Watched 3 Iraq war feature movies recently: Stop Loss, In the Valley of Elah, and Redacted. The spouse did an excellent summary of the first over on his blog, and nicely disguised me as a nameless “anti-war” type. We left the theater in a fairly heated discussion; I muttered, “what a cheat” at the end of the movie. He didn’t agree.
Now I have to give the man his props; as a vet and a native Midwesterner, he understands the folks portrayed in the movie better than I ever could with my California childhood and first marriage to a guy whose mom sent him to Portugal to avoid the draft. In fact, DP’s summary helped me appreciate the movie a little more, as a portrait of blue-collar kids without any real options, at least in their own heads, other than to buy into the Bush machine’s bullshit. I did find the movie’s use of music to be almost as pernicious as that of There Will Be Blood. Had the director, or the studio, trusted the audience to makes its own emotional decisions, the acting, which is uniformly decent, would have conveyed the futility of the ending much better. As is, a sappy guitar or something (I don’t remember much beyond it being sappy) gives you the feeling that the main character is going off to fight the good fight yet again.
And ultimately, especially after viewing the second two movies, the director/writer/s let the characters off the hook too much. The moral dilemma in Stop Loss is about the illegitimacy of the stop loss policy, which, while disgraceful, pales next to the immorality of what we’re doing to the Iraqis. The protagonist’s concerns are immediate – how do I save my ass from doing something I don’t want to do? – and barely touch on the bigger questions, such as what we’re doing over there in the first place, and what business we have maiming soldiers whose families only get green cards if they die. Now, the spouse has pointed out that this is all part of the dialogue, which certainly hasn’t been written for my benefit; Stop Loss’s softer take on things, that these are basically good kids who don’t have any choice, isn’t written for me but for people who somehow are still able to support the U.S. occupation. And, as he says, any dialogue that casts uncertainty on the proceedings is good. Maybe Stop Loss will sow a little seed of doubt somewhere in the Heartland. One hopes.
I wanted to see In the Valley etc because of Tommy Lee Jones. I found him so great and easy to watch in No Country etc. that I really looked forward to this movie. I wasn’t disappointed. Jones is fascinating; he plays the same thing, with his harsh Texas twang, beat-up face, and opaque eyes, the quintessential Hard Man haunted by bad dreams. And yet the two performances are extremely different, which I think is much tougher to pull off than the kind of vanishing act that someone like Jeffrey Wright does effortlessly (not to discount how tough it is to do what Wright does). The No Country character doesn’t have the Valley’s demons; the Valley is so good at repressing his that they’ve worked their way into his very fibre, surfacing in brutally terse dialogue and occasional savagery. Yet, the character retelling the story of David and Goliath, simply and without any embellishment, moved me to tears. Wrapping the movie around a detective story is a nice touch pulled off with surprising subtlety by Mr. Unsubtle, Paul Haggis, who crashed into us again and again in his last directorial effort. In fact, the ending is beautifully ambiguous – the spouse’s military explanation pointed this up – yet still delivers a gut punch that will take a while to recover from.
The bravest, darkest movie of the bunch is Redacted, clearly the greatest movie DePalma will ever make and probably the one that will be seen by the fewest people. Strung together from bits and pieces of “real” footage, from a soldier’s video blog to a pretentious French documentary complete with the mournful Handel Sarabande blasting away in the background to footage on insurgent sites, the movie is so hard-hitting I had to leave the room twice and cover my eyes over the final sequence. Like Elah but to a much starker and more frightening degree, Redacted shows what war uncovers in the human psyche, and it is unbearably ugly. Soldiers without a whole lot going for them – one would likely follow his brother’s fate, a violent death in prison, if it weren’t for the army – can justify their brutality and thuggishness by the extreme conditions they live in, where no excuse to butcher is too lame. Perhaps worse, soldiers who believe in the damn war, who truly just want to do their job, are haunted and destroyed, their best hope to become a Hard Man who sends his boys off to fight in the next senseless combat. In the movie’s stunning penultimate sequence, one of these is asked for a war story. He tells it, breaking down. His barmates, clearly pushed beyond the awkwardness Americans despise – is anything a surer outward manifestation of loss of power than the lack of a pat answer? – bursts into applause after some seconds of his broken sobbing. That willful blindness is one of the most stomach-churning actions in a movie that is, as I said, very tough to watch.
Ultimately, all 3 movies get at the horrible cost of war. It is impossible to justify. I don’t give a shit what anybody says, there is no such thing as a good war. All of ‘em are too goddamn expensive.