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October 1, 2007

Liberal Messages and the Fall of Fall Movies


At some point, it was decided in Hollywood that for a movie to deal with the war on terrorism, America's place in the world, and/or Big National Themes of the Day, just the subject matter wasn't enough. There has to be action, and "mystery," too.


No fewer than three major motion pictures – including two released last week – have chosen to frame a war-related plot around a simple police procedural, along the lines of your average "CSI" or "Criminal Minds" episode. Not only does doing so trivialize the themes therein, but the disconnect between major themes and run-of-the-mill CBS primetime fare has led to some pretty appalling films.


"In the Valley of Elah," directed by Paul Haggis, and "The Kingdom," from filmmaker Peter Berg, both arrived in September, while Michael Winterbottom's "A Mighty Heart" bowed in July. Of the three, only the powerful Winterbottom film, about the circumstances surrounding Daniel Pearl's death, worked on both levels. “Heart”, despite featuring Angelina Jolie in a starring role, sank like a stone at the box office.


The other two fail in much larger ways. Like most liberal message movies of the Bush era, 'Elah' starts with its conclusion and works its way from there, as a military veteran (Tommy Lee Jones) investigates the disappearance of his son, a soldier recently returned from Iraq. This leads him to conclude that America is in trouble, and that war is doing terrible things to young men. The latter realization seems to come as a complete surprise to a lifelong military officer and Vietnam veteran.


Haggis earlier directed the inexplicable 2005 Oscar winner "Crash," best summed up as "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist: The Movie." In his follow-up, Haggis fills the film with a run-of-the-mill investigation, as well as half-hearted Biblical symbolism that raises more questions than it answers. Haggis concludes the picture with Jones's character undertaking an act involving a flag that no real person – only a screenwriter – would ever think to do. Critic James Berardinelli called the ending “blatant and cheesy” and “the most ridiculously ham-fisted and over-the-top moment in all of 2007’s supposed prestige cinema.”


The last scene of “The Kingdom,” however, makes the conclusion of “Elah” look subtle by comparison. Berg’s film actually gets off to a strong start, as a virtuoso opening sequence jams the entire history of U.S./Saudi relations into an engaging narrative. (Did you know the first oil in Saudi Arabia was found by a U.S. company? Imagine if we hadn't told them!)


The plot features a group of FBI agents (led by Jamie Foxx) traveling to Saudi Arabia to investigate a terrorist attack that killed one of their brethren. The investigation, in fact, takes up the film's entire middle hour, until it turns into a shoot-'em-up at the end.


At this point, "The Kingdom" makes two big errors: It drags out the threat of a Pearl-like beheading out of nowhere for a cheap plot point in an action scene, and then (even worse) the last line of the film implies a moral equivalence between FBI agents and terrorists, which is cringe-worthy enough as it is, made even more mind-boggling by not even being hinted at anywhere else in the script. In fact, in over a decade of reviewing movies, "The Kingdom" was the first film in which the last line made me drop its rating by more than a star.


The creative failure of these films helps put across the interesting dichotomy that has American moviegoers continuously shunning movies that take a left-wing view of the war on terrorism, even as they agree more and more with anti-war and pro-Iraq-withdrawal views.


Most Americans by this point have caught on to the fact that the president is an idiot, the war he launched is a debacle and the circle surrounding him is exceptionally dishonest on top of being crushingly incompetent. We don't need expensive, heavy-handed movies to explain it for us. Documentaries (especially last year's "Iraq in Fragments" and this year's "No End in Sight") are a much better place to go for an accurate cinematic picture of the situation in Iraq and elsewhere in the Mideast than any recent fiction film.


The great films of the Vietnam era (especially "Apocalypse Now," and "The Deer Hunter") were great because they were great on their own merits. They didn't ask their audience to enjoy them purely on the basis of having reached the correct political conclusions. A great feature film may someday be made about the current war, but it doesn't appear that that day is anywhere close.


© 2007 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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