Clint Eastwood’s Letters from Iwo Jima is being sold to us as the piece of cinema that fits together with Flags of our Fathers to form a perfect two-part whole. But is it? And does it? Praised in the US, popular in Japan, nominated for Best Picture Oscar (and eligible if it chose, being in subtitled Japanese, for Best Foreign Language Film Oscar), the film would seem too good to be true.
It is. It is too “good” in its pie-eyed revisionist portrait of the Japanese war effort, condoning by omission all of that campaign’s savagery of method and implacability of imperialist purpose. And it is too “good” – good in the way people talk disparagingly of a well-made play – in its dinky-structured distillation, even at 141 minutes, of war’s madness.
Eastwood focuses on half a dozen sympathetic Japanese soldiers, humanised by war fatigue and battle disgust in their countdown to death on the island of Iwo Jima. They represent, for him and by intention for us, the Japanese army in its last cathartic stand. Yet we know that military Japan could not have functioned if this kind of maverick freedom of thought and malleability of emotion had been typical among squaddies, let alone officers, represented here by Ken Watanabe’s humane and flexible-minded commander and Tsuyoshi Ihara’s dashing, decent ex-Olympic horseman.
Nor do we believe, in this chamber drama set in the island’s caves and man-made tunnels, that a horrific battle involving tens of thousands is happening overhead. Flags of our Fathers made that conflict real. Letters from Iwo Jima makes it remote, theoretical, intangible. We are kept in an underground sanctuary from reality, where the film’s specimen-jar Japanese soldiers are as non-human in their forced “humanity” as the belljar homunculi in The Bride of Frankenstein. They are designed by the film to make westerners feel warm and understanding, as Eastwood and his screenwriters Iris Yamashita and Paul Crash Haggis simplify everything.
They simplify the mystery of suicide-militarism – the kamikaze culture – with scenes in which individual soldiers blow themselves up with hand grenades. Horrific, yes; but made palatable, tragic, by the sense of individual choice rather than regimented mysticism. They simplify too the very fanaticisms that could have seemed admirable to us. The building of those tunnels was an astonishing feat, superhuman rather than inhuman. The film offers a few perfunctory shots of soldiers swinging pickaxes; then, hey presto, we are in caverns measureless to man.
Letters from Iwo Jima sets out to bring truth and reconciliation to its portrayal, and to the west’s understanding, of the “other side” in the Pacific war. We get a lot of conciliation. But truth still awaits the purging of partiality and of special pleading even when they are done, as here, with an opposite spin and the best intentions.
In The Good Shepherd another actor-turned-director, Robert De Niro, sets out to wallpaper our minds with a stretch of 20th-century geopolitical history. De Niro is less experienced a metteur en scène than Eastwood, who at least knows, usually, how to hide the cracks. So the wallpaper keeps coming off the wall, all but smothering him and making him totter atop his stepladder.
It is a rich shambles, though. At almost three hours the film covers nearly three decades, from the second world war to the Cuban missile crisis. These are the birth years of the CIA, represented by Matt Damon’s fast-rising Everyman hero. Angelina Jolie plays Mrs Damon, and though no one had lips that terrifying 60 years ago she reminds us that, in matriarchal America in the Roosevelt-and-after years, a strong woman stood behind every strong man.
The US’s security dawn was also peopled by Alec Baldwin, William Hurt and John Turturro, with a wink-and-grin cameo from De Niro and an amusing bit of shtick from Michael Gambon in Britain. Eric Roth’s sprawling screenplay, for years an orphan without adoption in Hollywood, loses and refinds its point so often it is like watching a squirrel dealing with a nut. Yet there is a willingness to recognise complexity and moral murk. Just when we think Damon is a white knight with too few ethical shadings, he delivers a xenophobic zinger no less recognisable as “American” (in that nation’s isolationist moods) than the trumpeted love of liberty and democracy. “The United States of America are what we are proud of,” this Wasp tells a non-Wasp. “The rest of you are just visiting.”
Abderrahmane Sissako’s Bamako shows it is not enough for a writer-director to have a brilliant initial idea. When the lightbulb goes on above his head, it has to stay on. This combination of comedy, ethno-documentary and trial of ideas – where lawyers enact a debate between the World Bank and Africa in an open-air legal marathon held in a backyard (unacknowledgedly Sissako’s own) in Mali’s eponymous capital – is a promising fancy allowed to sputter like a failing filament.
The lawyers and their witnesses blaze brightly. Amped up by statistics, one side defends globalisation, the other argues it has been a mixed blessing for Africa, partly bad, but mostly worse. This is impassioned and entertaining, like watching a John Grisham courtroom drama in which big ideas have replaced big actor-characters. It is the surrounding bits that fizzle. The mini-plots and divertimenti meant to add colour to the abstract glow of truth-seeking – the cop whose gun is stolen, the house owner and his nightclub singer wife (whose songs are exasperatingly unsubtitled), the spoof western starring Danny Glover that allegorises Africa’s civil schisms – add feeble flickerings of hokum and intended humour.
The film’s structure collapses because Sissako does not trust simplicity to stand up on its own. He applies needless pointing to the brickwork, distracting the viewer’s mind and eye and messing up what could have been, and should have been, a clean-lined cogency.
Elsewhere this week, you can start running now to get a head start. Any direction will do that takes you away from a cinema showing The Number 23 (Joel Schumacher) or School for Scoundrels (Todd Phillips). The first is a dunderhead thriller about numbers magic starring Jim Carrey in non-funny mode. The second is a Billy Bob Thornton comedy, jokelessly spawned from the old Terry-Thomas Britcom, which in turn bastardised the beloved writings of Stephen Potter.
No, you are best off with France’s Orchestra Seats. Henry James, you recall, said that the Prince liked his London when it came to him (The Golden Bowl: I, i, 1.) I seldom like my Paris that way, when it bounds up, tail wagging and all oo-la-la. But filmmaker Daniele Thompson, who wrote Cousin Cousine, refuses to stint the charm, so we give in. A gamine heroine with a Seberg haircut (Cécile de France); a concert pianist who takes his clothes off (Albert Dupontel); an art-collecting ex-cabby played by the great Claude Brasseur, eerily resembling the great Charles Aznavour. All human life is – well, let us be honest – nowhere to be seen. But fluff and effervescence are sometimes enough, when done by the on-form French.