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Matters of Fate

Letters From Iwo Jima changes the perspective on World War II; Venus showcases the great Peter O' Toole

In the otherwise brilliant opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan, dramatizing the American landings in France on D-day, Steven Spielberg made one small slip. He completely engulfs the viewer in the American assault; but when we are thus immersed, he inserts a brief clip of German machine-gunners firing at the Americans. This complete switch in view cracks our involvement. It takes a few seconds to become American-absorbed again.

Knowingly or not, Clint Eastwood has converted the Spielberg slip into a triumph. He made Flags of Our Fathers, about the American invasion of Iwo Jima, completely from the American view, and now he has made an entire film about the reverse view, the Japanese resistance. (Spielberg was co-producer of both films and possibly contributed, out of his own experience, to Eastwood’s decision.)Instead of slipping one glimpse of the enemy opposition into Flags, Eastwood made Letters From Iwo Jima, which is devoted to the Japanese actions and states of mind as thoroughly as the first film was to the American forces. The only Americans in this second film are a few prisoners.

The double result is a unique achievement. The only remotely comparable work I know is The Human Condition (1961), Masaki Kobayashi’s trio of films about continuing experiences in war, but to my knowledge no previous set of pictures showed both sides of a conflict: war as the collision of two humanized groups, each group trained to kill the other group. Eastwood’s basic purpose could have been nothing other than to show that these two groups, in their very opposition, reveal their basic linkage. (I note again that this intent is remarkable for a director-star who made a career out of bravura killing, and I note again also that these two films, made almost simultaneously, are the work of a seventy-five-year-old man.)

Letters was written by Iris Yamashita and is based on a book by Tsuyoko Yoshido and the Japanese commander General Tadamichi Kuribayashi. The film begins with some modern Japanese investigators digging up a bag on Iwo Jima, and it ends with the opening of that bag, which is full of letters from Japanese soldiers that were never sent. The substance of the film is the activities of the soldiers who wrote those letters, including the general. They all know that the Americans are coming. They know that their task is to defend this island, which is considered holy ground, part of Japan itself, and would be used as a base for bombing their homeland. They know that they will be outmanned and outgunned. They know that they are there in order to die in Japan’s defense.

Steeped thus in an ethos quite unlike that of their enemy, whose purpose is to conquer and survive if possible, it is poignant that, among the Japanese, many of the jokes, quarrels, and palships are much like those of soldiers with whom we are more familiar. As they bicker and play their pranks and gab, these men dig their tunnels in the rocky hills, prepare trenches and gun emplacements, and know that, when the Americans arrive, they cannot have any victory except the glory of dying for their country. Those who question this aim suffer for it. All their preparations and all theirs minders of their heroic privilege, all the terrible combat of the invasion, are superintended by the general, nobly yet warmly played by Ken Watanabe (who was the leading Japanese actor in The Last Samurai).

The actors are intelligently directed by Eastwood, which is especially notable because they speak a language he doesn’t know. This is a completely subtitled picture made by an American. The film is virtually all in black-and- white, even the occasional flashbacks to other places, including California, where the general once was stationed. Overall, the effect is presumably what Eastwood wanted: we are present at a momentous event, not watching a movie.

Surely the future will bring joint showings of Flags and Letters. These showings will confirm that Eastwood, who became world-famous with popular films (and in my view was overpraised for such "serious" pictures as Unforgiven and Mystic River), has now contributed to the treasury of world film. These two Iwo Jima pictures ultimately disclose a theme more stark than the faintly smug pathos of antiwar films. Eastwood’s films concede war as an ancient and permanent curse.

On the other hand—a considerably different hand—Venus is melancholy but enjoyable. Melancholy itself is often a species of pleasure when it is grounded in comprehensible regret. Hanif Kureishi does the job. He has written a screenplay about an aging English actor, once famous and handsome, who is now less famous and weather-beaten—whiskey-beaten, rather—who still acts a bit and drinks a lot and is a walking monument of waste. It was directed by Roger Michell, who filmed another good Kureishi screenplay, The Mother. Possibly both writer and director knew from the start who would play the actor: in any case the role is perfectly cast, and the melancholy is complete.

Peter O’Toole, now in his mid-seventies and still superb in large lovely ways, is in the role, which is not autobiographical but which he understands only too well. Maurice, the actor, lives in London, modestly but not in poverty, and drinks around with another old actor, Ian (Leslie Phillips). Ian has a young grandniece, Jessie (Jodie Whittaker), who comes to London to be a model and is so difficult and so attractive that Maurice takes her under his tremulous wing. Sex, facts being what they are, is out of the question. A sort of sexless, amusing, argumentative, and eventually affectionate relationship develops between the old actor, a figure of a bygone age, and the girl, so cutting-edge that she can slice.

Maurice does some film acting now and again, and Jessie gets some work as a nude model in an art school. Other plotty matters unwind, mildly. More engrossing are the performances, including the appearances of Valerie, Maurice’s wife, who has long lived apart from him but is still fond of him. She is played by Vanessa Redgrave, marvelously true from her first moment.

A melancholy deeper than the story’s comes along with O’Toole. The adjective "great" is one of the cheapest in film and theater criticism; yet, to use it as seriously as possible, O’Toole showed early on, in Lawrence of Arabia, of course, and Brotherly Love and The Ruling Class, that he could become one of the great actors in history. But, like John Barrymore, he did not have the character to match his talent. His career wobbled. Vanessa Redgrave did have the requisite character and has achieved greatness. Her moments with O’Toole in this film thus have their particular melancholy.