Sunday, June 29, 2014

Images of war

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in February 2007)

It was remarkably appropriate that Clint Eastwood’s Letters from Iwo Jima should open here in the same week that George W. Bush announced an additional 21,000 troops headed for Iraq. Bush may have had unwavering supporters for this move somewhere, but they were hard to find. Most Democrats, and many Republicans, thought the focus should be on winding down and pulling out. The dwindling band of hawks, in a grim application of the in for a penny in for a pound philosophy, mostly thought that any increase should be greater (Frank Rich pointed out that the total American military commitment, post increase, remained less than the manpower of the NYPD).

Letters from Iwo Jima

No one, of course, knows. These calibrations couldn’t be more spurious; Bush’s sense of the specific demands of the Baghdad insurgency, despite everything we hear about briefings and meetings and deliberations, never seems more than impressionistic, if not fantastic. But maybe it was always so. You look at our world in 2007 through one eye and it’s a temple of achievement – the gleaming payoff for centuries of slow progress. Then you look through the other eye and it’s the same primitive, ill-considered mess it’s always been. The main mark of our progress – one that’s destined by its nature to be short-lived – is perhaps merely the ability to keep these two dueling realities so clinically hidden from each other.

Eastwood’s other film from last year, Flags of our Fathers, focused on the creation of military heroes, dramatizing the vast ideological machine and its disregard for truth or the individual well being of the individuals who feed the beast. The film fell a little flat with most people, but watching the much starker, pained Letters from Iwo Jima, it hit me more clearly how Flags – for all its apparent respect toward American heartland values – exposes the machinations of a puffed-up, corrupt empire. The glory of dying for one’s country generally seems a function of rarity and positioning more than of inherent “achievement” or “meaning” – look at the news coverage of each Canadian military death in Afghanistan – which limits the impact of stories told from the perspective of the winners.

As if dissatisfied by the scope of Flags, Eastwood decided during its production to make this companion film about the other side. It’s certainly one of the bleakest examples of an increasingly bleak genre. Iwo Jima was a wretched island, considered strategically important in the final phase of WW2 for its position 650 miles from Tokyo. Facing a certain American invasion, the unraveling Japanese empire deployed some 21,000 men (now that number sounds familiar somehow…) to the island, with little or no air and sea support. The Americans sent in 110,000 marines in 880 ships. At the end of 36 days, one in three of the Americans were killed or wounded, but virtually all the Japanese perished. This, it seems, was essentially preordained – the Japanese strategy called for no survivors, asking of their soldiers only to maximize the slaughter of American troops before dying themselves. Letters from Iwo Jima focuses on the Japanese commander, Kuribayashi, on his deputies, and on some of the ordinary men, and I don’t think I’m giving too much away when I say only one of these survives. The film is not about fighting, but about dying.

Honour and Accountability

Certainly it has its fill of stirring incident and spectacle, and moments of human identification. Eastwood’s approach here is more linear than in the sprawling Flags, but still accommodates occasional flashbacks to previous lives, and voice-overs reading from the letters of the title. Narratively, the film is accessible enough. But it’s deliberately taxing and draining. The colours are utterly desaturated, rendering most frames a grim yellowish gray, with only the occasional grimy infusion of blood to vary the scheme. The Japanese spend much of their time staking out the enemy in tunnels, which creates an immense claustrophobic weight. Initially, Kuribayashi has the buoyancy of the true believer, and the film allows this to shape its momentum for a while, but the hopelessness of the mission soon becomes clear, the commander can do no more than agonize in his bunker about the collapse of all around him, and the film becomes increasingly fragmented, along with what it portrays.

The film has its weaknesses. I was surprised afterwards to read the Japanese had even as many as 21,000 men, because the film seems to suggest it was much less, thus facilitating the sense of hopelessness, and allowing contrivances such as repeated meetings between the commander and the film’s main everyman character. But it’s a film of great eloquence and weight. As things go on, suicide comes increasingly to dominate its scheme (more than any war film I can remember), further deepening its reverie on death, on what’s a good death in wartime, on the nature of duty to country and empire. Which, reflecting the rigid Japanese culture of honour and accountability, provides another obvious parallel with the feckless oversight of the Iraq endeavour.

Flags of our Fathers ended on a memory of camaraderie among the American soldiers, playing around in the sea. Letters of Iwo Jima closes on the dark, accusatory silhouette of the wretched island. Those two images, on their face, merely embody the spectrum between winning and losing, but the two films together, along with the good fortune of their timing (although a filmmaker as fast moving and canny as Eastwood can truly be said to make his own luck) establish the corrupt arrogance of those very concepts in war. They’re a powerful collective letter indeed.
Alpha Dog

Meanwhile, in the most privileged enclaves of modern day America, cinematic evidence accumulates that the life of the average young adult is merely a dissipated whirl of drugs and violence and casual sex and random connection. No wonder George W. Bush doesn’t want to bring back the draft! Nick Cassavetes’ Alpha Dog is based on the story of real-life California drug dealer Jesse James Hollywood, who in 2000 was at the middle of a spontaneous kidnapping that went horribly astray. Emile Hirsch plays the fictionalized Johnny Truelove, and the film’s best performance, truly, comes from Justin Timberlake as the sweetest natured, most tragically misled of his posse.

It’s a very full film in the sense that it’s stuffed with secondary characters and connections – the many young women who hang ingratiatingly around the swaggering dudes seem especially anonymous and interchangeable – and it’s absolutely never boring. But this territory has been covered so many times that one can tick off the thematic threads before the lights even go down:  stunted maturity; ineffectual parenting; lax morality; too much easy money; latent homoeroticism; parakeet fetishism. Well, I made that last one up. I have no idea how many people out there are living the Alpha Dog life, but I think the subculture has been adequately charted by now. Ain’t freedom wonderful though?

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