one of the most significant filmmakers of his time, a genre literate Hollywood man with the rarest of things: a heart.

Truly an oddity, a filmmaker using his film to say something real.

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