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Men of war 

Two different films explore man's inhumanity to man

At one time, war films were dismissed as propaganda, filled with images of patriotism and valor. In recent years, the genre has developed a new set of clichés, foremost of which is cynicism.

A grim view of warfare's ultimate outcome certainly marks Clint Eastwood's Letters From Iwo Jima, which shows how the war machine converts the poor and powerless into cannon fodder.

Taking a cue from Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line (1998), Eastwood gives voice to the interior life of the soldier, his thoughts, fears and regrets, with greater avidity than the restaging of famous battles in the John Wayne school of movies about war.

There is battle, yes, because -- the Italian Futurists were on to something here -- we thrill to war's chaos as much as we recoil from its psychological fallout.

But mostly, Eastwood's vision of the decisive battle of Iwo Jima (told in Flags of Our Fathers from an American perspective and in Letters from a Japanese one) is the compassionate playing out of the folksy truism about not judging a man until you've walked a mile in his shoes.

Ever the champion of misfits and underdogs who inevitably possess guts of steel (Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby), Eastwood takes the ultimate empathetic leap in identifying with our former enemy.

The film benefits tremendously from Eastwood's decision to have his characters speak Japanese. But though the language is Japanese, the cinematic conventions are pure Hollywood. Rather than blazing a new trail in the war film, Eastwood tends to cover familiar ground despite the fact that clichés voiced in another language tend not to sound as hackneyed.

Eastwood is, after all, a director who tends not to leave anything to chance. When emotional investment is required, we get plaintive piano tinkling. It is not enough that the young, tragedy-haunted Japanese soldiers watch a scrawny, sweet American POW from Oklahoma die in their underground bunker. We also have to hear the Japanese soldiers articulate their identification with his plight.

Reminiscent in approach if not intellectual depth to Andrzej Wajda's 1957 existentialist classic, Kanal, about WWII Polish resistance fighters battling from the hellish sewers beneath Warsaw, Eastwood's film envisions war in vividly expressionist terms. The Japanese grunts living in Iwo Jima's underground bunkers occupy their own hell on earth, experiencing prematurely the sensation of burial.

Silvery grey tones powerfully convey the sorrow. It's a world absent of living, green things; leeched of color and half-dead already. The only hue comes in the shocking orange blossoms of fireballs dropped by the American bombers that scatter the Japanese like ants.

Like Letters from Iwo Jima, God Grew Tired of Us also looks at the fallout of war through non-American eyes. And God Grew Tired of Us shares a fatalism with Letters -- a sense that war is a hell of our own making, and has a transformative impact on the people who experience it.

The Others in Christopher Quinn's documentary are the orphaned Sudanese "Lost Boys" -- previously chronicled in the 2003 documentary, Lost Boys of Sudan -- hunted down by Muslim soldiers determined to exterminate their future Christian enemies. The young boys eventually find shelter in a Kenyan refugee camp, some growing to manhood far from their home and families.

The film is in many ways more satisfying than Letters because rather than conveying the understandably nightmarish scenario of contemplating one's own death, it shows war's lingering aftermath and how these survivors of war struggle to find a meaning for their lives.

The most remarkable figure in that regard is surely John Dau, one of three Sudanese followed on his journey from the refugee camp to America. Despite witnessing countless horrors, Dau is a symbol of hope where the men of Letters founder in its absence.

And while Letters shows something of how the Other might have experienced war, God's greatest revelation may be what it shows us of ourselves in our reflected vision through Sudanese eyes.

Even after their escape to the milk-and-honey promised land of America, the men of God remain haunted by their experiences. Their conversion to the barren loneliness of their new homes in the bleak apartment blocks and factory jobs of Pittsburgh and Syracuse is a difficult one.

John and his brethren, Panther and Daniel, defy the idea that trauma can be wiped free by escaping its source and the trope that getting to America is the solution to their problems. Instead, they see America as a place of shocking isolation and voice astonishment at a country that places, in their eyes, so little value on community, camaraderie, family and a shared burden.

Like Letters, God is about a brotherhood of the wretched, and, perverse though it may seem, how tragedy can give men their most profound connection to one another.

The death of the soldiers at Iwo Jima is certain, and the Japanese soldiers prepare for it together. Some, like the homesick Private Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya), have a strong will to live, while others fear a death without honor and take their own lives.

But God Grew Tired of Us shows the remarkable and, yes, inspirational process of people who have been given every indication that life is a nightmare.

And they choose to continue living it regardless.

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