Three Kings and Courage Under Fire (review)

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The War of a New Generation

(Three Kings: Best of 1999)

The Persian Gulf War was a new kind of war — fought on television, played out in primetime — one in which American troops, relatively speaking, barely got their hands dirty, letting their high-tech toys do the work for them. Two Hollywood movies have been set during the conflict. The new one recognizes the societal turning point the Gulf War represents; the old one doesn’t.
War games
The Gulf War was nothing but a giant frat party. Or so most of the soldiers in director David O. Russell’s groundbreaking, genre-defining Three Kings seem to believe. One soldier “didn’t think [he]’d get to see anyone shot in this war”; another is “on a four-month paid vacation from Detroit.” They celebrate the war’s end by dancing to rap music with American flags wrapped around their bodies, posing gleefully with their unused guns for the army of media, and banging pretty blond war correspondents in the TV truck. “Take my picture!” a young soldier begs his companions when they kill a wandering enemy soldier.

I don’t think Russell (who also wrote the screenplay with John Ridley) believes this attitude is necessarily a bad thing. Oh, he’s got some choice words for the policy of the U.S. government (more on that later), but he seems quite friendly toward the grunts. In fact, this brand of amiable Americanism becomes a recurring theme throughout Three Kings.

The war is just over. Iraqi troops are surrendering in droves to mostly genial American troops while news cameras roll. Troopers Barlow (Mark Wahlberg: Traveller, Boogie Nights), Elgin (Ice Cube), and Vig (Spike Jonze) discover, on one of the enemy soldiers, a map to the secret bunker where Saddam Hussein’s hijacked Kuwaiti loot is hidden. A jaded officer, Gates (George Clooney: Out of Sight, The Peacemaker), cops on to the discovery, and the four hatch a plan to retrieve the reported millions in gold bullion Saddam stole and go home in style.

But harsh reality catches up with them. In the tiny town where the bunker is located, ordinary Iraqis are overjoyed to see Americans, believing they’ve brought food and medicine and military support for the uprising against Saddam that President Bush encouraged them to start. Now, though, Bush is withdrawing his troops, leaving the Iraqi people to the cold mercies of their own military. After witnessing a heartbreaking showdown between Iraqi troops and Iraqi political prisoners, Gates and Co. grudgingly agree to help the townspeople escape to the Iranian border.

The opportunism of the Americans doesn’t make them heartless. Our Heroes are standard issue Generation Xers, carving out an entrepreneurial space for themselves within a rigid institution (think Fox Mulder, doing his own thing within the labyrinthine bureaucracy of the FBI), mercenaries who see nothing contradictory in an attempt to do good and get rich at the same time — if they can make a killing while helping people, all the better. And like good little Xers, they take a perceived evil — here, the media’s presence and undeniable influence on the war — and they use it, they make it work for them. Gates ensures that the ambitious, Christiane Amanpour-esque reporter Adriana Cruz (Nora Dunn: Bulworth) gets the big story she wants — and if that works to his benefit as well, again, so much the better.

As fast and furious and wickedly funny as it is, Three Kings hits home with many barbedly pointed takes on today’s global, paradoxical culture. Gates and his partners in crime shoot across the desert, oil-well fires raging in the background, in a Humvee with the Beach Boys blasting on the stereo while Elgin and Vig play skeet off the back of the vehicle with their rifles and Nerf footballs fitted out with explosives — they’re just all-American boys here in the Gulf defending the oil that makes their lives so much fun. And yet, what do they find in Saddam’s loot bunkers? What was worth stealing from Kuwait, “the Arab Beverly Hills”? How about boxes full of cell phones, piles of compact discs, rooms full of toasters, coffeemakers, TVs, and stereos? An Iraqi soldier, fleeing from American troops, absconds with an armful of the most valuable thing he can find: denim jeans. The rap music the Americans celebrate with in the beginning of the film is echoed later in the Iraqi rap music blaring from a boom box in the small town Gates’s refugees arrive in. Everybody wants to be American — everybody wants to be free. Ironic that we’re fighting one another when we’re all really the same, Russell seems to say.

Russell is not complacent with making the audience laugh at the oddities of war. Like an emotional roller coaster ride, Three Kings offers a disturbing moment for every humorous one. Desperate Iraqi women beg for food for their babies. Figures in elephantine gas-masks move through a gas-shrouded minefield — an intensely frightening alien world we never saw on CNN. And Barlow endures grotesque torture while sympathizing with his captor — Wahlberg is at his best here (the rest of the cast is superb as well).

I guarantee you’ve never seen a film like Three Kings before. Visually dazzling and emotionally unsettling, this is a new brand of war movie.

The dullness of being earnest
If Three Kings is the wild tattooed musician whom a girl’s parents might meet with frowning disapproval, then Courage Under Fire is the boy Mom and Dad would love for her to bring home: clean cut, polite, smart, handsome (but not too dangerously good looking). Their daughter might think this guy a little dull, but she couldn’t really pick out his particular faults beyond a general lack of charisma, lack of a certain je ne sais quoi. And if she were to say anything negative about him, her parents would think she’s crazy — “he’s such a nice young man!” But he just doesn’t make her dizzy.

So it is with Courage Under Fire. It’s well-appointed, well acted, tells a coherent story, has all the necessary pieces in place. But it never involves the viewer emotionally. It never thrills. And while Three Kings could only have been set in the Gulf, Courage Under Fire could well have taken its basic inspiration from Vietnam, Korea, or even WWII, it’s that old-fashioned a tale.

The Persian Gulf War is recently over. Lieutenant Colonel Nathaniel Serling (Denzel Washington: The Siege, Fallen), a decorated Gulf veteran now attached to the Pentagon, is given the task of investigating a fellow vet nominated for the Medal of Honor for service in the war. It’s a routine investigation, and the White House is really just looking for the Pentagon to rubberstamp the nomination, so excited are they over the PR value of the situation. The nominee, as Serling is surprised to discover, is a woman, Captain Karen Emma Walden (Meg Ryan: You’ve Got Mail, City of Angels), the first ever up for the Medal of Honor for combat. As a White House flack (Bronson Pinchot) explains rhapsodically, because the medal would have to be awarded posthumously — Walden died earning it — it means the planned Veterans’ Day ceremony would allow the president to place the medal around the neck of Walden’s tearful, cherubic, blond young daughter. You can’t make up stuff that good.

Or can you? As he investigates, Serling discovers discrepancies amongst the story Walden’s crew tells. As pilot of a Huey medical helicopter, Walden led the attempted rescue of the crew of a downed Blackhawk attack chopper. The Huey — despite the fact that it was unarmed — daringly takes out a nearby Iraqi tank before being shot down itself, leaving both crews separated and surrounded by enemy troops. In the hours that followed, did Walden comport herself heroically, acting with courage in the face of near certain death and handling command with aplomb? Medic Ilario (Matt Damon: Good Will Hunting, The Rainmaker) insists she was. Infantryman Monfriez (Lou Diamond Phillips) says otherwise. Walden, he contends, was a coward.

Serling’s task of finding the truth is made all the more difficult by the fact that he is haunted, as Walden’s former subordinates are, by the war. Involved as he was in a friendly-fire incident the Pentagon is covering up, Serling is convinced he does not deserve the medal he received. Serling is looking for the hero he cannot find in himself. Will he find it in Walden?

Washington is part of why Courage Under Fire never takes off. The story revolves around him and his investigation, but though he’s a fine actor with a talent tuned a craftsmanlike finish, he’s too emotionally restrained. When Serling riles up his tank troops, just before heading into battle, with “Let’s kill ’em all,” there’s no feeling behind it — not hate, not weariness, not irony, nothing. Even as Serling later retreats from his loving wife (Regina Taylor: Strange Justice, The Negotiator) and turns to drink for solace and respite from his disturbing memories of the war, it’s hard to empathize with him. It’s as if Washington never lets himself truly inhabit the character, as if he can’t truly empathize with Serling either. And if he can’t, the audience never will.

The only point at which Courage Under Fire is actually gripping is during the flashback sequence in which we learn what really happened during Walden’s final hours. Ryan is surprisingly effective as a woman who turns out to be neither of the stereotypes her crew would have Serling believe — none of the usual cutesy perkiness of Ryan’s characters is to be found here. Damon is the other standout, demonstrating that he’s the kind of actor who so inhabits his characters that he sculpts his body to them. Ilario’s plump face — Damon’s usual look — has been replaced by one shockingly, skeletally gaunt when Serling meets him after the war, and with good reason, we later learn.

Director Edward Zwick went on to show with the later The Siege that earnest civic soul-searching and righteous flag-waving are apparently his chosen venue. That may make for unobjectionable movies, but it doesn’t make for terribly engaging ones.

[reader comments on this review]

Three Kings
viewed at a public multiplex screening
rated R for graphic war violence, language and some sexuality
official site | IMDB

Courage Under Fire
viewed at home on a small screen
rated R for war violence and language

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