Posts Tagged war films
Year of release: 2017 Directed by Doug Liman. Starring Aaron Taylor-Johnson, John Cena, and Laith Nakli.
Two soldiers, a sniper, and a crumbling stone wall. As Scott Renshaw pointed out, this scenario basically writes and films itself, which makes the occasional stumbles all the more frustrating. Even with those stumbles, director Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity, Edge of Tomorrow) does a good job of milking this premise, crafting a tense thriller in which a cat and mouse game is set against the backdrop of the “won” Iraq War.
Criticism of the Iraq War and the notion that there could be any victory from that mess abounds throughout the film. The first title card tells us in 2007 the USA declared victory and the war was over, but the irony and dishonesty of that claim is highlighted by the opening shot of two soldiers camouflaged as they observe an oil pipeline where soldiers had been ambushed by an attack. Later, when the sniper hacks their radio signal, he asks them what they’re still doing in his country if the war is over. Finally, the closing shot will remain one of the most surprising conclusions of any film this year, and it strongly reinforces the notion that the Iraq War is unwinnable.
The film’s politics are unmistakable, but they are never heavy handed, and they provide added tension to the confrontation between Sgt. Isaac (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and the unseen sniper (Laith Nakli). Less successful is the backstory for Sgt. Isaac which is hinted at throughout the film, but when it’s made explicit in the last act, it comes across as a half-baked attempt at guilt and trauma which adds nothing to the psychological and physical standoff between the soldier and the sniper.
The other major misstep of the film is the scriptwriter Dwain Worrell’s decision to make the sniper a genius psychopath more knowledgeable than Hannibal Lecter who knows everything going on inside Isaac’s head, has orchestrated his plan to the last unexpected detail, and is fazed by literally nothing. Eventually, the characterization begins to approach caricature.
However, the cat and mouse game is largely successful due to the commitment of the actors and Liman’s skilled directing. At ninety minutes, the film moves along briskly even as it never changes location. I questioned the wisdom of a couple cuts to the sniper’s point of view – they really dissipated the tension – but otherwise, the editing brilliantly redirects our attention from the one soldier to the other, to the wall, to the corpses scattered around the pipeline, and to any possible location of the sniper. Liman knows precisely where to place the camera to achieve a balance between knowing what is happening and feeling just disoriented enough to share in the soldiers’ confusion and discomfort.
The Wall doesn’t make the most of its premise, but it gets enough out of it to be an engaging and thoughtful thriller with a worthwhile cross examination of the costs of invading Iraq, and Doug Liman proves his chops for directing action sequences once again.
Personal Recommendation: B-
Content Advisory: Frequent obscene language, intense violence, including brief but graphic images of bullet wounds.
Suggested Audience: Adults with discernment
Year of Release: 2016 Directed by Anne Fontaine. Starring Lou de Laâge, Agata Buzek, Agata Kulesza, and Vincent Macaigne.
This review will not spoil the central plot point around which the story of The Innocents revolves. That plot point is revealed about twenty minutes into the film; however, even though it is technically not a spoiler, it is still something I believe should not be known going into this film. Consequently, there may be a few places where I am more vague than I would otherwise like to be.
A few months ago, several of my friends and fellow film critics started praising The Innocents enthusiastically. Most frequently, I heard comparisons to Of Gods and Men and Ida. While both comparisons are apt, the comparisons that most struck me were to three novels: Song at the Scaffold by Gertrude von le Fort, The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Silence by Shusaku Endo, which has a film adaptation by Scorsese coming out in one month.
As a story about a convent of nuns suffering various forms of persecution as the result of a war, the similarities with Song at the Scaffold struck me immediately, with the main difference being The Innocents is set in Poland in the aftermath of World War II, rather than the reign of terror during the French Revolution. Some of the nuns’ decisions may be baffling to a contemporary viewer, but if one remembers how badly they have been victimized and as a result no longer trust the outside world, the fear which grips this convent should be more tragic than perplexing.
The main similarity with The Scarlet Letter was something I noticed toward the end. In high school, I read that novel like most American students, and for the paper I wrote I chose the topic how God can bring good out of evil, focusing on the ways in which the community and Hester’s life improved after the affair and public branding. (Don’t ask me for details; that was over ten years ago. I just remember the general gist of my essay.) Likewise, after horrific tragedies and suffering on the part of innocent victims, The Innocents suggests a way in which hope can grow from the darkness, making the world a better place.
Finally, Silence is Endo’s famous novel about faith in the midst of feeling abandoned by God’s silence in the face of extreme suffering. As Sister Maria (Agata Buzek) says roughly halfway through the film, “Faith…at first you’re like a child, holding your father’s hand, feeling safe. Then a time comes…when your father lets go. You’re lost alone in the dark. You cry out, but no one answers.” That feeling of isolation permeates The Innocents, and several of the nuns and novices question their vows and their faith as a result of their sufferings.
Into the midst of this convent in turmoil comes Mathilde (Lou de Laâge), a communist and atheist who has little to no respect for the nuns’ beliefs, especially when those beliefs interfere with the work she has come to do. (I said I’m being vague.) However, through Mathilde’s commitment to the promise she made, she does find a way to work with the nuns. The film may be more sympathetic to Mathilde than the nuns; however, Mathilde’s final climactic idea affirms the primary vocation of the nuns and brings a heartfelt joyful conclusion to the sorrowful events that had preceded it.
Laâge convincingly portrays Mathilde’s sympathy for the nuns, even as she clings to her secular worldview. Her confrontations with Sister Maria’s raw yet steadfast faith overshadow the film, and the two actresses complement each other’s screen presence beautifully. As the cold and steely Mother Abbess, Agata Kulesza (from Ida) serves as a reminder of the dangers both of overly zealous piety and of rationalization for a noble goal. Mathilde may have the least amount of sympathy for the Abbess, but the film refuses the easy temptation to vilify her, even as she makes some appalling choices, one of which slightly stretches her character’s credibility.
Director Anne Fontaine beautifully evokes the cold, desolate landscape of post-war Poland with slow moving, long takes and a bleak, blue-gray color palette, only briefly splashed with reddish browns for dance scenes. The winter setting reinforces that Poland is now controlled by the Communists, a hell possibly worse than the Nazis, and Fontaine does not shy away from those details: from the danger the nuns feel, to the outright contempt that other characters have for them, and to the dangerous encounter Mathilde suffers for helping the nuns.
The Innocents opens with the nuns singing Creator of the Stars of Night, an Advent chant in which one verse says: “In sorrow that the ancient curse/Should doom to death a universe,/You came, O Savior, to set free/You’re own in glorious liberty.” Those words may sound bitterly ironic to the nuns at the film’s beginning, but through the course of this story the hope reflected in the following verse of the hymn becomes apparent to the convent: “When this old world drew on toward night,/You came but not in splendor bright,/Not as a monarch but a child/Of Mary blameless mother mild.”
Personal Recommendation: A-
Content Advisory (spoiler-free version): Non-graphic sexual assault (ends quickly), themes of spiritual abuse, horrific off screen deaths, and some gruesome surgical procedures. Not rated
Suggested audience: Teens and up with discernment
Directed by Gavin Hood. Starring Helen Mirren, Alan Rickman, Barkhad Abdi, Aaron Paul, Phoebe Fox, and Aisha Takow.
The principle of double effect, as proposed by St. Thomas Aquinas, is frequently discussed both in freshman philosophy classes and in Catholic theology classes. The classic hypothetical which is used in these discussions is when the train is rushing down the tracks and about to go off the rails unless you pull the lever to redirect the train onto the intact tracks. The catch is that there is one guy standing on the intact tracks, and there is a high probability that redirecting the train, and thus saving the lives of all the people on it, will regrettably kill him.
The problem with hypotheticals is that they do not take into account practical, real life scenarios when one has to make the best decision possible within a short time frame under intense duress. While a fictitious film is still a hypothetical, Eye in the Sky plays out in an intensely realistic fashion which gives credence to both sides of the argument and constructs a scenario in which the difficulties of either course of action are vividly realized. Even more remarkably, after making a strong case for one course of action, the film turns around and makes an equally strong case for the opposite.
The hypothetical in question in Eye in the Sky was made clear in the trailer. British intelligence has numbers 2, 4, and 5 on the most wanted list in their sight; through a hidden camera they can see those terrorists assembling two vests for suicide bombings; they have the ability to launch a drone strike eliminating that threat; however, a young girl is in the street next to the house, well within the fatality zone of the missile.
For a scenario which sounds like it could become riddled with clichés and a moralizing sermon regarding the War on Terror and the US drone program, Eye in the Sky avoids both. It explicitly acknowledges the danger that terrorists pose to the world, and it makes what might be the most compelling argument in favor of the drone assassination program. At the same time, the cost of that program on families, nations, and individuals is powerfully realized, so much that even if the principle of double effect justified the proposed strike, one could still question its prudence or legitimacy.
It is rare to see a film that refuses to take sides in an argument and maneuvers through both sides of that argument as skillfully as Eye in the Sky does. In doing so director Gavin Hood tells his story and leaves the conclusion with the viewer. It is easy to understand the reasoning which says drones are the best way to minimize the violence of terrorists, yet the concept that violence begets violence is always juxtaposed with any arguments in favor of using military force.
Hood’s decision to cast himself as an American colonel who calmly weighs all the options, but has no qualms about following orders, however unpleasant those orders may be, carries that balanced storytelling approach to the cast as well. The other cast members are the typical characters one would expect in such a wartime story. There are two green American drone pilots (Aaron Paul and Phoebe Fox) who have never had to fire a missile before, one of whom is starting her first day as a soldier as the titular “eye in the sky.” An on the ground agent in Kenya (Barkhad Abdi – Captain Phillips) is trying to get as close to the target as possible to gather information without blowing the cover of the mission. There are various officials, all of whom wish to refer the decision up to their authorities so that they do not have to take responsibility. Finally, Helen Mirren and Alan Rickman portray a colonel and general respectively who wish to avoid as many casualties as they can, yet are both pragmatic enough to dread wasting this opportunity.
The film’s ensemble of characters is admittedly large, but Megan Gill’s sharply focused editing makes it easy to keep track of all the characters and maintains a taut pacing which does not relent. One of the most effective moments is when the British intelligence loses one of their cameras; the cut to black symbolizes the dread and mounting tension perfectly. Similarly, the use of silence in place of music for some of the most harrowing moments makes the tragedy and tension all the more palpable. The commitment of both Mirren and Rickman turns their functionally written characters into complex conflicted human beings torn between two bad alternatives.
Finally, the portrayal of the young girl Alia (Aisha Takow) who will be endangered by a missile strike and her family is a beautiful portrait of the world as it should function and how war destroys that. The opening title card states that truth is the first thing lost in war, and while the film depicts rationalizations replacing the truth, nothing is as tragic as those rationalizations being applied to the potential loss of innocent lives.
The desire to minimize the casualties of war is a moral and necessary impulse. However, the way in which we achieve that is every bit as important. That importance is at the center of the moral conundrum in Eye in the Sky, and the film’s choice to eschew both easy answers and demonizing of different opinions makes the cost of war heavily felt as Eye in the Sky relentlessly accelerates toward the end of its mission.
Content Advisory: Gruesome shots of the aftermath of violence, a few utterances of harsh expletives under duress. MPAA rating: R
Suggested audience: Teens and up with discernment
Personal Recommendation: A
Thanks to Ken Morefield for publishing my review.
Year of Release: 2015 Directed by Clint Eastwood. Starring Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Sammy Sheik, and Keir O’Donnell.
It is always unfortunate when a film generates such strong political reactions that those reactions dominate any discussion of the film. Such reactions make it difficult to discuss the film and its merits without first addressing the controversy. I must admit I’m baffled disappointed to see the intense politicized responses American Sniper is receiving because it supposedly celebrates the Iraq war and glorifies a man who may have been a war hero, but was apparently less than a role model in real life. I think that in calling the film a straightforward defense of the Iraq war, critics are seriously undermining the film’s strengths and selling short its sense of conflict and its depiction of the tragic effects of the war and a career dominated by violence.
In his four tours of duty during the Iraq War, Navy SEAL Chris Kyle (a very good Bradley Cooper) is credited with 160 kills out of a probable 255, and he feels confident that every shot he took was the right thing to do. Kyle, having a penchant for violence, is eager to join the army, fight for his country, and kill those damn terrorists. Having hunted all his life he is a natural sniper, and he soon becomes a hero to his fellow soldiers who feel safe when he is overseeing them. American Sniper is the story of a very pro-war, pro-gun soldier, and thus, it makes total sense that the Iraq War is accepted as something that happened. Just because the film depicts the war without questioning its wisdom or lack thereof, does not mean the film glorifies the war or condemns it. American Sniper is neither pro-war nor anti-war; it is just war.
More importantly, there are many scenes which show the tragic effects and heavy toll of both the war and Kyle’s many killings. I really do not understand how someone could watch the scenes between Kyle and his wife, his son, and his colleagues and call the film unapologetically pro-war. When Kyle takes his wife for her prenatal checkup, his resting blood pressure is 170 over 110. He screams at a nurse who does not respond to his crying daughter quickly enough. He is unable to accept a complement from a marine when he is out with his son. The breakdown he has at a child’s birthday party is very painful to watch. To call the film a celebration of the Iraq war is to badly sell those scenes short.
American Sniper undoubtedly has some pacing problems, and there are a couple miscalculated subplots which should either have been removed or developed into much larger segments. The standoff/manhunt between Kyle and rival Iraqi sniper Mustafa (Sammy Sheik) plays too much like a conventional thriller, and the half-baked attempts to set up a rivalry between them would only have worked if Mustafa had been given much more back story. As it is, the scenes of him hunting Kyle distract from the story and make it too obvious how their standoff will eventually end. The resolution of that subplot is the film’s weakest moment, because it is handled like a triumphant moment out of a mediocre Marvel movie.
I also wish the final twenty minutes had been developed into a full hour. There is rich, poignant material in that section concerning PTSD, guilt, adjusting to a quiet life after being one of the deadliest SEALs, and one’s duty as a husband and father. While some scenes do capture the tension, raging emotions, and painful consequences, as a whole that part of the story is rushed through too quickly.
As a point of comparison, when Francis Ford Coppola was asked to write the screenplay for Patton, his first thought was, “Oh crap. Half the country loves him because they think he won the war, and half the country hates him because they think he was a sadistic war criminal. If I chose either side, I’ll alienate half my audience.” He chose to respect both sides, portraying Patton as a brilliant general who loses his temper and gives in to nasty violence, a conflicted character who too often gives into his violent nature but still has a strong sense of dignity. Jason Hall did something similar with his script for American Sniper. He does not shy away from portraying Kyle’s violence and even showing it to be at times successful, but he also portrays a damaged human being whose choices harm not only on himself but his family as well. The scene when Kyle’s brother (Keir O’Donnell ) makes a disparaging comment about the war, only to have Kyle look at him as if he were a stranger is a particularly acute example.
Kyle’s first kill, which opens the film, is another powerful example of the cost of violence. As a mother hands her son a grenade, Kyle hesitates to shoot. It is the first scene, we have no context, and this a perfect textbook example of self-defense. Taking the shot seems like a no-brainer. Before Kyle pulls the trigger, there is a half hour flashback to his childhood and training, showing him bonding with his equally violent father, protecting his little brother, grieving on 9/11, and flirting with his wife-to-be (Sienna Miller). After witnessing the hardships and joys of Kyle’s life, when the film returns to Iraq, his hesitation is perfectly natural, and the tragic evil of deliberately ending any life is fully dramatized.
Finally, if anyone doubts Eastwood’s stance on violence, remember, he wrote and directed this:
Content Advisory: Some brutal wartime violence, disturbing gory images, profane and obscene language throughout, intense themes of PTSD and family discord, and mildly sensual foreplay. MPAA rating: R
Suggested Audience: Adults
Personal Recommendation: B-