counting down the best films of 2006: No. 9, ‘Letters from Iwo Jima’

WHY IS THIS ONE OF THE BEST FILMS OF THE YEAR?: War is hell … except when it comes to war movies, which, when done with sensitivity and keen perception, offer some of the more provocative insights into what it means to be human — at the most fundamental level, where we’re stripped of cultural conditioning — especially under the most trying of circumstances.

SO WHY THIS AND NOT FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS?: The two films are bookends, there’s no question about that, but where it seems that Clint Eastwood could not resist sentimentalizing the American perspective on the Battle of Iwo Jima, the very alienness of the Japanese perspective for American audiences inherently resists schmaltzifying. We’re sentimental about things that are familiar — it’s hard to get sappy over people and places and cultures we don’t know. But that isn’t to say that there’s no sentiment to Letters: its power comes from its genuine emotion — longing for absent family, for instance, for a way of life that may be lost forever — that is recognizable to everyone, no matter where you were born and how you were raised. Eastwood deployed a sledgehammer of emotion with Flags, but with Letters, he uses a feather, and is much more effective for it.

THIS IS REALLY ALL ABOUT THE CURRENT WAR IN IRAQ, ISN’T IT?: If the shoe fits… Letters is about some basic realities of war, particularly the ones we seem to forget when we’re smack in the middle of one. Like the fact that bizarre ideas about what constitutes patriotism can lead an army, or a nation, off a cliff. Like the fact that there are atrocities and kindnesses on both sides. Like the fact that understanding your enemy is vital to winning … but that if you get too close, you “risk” humanizing him too much, so that you start to wonder what the hell you’re fighting for in the first place.

[See the whole best-of list for 2006 here.]

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