Clint Eastwood conceived Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima as companion pieces, telling the same story — the 1945 battle of Iwo Jima — from opposing (American and Japanese) sides. You can purchase each as separate two-disc sets (the movie plus a batch of extras). But do you need or want the five-disc edition, with an extra disc containing two Iwo Jima docs?
Let’s start with Eastwood’s films. Seen back-to-back, they grow in artistic vision and emotional wallop. Flags follows the lives of the men who planted the flag on the island, the ones seen in Joe Rosenthal’s iconic image. This movie grapples with a weight that became, to these soldiers, nearly as heavy as waging war itself: the semi-celebrity that went along with starring in one of the most reproduced photographs ever taken. There’s a certain inevitability to Flags — we know the outcome of the battle, and we know that ordinary citizens usually have trouble when fame is thrust upon them — but the movie has a propulsive momentum, and the DVD includes a fine making-of doc (it’s always interesting to watch Eastwood’s low-key, let’s-just-shoot-it directing style).
By comparison, Letters feels new. Working from a story by Paul Haggis (Crash) and screenwriter Iris Yamashita, Eastwood immediately absorbs us in the experiences of the Japanese troops led by Lieut. Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi, played with poignant terseness by Ken Watanabe. Kuribayashi becomes a bold yet almost tragic figure; his war strategy resulted in a battle that was expected to last less than a week, but took nearly 40 days and resulted in the deaths of more than 20,000 Japanese troops. His rigorously harsh campaign is contrasted with the tender letters he writes home to his family (they serve as the film’s narration).
Iwo Jima’s extras include a couple of 20-minute featurettes that highlight the lengths to which Eastwood and his crew went for accuracy: In ”Red Sun, Black Sand,” he makes the culturally acute point that while our soldiers were sent into battle with the hope of returning home, their Japanese counterparts were ”told they weren’t coming back.” Eastwood’s World War II diptych is neatly complemented by the fifth disc, which contains the A&E-produced Heroes of Iwo Jima documentary and a 1945 U.S. government-produced short, To the Shores of Iwo Jima. The A&E film, narrated by Gene Hackman, is first-rate; in fact, it nearly equals Flags as an examination of the famous photograph and its aftermath.
Taken together, the five-disc edition is not a rip-off, but a thoughtfully assembled package that will satisfy both novices and students of this still-vivid, moving chapter in history. A-