It would've been hard to imagine in his Dirty Harry prime of dusting punks and sweeping streets with a .44-caliber Magnum that one day Clint Eastwood would be the most humanistic filmmaker around. Just maybe his most vocal critics, such as the late Pauline Kael, who reviled him as a reactionary sadist, had old Eastwood wrong all along; that as a gritty action star he was commenting on the wages of violence rather than celebrating them. There can be no doubt that now, as a director, Eastwood has made two terrific films about the price of war on humanity, and taken together they are a towering achievement. This companion piece to Flags of our Fathers does a 180-degree turn and takes the Japanese perspective on the gruesome 36-day battle to take a tiny Pacific island, where 7,000 U.S. and more than 20,000 of the emperor's men perished. It was an epic moment that helped shape the course of world history, but for the men readying the island's defenses as well as the ones ready to storm the beaches, it was an unholy nightmare.
Eastwood centers the film's story on a handful of characters, led by Ken Watanabe as Lieutenant General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, the brilliant commanding officer whose innovative tactics are somewhat at odds with the "samurai ethic" of his more suicidal subordinates. Severely outgunned and low on supplies, Kuribayashi orders his forces to dig in to the mountains and lightly defend the beaches, an unconventional move that will only prolong the inevitable, but might make the U.S. cost of taking the island too high.
Over a hidden stash of bourbon, Kuribayashi forms a quick friendship with his new second in command, the dashing cavalry officer Baron Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara), as both men spent time in the United States, one as a student and the other an Olympic champion who dined with movie stars. Down in the muck and blood of the grunt level, we follow private Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya), a former baker and reluctant soldier who wants only to return home to his wife and newborn daughter. Most everyone else drifts through like the disposable charnel they will become, though there isn't a weak performance anywhere.
There's a chaotic and desperate feeling to the unglamorous battle scenes; as we know each flying bullet will tear through the flesh of a fighter we've emotionally invested in or an American who could be an ancestor. By boldly donning the enemy's boots, Eastwood has negated the "us versus them" mentality, there's no one to really root for; just people we hope will survive. Though the tone is bleak, there's great beauty in Tom Stern's harsh and washed-out cinematography, with rolling mountainsides and volcanic beaches that twinkle like starlight. All but eschewing the romance found in great war movies, we get a sense of honest war deconstruction not myth-building. The focal point of the previous film, the staging of the famous U.S. flag rising above Mt. Suribachi, is glimpsed fleetingly here; it's a tiny speck way up an a hill, it's presence of little importance for men looking death straight in its ugly eyes.
Opens at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111) on Friday, Jan. 12.
Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to email@example.com.