L argely set inside Mt. Suribachi, from which the Japanese mowed down seven thousand members of the Greatest Generation, Clint Eastwood’s Letters From Iwo Jima is his Flags of Our Fathers turned inside out, which means that now we see the battle through the eyes of Japanese soldiers (faceless in Flags) who knew they’d die but kept on fighting anyway so as not to disgrace their mother country. The project must have appealed to Eastwood on two levels. He could cut costs by shooting both pictures simultaneously (he is famously parsimonious), and he could continue the process of revising his legend that began with Unforgiven, after which Hollywood hailed this symbol of reactionary, cartoon-nihilist vigilantism as a classical storyteller with (who’d-a-thunk it?) an abhorrence of violence. Too old for another Dirty Harry movie, Eastwood embraced the role of brooding, fatalistic American Master—and, I’m bound to say, is finally beginning to wear it more convincingly.
His Iwo Jima films are not thematically linked (different sources, different screenwriters), and Eastwood doesn’t frame the Japanese as archetypally as he did Our Boys. His style is simpler here—more distanced, more stoic. In the first hour, before the carnage began, I wondered if he had any point of view at all on what he was shooting. The groupings are stiff, the dialogue (in Japanese) expository, and there’s little in the way of context: no mention of why the Japanese joined the war, no hint of the atrocities they routinely committed against their demonized foes, and no attempt to dig into the myth of the heroic Japanese warrior—which is more potent than its American counterpart.
It’s when the characters start to die that the movie comes alive. The colors are even more leached out than in Flags, but the blood is brick red and seems to burst from the screen, especially when a group of soldiers, to avoid surrender, blow themselves apart with grenades. The slow pacing begins to pay off: You get a sense of what it felt like to be trapped in that mountain, parched, starving, on the verge of being killed by men you couldn’t see for reasons you’d forgotten, with officers vowing to behead you if you tried to surrender and anthems on the radio (sung by a chorus of children) that celebrated you as your country’s last, best hope.
Letters From Iwo Jima wears its humanism on its sleeve, insofar as only one of the major characters, Ito (Shido Nakamura), is especially gung-ho about slaughtering Americans, and the general, Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe), approaches the battle grimly, as a feat of logistics rather than patriotism. The emotional core of the movie is a pair of soldiers who don’t want to be there at all: Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya), the baker with a baby he has never seen, and Shimizu (Ryo Kase), a policeman sent to Iwo Jima as punishment for refusing to carry out a sadistic order. The odyssey of these skinny innocents—from the front of the mountain to the back, from one commanding officer to another, past comrades who fall or kill themselves—takes on the tone of a nightmare farce. The fate of one of these two is the most devastating horror in a movie that’s a chamber of them.
Flags of Our Fathers didn’t do much at the box office, and it got mixed reviews from critics who now think that Letters From Iwo Jima is the geisha’s knees. For my money, Flags (however clunky) cuts more deeply, but Letters is more difficult to shake off. Together, they leave you with the feeling that even a just and necessary war is an abomination. So what is a war based on lies and executed with arrogant—and fatal—incompetence?
A s Barbara Covett, the diarist narrator of the deliciously overripe psychodrama Notes on a Scandal, Judi Dench regards the world with pruney disdain—with pursed, shriveled lips and a tongue always poised to deliver acid rejoinders. But on the inside, this little gargoyle is roiling with passions—and ever in search of a female soul mate. She’s certain she has found one in Sheba (short for Bathsheba), the new art instructor at the London high school where she teaches and played by a blonde Cate Blanchett, who is airy yet ripe, breathtakingly beautiful yet somehow unfinished: tantalizing prey. When Barbara spies Sheba going down on a 15-year-old student, she knows she has a royal road into the young woman’s confidences.
The film, directed by Richard Eyre and written by Patrick Marber (from a book by Zoë Heller), does nothing to soften Barbara’s monstrous narcissism, which borders, at times, on the delusional. And yet she is, as they say, quite a character. Her stratagems, heard in voice-over (“She has nowhere to turn but trusty old Barb”), would make Richard III smile approvingly, and when her emotions are aroused she’s a banshee—she’s feral. It’s appalling to watch the trap close on Sheba, who is married to a much older man (the delightful Bill Nighy) and has two children, one with Down syndrome. She’s self-destructing anyway—she feels smothered by her life (full of love as it is). When she tells her new friend “family doesn’t give you meaning, it gives you an imperative,” Barbara doesn’t hear that as the cry of a disturbed young woman but as an invitation to liberate her.
Notes on a Scandal is another squirm-und-drang movie: too creepy-sad to be a comedy, too intense to watch quietly, without letting out frequent whoops. The score, by Philip Glass, is a study in egregiousness—the usual busy undercurrents with a top layer of bombast. But it does suggest something of Barbara’s turbulent inner life, and it gives the picture momentum. Anyone who has ever felt possessive about a friend will recognize him- or herself in Barbara Covett’s covetousness. And anyone who loves live-wire acting will gasp in awe at Blanchett, more emotionally exposed than ever, and, most of all, at Dame Judi, who’s so electric she makes you quiver.