20 September 2013

Jessica Biel’s Hand

The Cinematic Quagmire

The following article is excerpted from Solutions from Hell: Ten Years of War Writing. Buy it here.

For two months this summer the only movies I watched were movies about the war on terror. While other moviegoers were enjoying cinematic treats like You Don’t Mess with the Zohan and The Happening, or the revival of Kobayashi’s The Human Condition, or that Norwegian movie about Norwegian yuppie writers that everybody liked so much, I was immersed in the backlog of global war-on-terror movies released since 2002. The only summer blockbuster I saw was Iron Man, a war-on-terror movie and therefore allowable.

I watched three dozen of these movies and maybe 15 percent of them were any good. The rest, like the war itself, represented an enormous waste of manpower and resources that would have been better spent on something good for people, like entertainment. When I say this I do not mean any disrespect to the three thousand men and women who died on September 11, or the over 4,000 American soldiers who have died overseas, or the tens of thousands of Iraqis who have been killed, or the unknown number of detainees who have been tortured in prisons. But watching these movies was like being buried under rubble while working in an office, like being stuck in the desert far from home, invaded by an occupying army, left tied in a stress position for days. 

You ask why I put myself through this. Like some kid fresh out of high school sauntering into a recruitment center just to check it out, I wasn’t exactly coerced. I wasn’t drafted. A suggestion was made, I volunteered, I didn’t want to seem like a wuss. Here was the story of our time, they said, told cinematically. Wasn’t it my duty to cover it? It might be, I answered. So they signed me up, they put my name on a contract. 

Fortunately for me, I cannot be stop-lossed. American soldiers continue to die in Iraq with no power to make it end, but I can simply file this report, turn my back on the cinematic quagmire and walk away. I know it’s unfair. It’s criminal. But if there’s one thing we’ve learned these past seven years, it’s that fairness has nothing to do with it. 


The first Iraq war movie was Fort Apache, a western John Ford made in 1948. It was also the first Vietnam movie. A thinly veiled retelling of Custer’s defeat at Little Bighorn in 1876, Fort Apache holds up the ordinary cavalry soldier, represented by John Wayne’s Captain York, against an oblivious commander, Henry Fonda’s Colonel Thursday, who foolishly leads his men to doom at the hands of Apache warriors. In Fort Apache, the soldiers of the Seventh Cavalry do their duty, “riding the outposts of a nation,” as it says in another Ford western, while a commander who refuses to listen to his officers charges blindly into death. 

Wayne’s York gives what amounts to a press conference after the defeat. He doesn’t lie to the assembled reporters who consider the dead Thursday a hero—we can’t picture John Wayne lying in a movie made in 1948—but he doesn’t tell the truth, either. What he does is let the reporters believe what they want to believe. The reporters don’t really listen to what York says, anyway. Instead, they tell him what happened in the battle, even though they weren’t there and he was. York’s response, a soliloquy about dead soldiers and the permanence of the US Army, delivered by John Wayne as he looks out a window, ends the film.

The Apaches carry Fort Apache’s moral weight, rejecting peace to fight with honor. The movie preserves the dignity of the US Army, however, which is portrayed as separate and apart from Thursday’s stupidity even as it’s subject to it. Ford shows Thursday was wrong; he shows how regular soldiers get killed. What makes the film tragic is that it doesn’t matter. In their victory the Apaches remain the enemy, in defeat Thursday remains a hero. After a while nobody remembers the dead soldiers’ names. 

John Ford fought in World War II and filmed the landing at Normandy, but Fort Apache was not about the war just ended. It was about a much longer war. What we see in movies about the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, in movies about the so-called global war on terror, is that we are still playing the Fort Apache game—cowboys and Indians and reporters. 


Maybe another film, made closer to the events at hand, a film with no moral weight at all, is really the first Iraq war movie. In 2001, less than four months before the destruction of the World Trade Center, Pearl Harbor came out, to much fanfare, on 3,200 screens.

Brought to us by the men who made Armageddon, Pearl Harbor existed to celebrate, in costly and spectacular fashion, the fliers who avenged the attack that got us into World War II. But it also existed to do away with the very idea of moral weight, to make war look like late-’90s action-adventure, something that happens while Ben Affleck and Josh Hartnett argue over a girl. In Pearl Harbor Michael Bay and Jerry Bruckheimer celebrated war from the sky, a kind of war like the first Gulf War, the kind Jean Baudrillard could claim didn’t really take place because the soldiers fighting it were never in any danger.

Who wants to remember Pearl Harbor now? After seven years of this new war that isn’t so new anymore, nobody does. Looking back on that obnoxious and innocent time when Pearl Harbor was the first blockbuster of 2001, and being able to see the last blockbuster of that summer looming on the horizon, Pearl Harbor becomes an insult to everything—life, death, war, the movies. Why was that entertainment? 

The truth is it wasn’t entertainment. Is any summer blockbuster? Summer blockbusters are civics lessons, collective work we do for the economy, grim torture-filled slogs like The Dark Knight or the war in Iraq. The lesson of Pearl Harbor came in the form of dialogue delivered by Colonel Jimmy Doolittle, played by Alec Baldwin in the last role he had where we were supposed to take him seriously as an authority figure. “Victory belongs to those who believe in it the most and believe in it the longest,” he says in Pearl Harbor. “We’re gonna believe. We’re gonna make America believe, too.” 

In the year or so before September 11 that’s what all our blockbusters were telling us, from X-Men to Bring It On. It was a message we were ready to hear. Boys and girls had to get together as a team, learn from the old dudes, and kick some ass. Why? We didn’t know why. But it’s good to be prepared. 

Soon enough we found out. And pretty soon after that, just like in Duck Soup, we had a war we were promised would be both easy to win and endless. 


Right away entertainment began to take over. Already there was no other way to see anything. Everything had to fit into the world of entertainment, even though TV, the source of entertainment, kept saying the world had changed forever. 

On September 11, 2001, two French brothers, Gédéon and Jules Naudet, who were working on a documentary about a firehouse in downtown New York, filmed the destruction of the World Trade Center right from Ground Zero. They caught the planes going into each tower, the initial rescue efforts, with the sound of bodies thudding on the pavement outside. Jules Naudet, trapped with firemen inside the North Tower when the South Tower collapsed, continued filming.

It was like filming the exact moment of the Big Bang, but in reverse: the end of the world. The buildings were gone, there was nothing but white smoke and sirens. Spreadsheet confetti fell endlessly, like volcanic ash. “The building collapsed to dust,” says one firefighter in 9/11, the TV movie that emerged from the Naudets’ footage. “No desks, no chairs, no telephones, no computers . . . you find a foot.” 

The footage is frightening and tragic, put together in a thoughtful way that gives every firefighter his due, and yet something’s missing. You feel bad for even thinking so, but it’s true: something’s missing. The Naudets’ footage, as essential as anything that’s ever been filmed, became the basis for a TV special. Set within the context of TV it strives to be really good TV, and it is really good TV, and now who ever thinks about the Naudets or their footage anymore? 


While Jules Naudet was filming in the North Tower, a thousand miles away, in Sarasota, Florida, George W. Bush was sitting in front of an elementary school classroom reading along with second graders as they followed a story called “The Pet Goat.” After his chief of staff whispered to him that a second plane had struck the Twin Towers, the President just sat there for over seven minutes. He continued to read silently or stared into space. 

This footage is as essential as the Naudets’ footage of the end of the World Trade Center. It too deserves to be seen in its entirety. Instead, it was taken over by Michael Moore, who was afraid we would be bored by it. So instead of letting us see this thick chunk of dead time in which the President of the United States squirmed, he spoiled it in Fahrenheit 9/11 by showing only sections of it, adding an on-screen countdown clock to time the President’s inaction, and talking over it, telling us what we were already seeing: “Mr. Bush just sat there.” 

Whatever we would have thought about this footage on our own was not good enough for Michael Moore. He ruined it in the name of entertainment, encouraging us not to think while he showed pictures of a man he claimed wasn’t thinking.


The first twenty-five minutes of Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center, which take place on the morning of September 11 before the first tower was hit, are an evocative and even beautiful remembrance of New York City—evocative and beautiful because we know what’s going to happen. Haunted shots accumulate and create a strange tension the rest of the film can’t sustain. Stone wisely introduces the towers from the deck of the inbound Staten Island Ferry; we see that romantic view that is gone forever. Soon the shadow of a plane passes over the side of a building with a billboard for the movie Zoolander on it.

World Trade Center has the unintentional effect of reminding us how much TV we watch. So much of the film consists of families of trapped policemen watching TV that you begin to see this as a fundamental part of Stone’s view of humanity. History is a slag pile they stare at without understanding. (The firemen called Ground Zero “the Pile.”) Stone forces regular people to watch and rewatch the catastrophe over and over, as if he’s saying, “See? See?” He makes his characters submit docilely to TV news, then presents the rest of their lives as a series of Hallmark moments that weren’t worth filming.


These are the tropes of war-on-terror movies: fake Middle Eastern music, constant TV news and radio commentary, scenes of combat shot in Morocco instead of Iraq, actors we don’t recognize speaking Arabic with subtitles, videos of men in ski masks proclaiming in Arabic while they hold a Westerner hostage, American soldiers accidentally killing an Iraqi woman or child, vets losing their shit in their hometowns, a constant resort to cell phones, a scorpion fight, titles identifying every location change, a cut to black to avoid showing something horrible, a precredits wrap-up crawl that tells us what happened later, blond wives back home. It’s amazing how everyone has a blond wife back home. You’d think al Qaeda made these movies. 

Shaky-cam always reminds me of TV cop shows or coffee commercials, things that are on in the background. There’s a lot of shaky-cam in United 93, so like TV it has an ambient quality. It’s almost calm. A storm is brewing but all people do is look at computer screens and talk on cell phones. Then they turn on CNN. Back on the plane, a hapless passenger is buttering a muffin while one of the hijackers puts together a bomb in the restroom. 

The hijacker’s bomb is a fake meant to frighten the passengers into submission, a prop in the movie but a prop in real life, too. It makes you think about how all the cell phones in the movie are props. The actors scream and cry into their fake phones, yet they are not famous actors, maybe not actors at all, and you put yourself into their situation so much you can’t believe they actually made a movie about this. If Kevin Costner were on the plane, you might have cheered it on its way, wanting it to crash as he calmly dialed his wife. His presence would have contradicted this strange radio commentary from the Naudets’ 9/11: “What you see here is right out of one of those movies you would see in Hollywood: people walking around with cell phones in tears.” The cell phones cried that day and it seemed like Hollywood. 

United 93 is an exploitation film in the form of a safety-instruction manual. It manipulates us mercilessly but blandly. When Flight 93 crashes the screen cuts to black. The only decent thing to do at that point would have been to end the film right there and flip on the lights in the theater. But miles of credits roll like they always do.


Robert Redford’s Lions for Lambs is as close to the purely didactic as Hollywood gets. Yet since it doesn’t quite know what it wants to say, this salutary didacticism is really a lost cause. It’s like a play that examines every viewpoint it can think of in the most boring way possible. I admired that about it, but if it were a person doing that instead of a movie, you’d leave the room. Maybe the same thing does happen with the movie. It’s hard to imagine someone watching it. It’s like an art installation called “Robert Redford Political Movie.” 

Tom Cruise is exceptional as a US senator who wants to escalate the war. For some reason, he’s very good at playing very serious self-convinced loonies. Redford, however, gives the scariest aging-star performance since What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? At one point, while calmly discussing something with a student in his office (he plays a college professor), he suddenly jerks his hand upward to reveal a huge scar on his forehead, then barks out lines about getting “fifty-four stitches protesting in Chicago” after he came home from Vietnam. That was as harrowing as the plane crash in United 93. It was so unexpected and frightening I jumped out of my seat like it was wired. I know he’s an actor playing a part and all, but in the 1960s Robert Redford was a handsome movie star who made a lot of money by not being in Vietnam. I don’t know if he was at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, but somehow I doubt it. Wasn’t he filming Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid then? He thinks we all have short memories. That’s probably why we allowed another Vietnam to happen.


The American cinema has been producing bullshit for so long now it’s no longer capable of dealing with a situation like this. That’s the message of Home of the Brave. The vets in this movie who return home and have trouble adjusting to civilian life are a sad mirror for Hollywood’s inability to cope with the war in Iraq. In Home of the Brave, one of the vets even gets a job selling tickets at a cineplex. “I sell these stupid tickets to these stupid movies,” he says. “But I don’t go see any of them.”

In 1946, right after the war, William Wyler cast a man named Harold Russell in The Best Years of Our Lives, a movie about the problems vets faced returning to their hometowns. Russell, an army vet, was a nonactor who lost both hands in an explosion during the war and was fitted with prosthetic hooks. When you watch the movie you can tell Russell is not a professional actor yet his performance as sailor Homer Parrish is unsentimental, affecting, and unforgettable. 

In Home of the Brave, pretty Jessica Biel plays a vet who has lost one hand. The actual Jessica Biel, it goes without saying, has both her hands. Her stump, which we see, is a prop stump she covers with another prop, a fake hand. When a coworker at the school where she teaches gym tries to help her with something by saying, in all seriousness, “Hey, let me give you a hand,” the audience laughs. If somebody had laughed at Harold Russell in 1946, he would’ve gotten his head bashed in. That is the difference between then and now—not just in terms of how we think about veterans or about the current war, but about the movies, too, about whether acting is taken seriously and about the way actors move through the frame or are moved through the frame by directors. The story in 1946 was that Harold Russell’s Homer was a good guy who faced his problems the only way he knew how, by trying to get through life like everybody else. In the film from 2006, there is no story; there is a message. The message is that if you lost a hand in Iraq, Jessica Biel might play you in a movie. Any veteran who laughed at her deserves a medal. 

Continued in Solutions from Hell: Ten Years of War Writing, a new ebook from n+1. Buy it here.

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