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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
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.
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