Jessica Biel’s Hand
The Cinematic Quagmire
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, 2001, or the over four thousand 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 9/11 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, blonde wives back home. It’s amazing how everyone has a blonde 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.
There is a difference between acknowledging that many veterans come home with post-traumatic stress disorder and wanting them to come home with it. Fortunately for Hollywood, many vets do come home with psychological problems, emotional adjustment issues that lend themselves to drama. In the Valley of Elah, which is based on a true story, is noteworthy for how sordid and amoral it is, how sordid and dull.
Paul Haggis, who wrote and directed it, seems to have consciously drained the film of all the effects that ruin contemporary filmmaking. In the Valley of Elah is quiet, low-key, precisely framed and carefully lit, shot in long takes. It has things besides Tommy Lee Jones in common with No Country for Old Men: its brutality and its southwestern setting. Jones is better in this than in the Coens’ film. He gets to be typically authentic but also an uptight asshole. He’s got a face like a dog, with black beady eyes, jowls and lines, and he looks shrunken, pale, and mottled. An excellent actor named Victor Wolf, who plays a Latino soldier from Jones’s son’s unit, gets to spit a question in Jones’s face: “Wouldn’t it be funny if the devil looked just like you?”
When the film sticks to amorality it’s pretty good. When it gets to lecturing Salvadoran janitors about raising American flags upside down to signal distress, it gets pretty bad. The film refuses to condemn the war outright. It does so instead by equation. The war must be wrong if it turns a soldier’s best buddies into psychos who will kill him for no reason, then chop him up and set him on fire to get rid of the evidence. This is a case where “based on a true story” really works for Hollywood. It gets you to shut up and keep your complaints to yourself.
Empires in decline need imaginary cads who are also superheroes. They send them out into the world preening and being casually brutal so we can all pretend the empire’s doing fine. The English have James Bond, a 1960s import to the movies from postwar British fiction, and now America has Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark, a.k.a. Iron Man, an import from our literature created in the Vietnam era and updated for the war in Afghanistan.
Because of Robert Downey’s charm we care only about Tony. When he puts on the Iron Man suit we lose interest; he becomes a steroidal C-3PO and he’s gone. But Tony Stark fascinates. He needs a fake heart to keep him alive, the fake heart powers a superhero carapace that makes him all-powerful—he’s a metaphor for how Hollywood movies work at the box office. The metal suit is as much an excuse to give Robert Downey a good part as it is a touching industrial fantasy. Tony Stark and Iron Man are two separate things. When he’s out of the suit, he’s free, he can act, do interesting things other actors don’t do when they play superheroes because they are always too much the costume. What’s also touching is Tony Stark’s very American desire to make everything right in the world, a desire he doesn’t share with James Bond.
To the extent that Iron Man is a war movie about how Yankee ingenuity and super-technology will make things right in Afghanistan, it’s interesting. When it becomes a clash between competing business executives in giant metal suits, it’s boring. And when Tony Stark returns home and asks for a hamburger after being tortured and held captive in the caves of Tora Bora, and somebody gives him one from Burger King, and Robert Downey has to act like he likes it, you have to wonder what’s the point of being a billionaire playboy at all.
Grace is Gone is a curious film. It had the potential to be the best of the homefront Iraq war movies—certainly it’s the best acted. It’s under eighty minutes long, but that’s not its problem. The problem is that it gives every indication of having been tampered with or left slightly incomplete. Scenes seem truncated, and actors in the cast list aren’t really in the movie. It emerges as a film that was worth making, wasn’t fully made, and is only half worth watching.
Another problem has to do with one of the film’s locations, a small amusement park that to me was clearly a substitute for Disney World. It’s too bad Disney World would never let a film like this be made there. That would be something, a poignant indictment more to the point than a lot of documentaries. It’s too bad in general that although going to Disney World is a big part of a lot of people’s lives, it’s an experience that can’t be represented cinematically outside of home movies. God forbid we should see somebody unhappy on the spinning teacups.
John Cusack plays a schlumpy, tentative Home Depot manager in the Midwest who doesn’t know how to tell his two young daughters that their mother, a soldier, has died in Iraq. He decides to put it off as long as possible by taking them to Enchanted Gardens, the Disney World substitute. As the three drive through a landscape of big-box stores, motels, and chain restaurants, we see the beige landscape our soldiers are fighting for in Iraq. The only other recent film I can recall showing this landscape is The Brown Bunny, the film in which Chloë Sevigny gives Vincent Gallo a blow job. I don’t necessarily recommend pairing them as a double feature.
In Cusack’s other wartime effort, the near-future satire War, Inc., he plays a weary corporate hitman going through the motions in a war-torn country named Turaqistan. It’s to his credit that Cusack wants to make movies that investigate or indict contemporary reality, but War, Inc.’s satire is hesitant and chaste. It gets lost in set pieces that only try to replicate the things they’re supposed to be mocking.
A meal Cusack shares with Marisa Tomei (canny left-wing reporter) and Hilary Duff (whorish Turaqistani pop star) at an abandoned château should have been a Renoiresque highlight, the heart and soul of the film. Here we get the first inkling the trio constitutes some kind of sexually tense family. Instead, it turns into a tribute to the torture scene in Reservoir Dogs, which is emerging as the primal scene of all Iraq war–era movies and maybe the entire era in general.
I saw the documentary The War Tapes on DVD and made the mistake of watching the bonus features first. One of the bonus features turned out to be résumés for director Deborah Scranton and producer Chuck Lacy. Scranton is a former director of network-TV sports who graduated from Brown with a degree in semiotics. She’s also a former member of the US Ski Team who lives on a farm in the mountains of New Hampshire. Lacy, the former president of Ben & Jerry’s, runs a venture capital fund and in his spare time breeds grass-fed cattle and imports yerba maté from Paraguay. After I read that I had to take a day off before I watched the film so I could evaluate it without prejudice. Also to reassess my life.
Scranton and Lacy made The War Tapes by giving small video cameras to soldiers in a New Hampshire National Guard unit stationed in Iraq in 2004. The film uses footage shot by three of the soldiers: Mike Moriarty, an unemployed forklift operator who would like his kids to see him “as a good man who was brave”; Steve Pink, an acerbic carpenter whose graphic letters home reveal a good writer; and Zack Bazzi, a serious-minded liberal who moved to the US from Lebanon when he was a child and wants to be career soldier.
All the footage these men shot is riveting, even when it’s boring. Sometimes little is going on and the men just horse around or complain about KBR and Halliburton. Then comes the poetry of burning trucks, then sickening incidents. Riding in their Humvee one night, the men strike and kill an Iraqi woman as she’s crossing the street carrying a box of cookies. Scranton and Lacy are not content to let the soldiers’ footage speak for itself. They add ominous music and turn it into an Iraq-based episode of Ice Road Truckers, abusing the pact they seem to have made with these soldiers by giving them cameras.
The three men are inherently interesting, even after they return from the war. Bazzi remains unflappable, opposed to the war but not the military and concerned about the way the media portrays vets as PTSD-addled head cases. Moriarty takes a lot of pain medication for injuries he sustained in Iraq and goes through a couple of jobs before settling down into a good one with the town where he lives. Pink seems bitter about his experiences; he rants about how the war is about money and oil, “and somebody better get some pretty soon besides Dick Cheney or none of those lives were worth it”—1,800 soldiers had died when Pink said that and gas cost $2.23 a gallon.
The Ground Truth takes us through the process of joining the army, going to war, and coming home with your face burned off or without your legs. Although this documentary is unapologetic about emphasizing the last part of the process, it doesn’t neglect the first part. The Ground Truth exposes US Army recruiting as a form of unregulated advertising and Marine Corps recruiting as out-and-out fraud. The film portrays basic training as psychological torture designed to obliterate personality. It shows how new recruits, naturally opposed to taking lives for no reason, learn to enjoy singing songs about killing, with ethnic slurs that make them easier to memorize.
Once they were in Iraq, one soldier notes that “the killing of civilians started to pile up.” Another points out that “peer-pressure group killing is not necessarily courage.” They are different people when they get home. A 23-year-old veteran hangs himself because he can’t stop thinking of himself as a murderer. Another laments, “Even if I become a Muslim, if I read the Koran every day,” it wouldn’t bring back the woman he accidentally killed.
This grim film ends on a heroic note when a soldier named Camilo Mejía decides his conscience won’t allow him to return to Iraq for another tour of duty. Mejía defies the rule that once in the armed forces you must continue to fight in an illegal war. Patricia Foulkrod, the film’s director, does not defy the rule that documentaries must include sentimental music, photo montages, and stock footage.
The Situation claims it was the first fiction feature to deal with the war in Iraq. The film is set in Morocco, the pretend Iraq, and features fake Middle Eastern music. The strapping, apple-cheeked Danish actress Connie Nielsen plays a courageous war correspondent caught between two men. In crucial scenes, I was distracted by a large silver ring she wears. The Situation has an air of Hollywood glamour and self-congratulation that it tries to efface at every turn. And it’s not even a Hollywood film. A couple of lines in the end credits sum up these problems. Special thanks go to Sa Majesté le Roi Mohammed VI, Roi du Maroc and Cynthia Rowley Sunglasses.
The Kingdom is unabashed overkill entertainment. Made during wartime and dealing specifically with the global war on terror, it seems more like a prewar film, straight-up Hollywood action-adventure fantasy from another time. It’s far too gruesome for what it wants to be, and too late.
A crack FBI team goes into Saudi Arabia to investigate the bombing of an American workers’ city. Two of the team are mock-squabbling Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman. Chris Cooper, the senior guy, rubs team leader Jamie Foxx’s chest: “Feels like you got a beast in there.” Later Jeremy Piven feels Foxx’s chest, too. This was written by the screenwriter who wrote Lions for Lambs, a unique talent. Some of his dialogue, post-bombing: “My five-year-old boy, when I got home, had a box of Band-Aids and was trying to put his mama’s mouth back on.”
Rendition asks us to oppose something everybody is already opposed to, the torture of innocent people. If the Egyptian-American who’s whisked away to an unnamed Middle Eastern country (Morocco) to be tortured had in fact been a terrorist, this film might have worked. We would have had to ask ourselves if we were opposed to the torture of viable suspects in the war on terror. But in Rendition we get the torture-porn thrill of watching an innocent man be interrogated—blonde Reese Witherspoon’s husband, no less—at the same time as we get to deplore that this happens.
Jake Gyllenhaal, an unlikely CIA bureau chief, watches with increasing desperation as interrogation techniques become enhanced. His subplot mirrors The Devil Wears Prada. When he finally quits his demeaning job, he throws his cell phone in the water, just like Anne Hathaway did in that movie. Maybe next he goes and gets a job at the New York Sun or the Village Voice or wherever it was supposed to be.
Even though Ghosts of Abu Ghraib came out more than a year before Errol Morris’s Standard Operating Procedure, which covers the same subject, I saw the Errol Morris film first. It’s striking how similar the two films are, not just because they both deal with the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and the scandal that broke when photographs of the abuse appeared in 2004. The main difference between the two films, and this is not to Morris’s credit, since Ghosts of Abu Ghraib is straightforward, TV-style documentary and not great art like Morris makes, is that Standard Operating Procedure is obsessed with infographically investigating the photographs and has Lynndie England in it.
Rory Kennedy’s film, more of an exposé than an investigation, is the better of the two. That Morris’s film got a theatrical release and Kennedy’s premiered on HBO says something about what is deemed worthy of theatrical release in this country, and why. Kennedy’s film uses the same techniques as TV news shows, which makes her film more overtly cheesy than Morris’s, which, with its barking-dog and creaking-chain reenactments, was also cheesy. But in Kennedy’s film we get the sense that she feels these techniques are being put in the service of finding out the truth, whereas in Morris’s film we get the sense that he’s looking at people like they are bugs, then finding out the truth. They are stand-ins for Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld, whose victims they are. It’s these higher-ups who are guilty—and here the sound editor cuts in the loud thwack of a rubber stamp—GUILTY! Morris’s attitude raises the question of why he doesn’t make a film about Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld, and of course the answer is that he can’t because they would never talk to him. So Standard Operating Procedure tortures Lynndie England with Morris’s Interrotron camera, using her (and her fellow soldiers) as replacements for the people he’d really like to pin down.
Ghosts of Abu Ghraib takes the visual simile of “ghost” detainees—detainees brought in off the books so they can be tortured in secret—too far. But so did Morris’s film. Why do all American films, even American films made by intelligent documentarians, have to literalize everything? Maybe that has something to do with why Morris used Danny Elfman for his score. We automatically associate Elfman’s music with Tim Burton, the great literalizer of childhood imagination. The problem is that scary music—and the music in Ghosts of Abu Ghraib is pretty scary—makes too much obvious sense. Abu Ghraib may remind us of certain scenes in Carrie, but it is not Carrie, it is real, and that’s the point. What happened at Abu Ghraib may be the product of a culture formed by Stephen King, but in making films about it, serious filmmakers would do better not to indulge their inner Cujo.
Certain people appear as interview subjects in a number of different war-on-terror documentaries—the prison guards from Abu Ghraib, anti-abuse navy men Alberto Mora and John Hutson, legal scholars and authors like Scott Horton and Alfred McCoy, the infamous John Yoo, who is always bland and calm. Their various appearances in these films were shot probably only months apart, but seeing each of them one after another in different films, in different jackets under different lighting, we watch them age before the camera with the strain of telling their stories again. Meanwhile, we see the same clips of George W. Bush saying he’s going to “smoke ’em out and get ’em runnin’,” or Donald Rumsfeld saying he was only kidding about standing up eight to ten hours a day. They are frozen in those moments when they appear stupid and evil, yet these clips take them out of life and into some timeless realm of official TV where no one is ever punished. Maybe punishment is what happens on home video, then on YouTube, like it did to Saddam Hussein.
If, by july 2007, you had not heard there was a war going on in Iraq, then No End in Sight was the documentary for you. The film had a real audience of maybe two people—two people, by the way, I would be happy to meet. The film is meticulous in establishing that the war was a botched job from the beginning, and it gets a lot of well-known people to appear on camera to support that extremely noncontroversial viewpoint. Then it concludes that, since American soldiers have died in this war or were horribly maimed or crippled for life, we have got to find something good about it. It is easy to get confused and emotional when you are dealing with veterans whose lives have been permanently altered for the worse, but you’ve got to figure things out a little more than that before you make a movie.
A documentary from the early 1980s called The Atomic Cafe changed everything. It introduced the idea that history could be told via stock-footage orgy, a fun combination of clips strung together for maximum hilarity at the expense of the people who shot them. Industrial films, TV commercials, military films, TV news footage, scenes from B movies, home movies—detritus from the lower rungs of film history could be marshaled into formation to make glib points about things we are against.
Most documentaries do this now, even if that’s not all they do. So for instance in Why We Fight, a documentary on the militarization of our culture and how that led to the war on terror, if the narrator mentions “cities” and “work” we are treated to sixty-year-old stock footage of people flooding into the lobbies of office buildings.
What we are seeing when this happens is America’s Greatest Hits, an exercise in nostalgia that shows up our era in favor of a time when the average person dressed a little better and his most cherished goal was not to grow up to be Jimmy Fallon. This is lazy filmmaking, but it can be pretty entertaining. In Why We Fight, we get to see a Halliburton promotional film from 1951 in which the original narrator chirps, “There she is—oil! That’s what all the fuss is about.”
One of America’s Greatest Hits was President Dwight Eisenhower’s farewell address, which he delivered live from the Oval Office on January 17, 1961. The former general warned the country about the creeping influence of what he called the military-industrial complex. The country, the film notes, didn’t listen. Of course we don’t see the whole speech—that would be boring. Instead, we get to see bits of it photoshopped into TV screens in stock footage of 1950s living rooms. As Oliver North once said: Neat!
It’s not that Why We Fight is wrong. It’s a collage, but it’s not wrong. No, it invites us to contemplate its rightness even as it contemplates its rightness itself. Given the subject matter, it does that in a pretty serene way. It demonstrates that there is no point of radicalism from which it could do anything else. So “why we fight” also means “why we don’t fight,” why we are passive, why we don’t rebel.
Today people are very concerned about where their food comes from. They want to know that the ingredients in it are fresh, organic, locally grown, all that stuff. That’s how I feel about documentaries. Where did all this footage come from? Wouldn’t it be better if the director made it all himself? Or maybe making films like this is like making your house out of straw, sticks, and brick, and then putting aluminum siding on it and columns out front. Funny, yes. A little scary. I wouldn’t want to live there.
Taxi to the Dark Side overwhelms you with detail so repellent and frightening that by the end of it you are fully convinced that no punishment could be painful enough for the Bush administration. The film calls them murderers and makes the charge stick. It too often relies on ominosity (the American cinema has become an ominosity machine) but the depth of the information presented here excuses the film’s excess. Who knew Guantánamo Bay had a gift shop where you could buy T-shirts that say guantanamo bay behavior modification instructor cuba? Who knew the enhanced interrogation techniques used there included forcing detainees to wear pointed birthday hats? Alex Gibney, the film’s director, covers his subject more thoroughly than any book or article I’ve read. It is without question the grimmest film on the war, and that’s saying something.
It’s best, however, when it sticks to its main story, essentially an on-screen autopsy. Dilawar was a taxi driver who was stopped by Afghan warlords in December 2002 and turned over to US forces for money. Chained in the prison at Bagram, he was beaten for days until he died. His legs were so “pulpified” by the beatings that had he lived it would’ve been necessary to amputate them. His guards beat him so he’d shut up because he was screaming in pain and continued beating him after he’d died because they thought he was faking immobility. They jumped on his back until they were tired, took breaks, then beat him some more. He was shackled the whole time. Dilawar didn’t have a last name but back in his village he got one on his gravestone: the martyr.
Gibney traces these techniques up through the chain of command, where Donald Rumsfeld stands all day and tells reporters “life goes on.” A lieutenant general explains enhanced interrogation techniques, inadvertently describing the war on terror at the same time: “It was California avocado freestyle. I mean, it was just a free-for-all.”
Iraq in Fragments is so good I’m surprised people even recognize it as a movie. It’s devoid of the clutter other documentaries rely on for visual interest. (Most documentaries are radio with pictures.) The person who made it, James Longley, also shot it, recorded the sound, and edited it. His cinematography is so superior to the cinematography in any of these other documentaries that he must be a Martian. Longley made his film in Iraq, not in a TV studio or in Morocco. He does not have to thank Sa Majesté or Cynthia Rowley for anything. The film’s stars are the Mahdi Army and the people of Baghdad and Kurdistan.
If only for the way the movie reveals Iraq as a country of colors instead of just the tan dust we see in other Iraq war movies, this film would be exceptional. These vibrant images switch between the tranquil—fruit and vegetables for sale in a market, fish in an aquarium—and the violent—the scarves covering the faces of the Mahdi Army vigilantes kicking the alcohol sellers, the strings of colored lights lining the streets at night as flagellants parade by, beating themselves with metal chains.
Longley lets things play out, even speeches and the harangues of clerics. The sound in the film is unlike that in other films, too. Longley makes sure the sound always works in tandem with the images to evoke the places where they were shot, not to explain them. In the film’s final third, shot in Kurdistan, where the sky is full of smoke from brick kilns and the fields are covered with sunflowers, Longley’s filmmaking pares things down to an elemental level reminiscent of Dovzhenko: images of fire, the moon, snow, bones, and blood. The film ends in twilight with a Kurd reminding us that “nobody can escape America’s reach” and that when it’s all over, the winners always let you know God was on their side.
Brian de Palma’s Redacted aroused controversy when it came out in late 2007, the kind of ridiculous controversy that is the hallmark of our time. The film found no audience and played on few screens, but the right-wing media howled.
Bill O’Reilly and others called for De Palma and the film’s producer, TV and sports magnate Mark Cuban, to be arrested for treason and sued for defamation. In an attempt to hit them where they live, right-wingers demanded fans boycott the Dallas Mavericks, one of Cuban’s properties. Later it emerged that Cuban had in fact cut the film’s final scenes, fearing they would cause “emotional distress” and result in lawsuits from the families of real soldiers. TV personalities getting together to decry a basketball team because of a movie that’s already been expurgated by its producer—we don’t have censorship in this country, we have synergy.
Redacted fictionalizes the Mahmudiyah rampage, in which five American infantrymen gang-raped and murdered a 14-year-old Iraqi girl after killing her parents and her sister, a toddler. De Palma goes for a new kind of annoying realism by showing this played out in various media, including the ones that went on to attack him, yet at the same time Redacted feels stagy. The film is a clunky combination of De Palma’s Vietnam movie Casualties of War and the amazing “Be Black, Baby” section of his underrated Hi, Mom! For a film of such urgency, Redacted is inferior to the De Palma movie that preceded it, the trashy Black Dahlia, also a fictionalized account of an infamous real-life rape and murder.
Shot in Jordan, not Morocco, Redacted moved in the direction of Iraq, not Hollywood. Battle for Haditha, also the reenactment of a war atrocity, also shot in Jordan, moves even closer. Improvised around the story of how marines murdered twenty-four innocent Iraqi men, women, and children in al-Anbar province in November 2005, Battle for Haditha is the best Iraq combat film yet made, which is to say the only good one.
The British director Nick Broomfield, known in this country for documentaries like Kurt & Courtney and Biggie and Tupac, interlaces three stories in a way that owes more to neorealism than “hyperlink” cinema, that already forgotten term for movies like Syriana and Babel. Broomfield presents a middle-aged ex-Baathist, the insurgent who plants an IED that leads to the bloodbath, as an irked, confused speechifier without reducing him to pure villain status. I didn’t get the name of the actor who plays this difficult, thankless role. The names of Arab actors are too easily buried and forgotten, like the names of the Arab dead. Elliot Ruiz’s portrait of a competent, intelligent 20-year-old soldier who is nonetheless guilty of murder is flawless. To successfully improvise a part this grueling without going over the top is a sign of real distinction.
A throwaway scene in Battle for Haditha sticks in my mind: a marine forced to drop and do push-ups while chanting “I will not be funny anymore.” For me, this quick scene encapsulates something real that it’s glib to acknowledge: the war on terror is one group of Americans punishing another for the 1990s—in another country, with lots of collateral damage.
You can shoot a reenactment feature where it took place, even if it took place in Pakistan and Afghanistan. But what if part of it took place in the prison cells and interrogation rooms of the Guantánamo Bay detention facility? Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross, British directors like Nick Broomfield, knew they would not be allowed to film in Camp X-Ray and Camp Delta, so they re-created the Guantánamo center in a hospitable country near where they were already shooting: Iran.
The Road to Guantánamo, one of the essential war-on-terror films, begins unpromisingly as extreme-travel TV or the first episode of Real World: Guantánamo Bay. We meet the Tipton Three (although they are not called that in the film), young British men of Pakistani decent who were kidnapped by the United Front in Afghanistan. Quickly the film shifts tone, the story becomes more and more harrowing as the photography of landscapes and faces becomes more beautiful. Thoughts of Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantánamo Bay dissipate well before the three (now played by actors) are trapped inside a truck that’s filling up with blood as dozens of prisoners scramble over each other to avoid the bullets Afghani soldiers shoot through its walls.
Once in Cuba, the three are subjected to abuse that includes the nonstop yelling of their fascistic American guards, whose evident fear of being looked at tends to impart demonic power to the boys’ collective gaze. “Don’t let ’em look!” and “Face away from us!” are the commands of powerless people who are afraid to be seen because they know what they’re doing is wrong. Two years later, the guards still harangue them as they are driven by bus past the honor bound to defend freedom sign and taken out of the prison camp to be set free: “Don’t look out the window!” The film makes those five words as sickening as anything that’s happened in the war on terror.
In 1981, the English band Au Pairs had a song called “Armagh,” about an Irish woman tortured in a British prison. The first lines went:
We don’t torture, we’re a civilized nation.
We’re avoiding any confrontation.
Is their country’s experience in Northern Ireland the reason British filmmakers are making better films about the war on terror than Americans?
Maybe. But right after The Road to Guantánamo, Michael Winterbottom, without Mat Whitecross, made A Mighty Heart, from Mariane Pearl’s book about the kidnapping and murder of her husband, the journalist Daniel Pearl, by terrorist jihadis in Pakistan in early 2002. Shot in Pakistan and India, the film strives for the kind of grainy shaky-cam realism on which The Road to Guantánamo did not rely.
A Mighty Heart stars Angelina Jolie as Mariane Pearl. The first half of the movie is like a documentary about Jolie playing Mariane, the reenactment of a reenactment like The Road to Guantánamo. We watch her acting, she walks around with a prosthetic pregnant belly, underplays her phone reaction to Daniel’s boneheaded parents, who think everything is going to work out fine. The third quarter of A Mighty Heart is a very good episode of Karachi Vice—“I love this town,” an American intelligence agent exclaims. The last quarter is back to Jolie. Her lower lip is dry, later almost split, illustrating the film’s arc of emotional destitution.
Mostly she’s on the phone. Not just her; everyone in A Mighty Heart is on the phone. The film is an investigation into cell phone use among Westerners who live in big houses in Karachi; it’s a film about manners. The cell phone is the instrument the Westerners use to control the world around them, a world where they make everyone their servant. Even when Daniel is out working, his nice-guy unctuousness gives him away as a privileged Westerner. He might as well be ordering organic pizza in a restaurant in Brooklyn. He’s always all “Yeah, no, I’m good” and “I’m gonna let you go, OK?” Still, he depends on his cell phone less than the others, and the film implies he’s punished for it. When he’s kidnapped, Mariane loses phone contact with him, a sign of grave danger. In bed at night, with little hope, she continues to send texts he’ll never read: “I love you.”
What Winterbottom intended is unclear. He does the best he can under the circumstances, working with the biggest star in the world to help her tell the most important story on earth, ambiguously undercutting it with repetitive actions showing Americans as both all-powerful and ineffectual. Were the Pearls really like this? By the film’s end, after Mariane gives birth, we see her and her child as a unit complete without Daniel. Wistful music from the band Nouvelle Vague plays. Is this supposed to be melancholy, or is it a testament to the superfluousness of the Western male, or both?
A Mighty Heart ends with a birth, The Hills Have Eyes II starts with one. A cinematic coincidence, but maybe it’s in trash like this that we’ll find the truth of the situation. After all, it’s the torture porn of the Hostel and Saw franchises, made concurrently with the prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib, that exposed certain truths about American culture before the Abu Ghraib photos did.
Even better, The Hills Have Eyes II is explicitly a war film. National Guard troops on a training exercise in the New Mexico desert, which we’re initially led to think is Afghanistan or Iraq, run around yelling “America number one, bitch!” Soon they begin to get picked off Indian-style by relatives of the mutant family from the first remake of The Hills Have Eyes. This is a promising start, but the movie ends up being less effective than it should be. Too bad producer Wes Craven assigned it to a director of videos for Nickelback and Sisqo when it needed a John Carpenter. One gory image lingers, a dead guy with his wallet shoved into his head.
Wouldn’t it be funny if it turned out that World Wrestling Entertainment had made one of the best films about the war in Iraq? That’s the kind of dumb hope I had going into The Marine. John Cena, the professional wrestler, a bulky Matt Damon delivered by forceps, plays the title role, a veteran of the war in Iraq. Returning to his blonde wife in South Carolina, he finds the only job he can get is security guard. After he’s fired for throwing somebody through a plate-glass window, he goes home and confesses his biggest fear: sitting around at home doing nothing.
Triton (that’s the marine’s last name) is like the United States. He’s never learned that all men’s miseries come from not being able to sit quietly in a room alone. The couple decides to take a road trip in their Lincoln Navigator, a preposterous vehicle for them to own, but I guess not more than it is for anybody else. A gas station blows up, Triton’s wife is kidnapped—significantly, he is robbed at a gas pump. Now Triton is back in his element, once again doing what he was trained to do in Iraq. For the rest of the movie he is shot at thousands and thousands of times and not hit once.
With the exception of trash movies, war-on-terror films are so grim, dismal, and tragic that when you have contempt for one, you feel bad about it. Gunner Palace , a documentary in the form of a music video, promotes the war in Iraq as crazy fucked-up shit that nobody but the grunts and a few haji good guys understand—and the film’s director, who narrates in a cool-guy whisper that sounds like he’s auditioning to dub Two or Three Things I Know About Her into English.
Right off, this sub-Godardian voice-over is childish and filled with hokey attitude. “Most of us don’t see this on the news anymore. We have reality TV instead—Joe Millionaire, Survivor . Well, survive this: a year in Baghdad without changing the channel.” When the filmmaker tells us, “Unlike a movie, war has no end,” we don’t bother to sort that out because we are glad that at least movies have an end. In a piece from 1955 on Soviet films, Robert Warshow wrote that “the commentator is one of the diseases of our time and must be endured; he will be there at the end of the world to say into a microphone: ‘This is the end of the world.’” But Warshow didn’t know the commentator would be hip.
Making a film this bad helps no one. It’s also inappropriately lame. When a soldier shows an Iraqi orphan a SpongeBob SquarePants doll, a title appears over the image: spongebob. The film becomes human when the soldiers Gunner Palace follows around are allowed to speak for themselves. The hilarious slacker SPC Stuart Wilf tells us that it’s better to be in Iraq than to be a loser in his hometown, where he’d be doing nothing because there’s nothing to do. This 19-year-old combat veteran speaks for everyone who’s from a place like that, and the sanity of his position is only bolstered by the way he dances around in a Saudi robe he bought on leave in Qatar. Wilf comes across as all-American and a total fuckup, a much more appealing figure than John Cena’s ludicrous marine, and more heroic.
Kimberley Peirce’s 1999 feature debut, Boys Don’t Cry, was as assured and fully achieved as Nicholas Ray’s debut was fifty years earlier. Like They Live by Night, Boys Don’t Cry showed a flair for drama that was intimate but explosive, and had a true understanding for the pain outsiders feel in love. Why, then, nine years later, is Peirce imitating Gunner Palace? Stop-Loss had the potential to be the best movie about the war in Iraq. The combat scenes early in the film are the best-directed combat scenes in any war-on-terror movie. When they end, Stop-Loss resorts to an MTV-inspired version of media realism—soldiers’ video diary footage and interludes of rap—that has nothing to do with the story Peirce wants to tell, and has everything to do with keeping the attention of her perceived audience so she can tell them an important story. The film has to jerk itself out of this mode whenever it wants to be a film at all.
When actor-director Liev Schreiber and his producer on Everything Is Illuminated, an adaptation of the Jonathan Safran Foer novel, go to the airport to pick up an intern coming to work on their film, we are witnessing not just a historic first in the history of interning but also the beginning of one of the best movies about the war on terror. Nina Davenport’s documentary Operation Filmmaker is only tangentially related to the actual war in Iraq, but it has more to say about the issues animating it than most films dealing with it directly.
Having seen a young Iraqi film student named Muthana Mohmed interviewed in Baghdad by MTV, Schreiber gets the genius idea to hire Muthana and fly him to Prague, where Schreiber’s film is shooting. Soon Muthana, the Stuart Wilf of international film production, is charged with tasks like mixing vegan snacks in little plastic cups for producers who must constantly be treated like babies. Producer Peter Saraf, unhappy with the slacker Muthana’s attitude, schools him: Muthana has to learn to make himself invaluable to his bosses. He must fawn over his producer and director. For instance, to ingratiate himself, he should bring them coffee in the middle of meetings—but discreetly and quietly. That’s how we do it in America, Saraf explains. Nothing demeaning about it. Totally normal. We all came up that way.
A better portrait of how people who think of themselves as Good turn the disadvantaged into their slaves has never been put on film. Operation Filmmaker, the entire thing a subtle metaphor for the way America helps Iraq by occupying it, damns everyone it touches, including Muthana and the filmmaker herself. After Muthana expresses his admiration for George W. Bush, the producers of Everything Is Illuminated pretty much abandon him to fend for himself. He stays in Prague, gets a job on a movie based on the video game Doom, and convinces its affable star, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, to pay for him to go to film school in London. The Rock may have been conned by Muthana, but why should he care? The Rock’s a movie star, he’s got money, and he can give it out any way he chooses. In Operation Filmmaker a professional wrestler really does come to the rescue, and Davenport has the grace not to make the ironic but obvious point that the Rock is a Republican and Saraf and Schreiber are Democrats.
Maybe in movies right now the war is best approached obliquely. Full Battle Rattle, by Tony Gerber and Jesse Moss, documents what happens at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, a thousand-mile tract of the Mojave Desert comprising thirteen replica Iraqi villages. The army sees this as a stage set where soldiers learn how to handle themselves in the real theater of war. A Lieutenant Colonel McLoughlin, training there, explains: “Our number one priority is to provide hope to the people. All our bright thinking here is all for naught if we don’t control the crowd.”
These soldiers learn to control the crowd by playing cowboys and Indians in a landscape where Indians used to be. The center employs 250 Arabic-speaking Iraqi-Americans, who are given character biographies and scripts so they can portray townspeople, insurgents, and Iraqi policemen. In one scenario, the son of the deputy mayor is accidentally killed by American firepower. Negotiations begin that are more like The Price Is Right than a war movie. American soldiers carry around $2,500 in play money to pay off relatives of the dead. Then the brass steps in for further smoothing, awkwardly rehearsing for the real thing. “I have a contract for a sewage system,” says Lt. Col. McLoughlin. “It’s worth over $280,000—approved!” He seals the deal: “Have some fruit. This is our best fruit.”
It’s not just the soldiers who believe in this fiction the army’s created. The middle-aged Iraqi man who plays the deputy mayor longs to be promoted to the status of full mayor. At work in the Mojave his dignity is restored. Later we see him at his other job, manning the cash register at a liquor store in a desolate San Diego neighborhood.
This beautifully composed documentary provides the most human and balanced view in any of these films. It’s a hopeful, even utopian film that takes place far away from the Green Zone and Abu Ghraib, strangely touching and sad. A doctor shows us mannequin limbs with carved plastic wounds. “These injuries are exact replicas,” he says. The limbs snap back into place. By the time the film was done, five of the soldiers in it were already dead.
Dick Cheney has told us this war will not end in our lifetime. An era of endless war chokes off the kind of evaluation that in the past has produced the best war movies. If the war on terror never ends, those films cannot be made. Evaluation will be left to movies like The Dark Knight, which indulge our longing for relief from war at the same time as they replicate its stasis and reconfigure its atrocities as blockbuster entertainment.
You always hear conservatives say Hollywood hates America. To me, what proves Hollywood hates America is the way they keep making Batman movies. Meanwhile, no Hollywood filmmakers have gone to Iraq. All the 1990s World War II films Hollywood made, the Saving Private Ryans, with their Pentagon advisers and Department of Defense equipment they got at the cost of script approval, were made by people pretending they wanted to go to war. If only we had a war, they seemed to moan. Ach, we were born too late!
Here was your chance, Hollywood, to emulate the Greatest Generation filmmakers you professed to admire so much. What you made instead were things like War of the Worlds, a film that reveled in the destruction of New York, then hightailed it through the woods to grandmother’s house. Sleep tight.