Category Archives: War(s) on Terror

War(s) on Terror: 20 years and 10 films later

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 21, 2021)

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Now a note to the President, and the Government, and the judges of this place
We’re still waitin’ for you to bring our troops home, clean up that mess you made
‘Cause it smells of blood and money across the Iraqi land
But its so easy here to blind us with your united we stand

– from “Crash This Train”, by Joshua James

With the 20th anniversary of September 11th looming amid the political fireworks surrounding America’s ongoing “final” troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, there has been more than enough analyses (scholarly or otherwise) regarding the whys and wherefores of America’s wars on terror to go around lately, so I won’t add to the din. Besides-that’s above my pay grade. I’m just “the movie guy” around these parts.

I was perusing my 15 years of reviews and was surprised at the number of documentaries and feature films related to our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan that I have covered. Collectively, these films not only paint a broad canvas of these endless wars themselves, but put the full spectrum of humanity on display, from “the better angels of our nature” to the absolute worst (mostly the worst).

So in lieu of a 3,000-word dissertation, I’ve culled 9 films from my archives that perhaps best represent what’s gone down “over there” (and on the home front) over the last 20 years since the World Trade Center towers fell, and one film that serves as a preface. It doesn’t feel appropriate to call this a “top 10” list, so let’s just call it, “food for thought”.

Pray for peace.

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Charlie Wilson’s War – Aaron Sorkin, you silver-tongued devil, you had me at: “Ladies and gentlemen of the clandestine community…”

That line is from the opening scene of Charlie Wilson’s War, in which the titular character, a Texas congressman (Tom Hanks) is receiving an Honored Colleague award from the er-ladies and gentlemen of the clandestine community (you know, that same group of merry pranksters who orchestrated such wild and woolly hi-jinx as the Bay of Pigs invasion.)

Sorkin provides the snappy dialog for director Mike Nichols’ political satire. In actuality, Nichols and Sorkin may have viewed their screen adaptation of Wilson’s real-life story as a cakewalk, because it falls into the “you couldn’t make this shit up” category.

Wilson, known to Beltway insiders as “good-time Charlie” during his congressional tenure, is an unlikely American hero. He drank like a fish and loved to party but could readily charm key movers and shakers into supporting his pet causes and any attractive young lady within range into the sack. So how did this whiskey quaffing Romeo circumvent the official U.S. foreign policy of the time (1980s) and help the Mujahedin rebels drive the Russians out of Afghanistan, ostensibly paving the way for the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War? While a (mostly) true story, it plays like a fairy tale now; although in view of recent events we know the Afghan people didn’t necessarily live happily ever after. (Full review)

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Fair Game – Doug Liman’s slightly uneven 2010 dramatization of the “Plame affair” and the part it played in the Bush administration’s “weapons of mass destruction” fiasco may hold more relevance now, with the benefit of hindsight. Jez and John-Henry Butterworth based their screenplay on two memoirs, The Politics of Truth by Joe Wilson, and Fair Game by Valerie Plame.

Sean Penn and Naomi Watts bring their star power to the table as the Wilsons, portraying them as a loving couple who were living relatively low key lives (she more as a necessity of her profession) until they got pushed into a boiling cauldron of nasty political intrigue that falls somewhere in between All the President’s Men and Three Days of the Condor.

Viewers unfamiliar with the back story could be misled by the opening scenes, which give the impression you may be in for a Bourne-style action thriller. The conundrum is that the part of the story concerning Valerie Plame’s CIA exploits can at best be speculative in nature. Due to the sensitivity of those matters, Plame has only gone on record concerning that part of her life in vague, generalized terms, so what you end up with is something along the lines of Confessions of a Dangerous Mind.

However, the most important part of the couple’s story was the political fallout that transpired once Valerie was “outed” by conservative journalist Robert Novak. Liman wisely shifts the focus to depicting how Wilson and Plame weathered this storm together, and ultimately stood up to the Bush-Cheney juggernaut of “alternative facts” that helped sell the American public on Operation Iraqi Freedom. (Full review)

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The Kill Team – In an ideal world, no one should ever have to “go to war”. But it’s not an ideal world. For as long as humans have existed, there has been conflict. And always with the hitting, and the stoning, and the clubbing, and then later with the skewering and the slicing and stabbing…then eventually with the shooting and the bombing and the vaporizing.

So if we absolutely have to have a military, one would hope that the majority of the men and women who serve in our armed forces at least “go to war” as fearless, disciplined, trained professionals, instilled with a sense of honor and integrity. In an ideal world. Which again, this is not.

In 2011, five soldiers from the Fifth Stryker Brigade, Second Infantry Division (stationed near Kandahar) were officially accused of murdering three innocent Afghan civilians. Led by an apparently psychopathic squad leader, a Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs, the men were all members of the 3rd Platoon, which became known as “The Kill Team”.

Artfully blending intimate interviews with moody composition (strongly recalling the films of Errol Morris), director Dan Krauss coaxes extraordinary confessionals from several key participants and witnesses involved in a series of 2010 Afghanistan War incidents usually referred to as the “Maywand District murders“.

This is really quite a story (sadly, an old one), and because it can be analyzed in many contexts (first person, historical, political, sociological, and psychological), some may find Krauss’ film frustrating, incomplete, or even slanted. But judging purely on the context he has chosen to use (first person) I think it works quite well. (Full review)

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The Messenger – I think this is the film that comes closest to getting the harrowing national nightmare of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan “right”. Infused with sharp writing, smart direction and compelling performances, The Messenger is one of those insightful observations of the human condition that sneaks up and really gets inside you, haunting you long after the credits roll.

First-time director Owen Moverman and co-writer Alessandro Camon not only bring the war(s) home but proceed to march up your driveway and deposit in on your doorstep. Ben Foster, Samantha Morton and Woody Harrelson are outstanding. I think this film is to the Iraq/Afghanistan quagmire what The Deer Hunter was to Vietnam. It’s that good…and just as devastating. (Full review)

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Son of Babylon – This heartbreaking Iraqi drama from 2010 is set in 2003, just weeks after the fall of Saddam. It follows the arduous journey of a Kurdish boy named Ahmed (Yasser Talib) and his grandmother (Shazda Hussein) as they head for the last known location of Ahmed’s father, who disappeared during the first Gulf War.

As they traverse the bleak, post-apocalyptic landscapes of Iraq’s bomb-cratered desert, a portrait emerges of a people struggling to keep mind and soul together, and to make sense of the horror and suffering precipitated by two wars and a harsh dictatorship.

Director Mohamed Al Daradji and co-screenwriter Jennifer Norridge deliver something conspicuously absent in the Iraq War(s) movies from Western directors in recent years-an honest and humanistic evaluation of the everyday people who inevitably get caught in the middle of such armed conflicts-not just in Iraq, but in any war, anywhere. (Full review)

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Standard Operating Procedure – I once saw a fascinating TV documentary called Nazi Scrapbooks from Hell. It was the most harrowing depiction of the Holocaust I’ve seen, but it offered nary a glimpse of the oft-shown photographs of the atrocities themselves. Rather, it focused on photos from a scrapbook (discovered decades after the war) that belonged to an SS officer assigned to Auschwitz.

Essentially an organized, affably annotated gallery of the “after hours” lifestyle of a “workaday” concentration camp staff, it shows cheerful participants enjoying a little outdoor nosh, catching some sun, and even the odd sing-along, all in the shadow of the notorious death factory where they “worked”.

If it weren’t for the Nazi uniforms, you might think it was just a bunch of guys from the office, hamming it up for the camera at a company picnic. As the filmmakers point out, it is the everyday banality of this evil that makes it so chilling. The most amazing fact is that these pictures were taken in the first place.

What were they thinking?

This is the same rhetorical question posed by one of the interviewees in this documentary about the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal from renowned filmmaker Errol Morris. The gentleman is a military C.I.D. investigator who had the unenviable task of sifting through the hundreds of damning photos taken by several of the perpetrators.

Morris makes an interesting choice here. He aims his spotlight not on the obvious inhumanity on display in those sickening photos, but rather on our perception of them (echoes of Antonioni’s Blow-Up).

So just who are these people that took them? What was the actual intent behind the self-documentation? Can we conclusively pass judgment on the actions of the people involved, based solely on what we “think” these photographs show us? A disturbing, yet compelling treatise on the fine line between “the fog of war” and state-sanctioned cruelty. (Full review)

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Stop/Loss – This powerful and heartfelt 2008 drama is from Boys Don’t Cry director Kimberly Peirce. Co-written by the director along with Mark Richard, it was one of the first substantive films to address the plight of Iraq war vets.

As the film opens, we meet Sgt. Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe), an infantry squad leader leading his men in hot pursuit of a carload of heavily armed insurgents through the streets of Tikrit. The chase ends in a harrowing ambush, with the squad suffering heavy casualties.

Brandon is wounded in the skirmish, as are two of his lifelong buddies, Steve (Channing Tatum) and Tommy (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). They return to their small Texas hometown to receive Purple Hearts and a hero’s welcome, infusing the battle-weary vets with a brief euphoria that inevitably gives way to varying degrees of PTSD for the trio.

A road trip that drives the film’s third act becomes a metaphorical journey through the zeitgeist of the modern-day American veteran. Peirce and her co-writer (largely) avoid clichés and remain low-key on political subtext; this is ultimately a soldier’s story. Regardless of your political stance on the Iraq War(s), anyone with an ounce of compassion will find this film both heart wrenching and moving. (Full review)

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W – No one has ever accused Oliver Stone of being subtle. However, once you watch his 2008 take on the life and times of George W. Bush (uncannily played by Josh Brolin), I think the popular perception about the director, which is that he is a rabid conspiracy theorist who rewrites history via Grand Guignol-fueled cinematic polemics, could begin to diminish. I’m even going to go out on a limb and call W a fairly straightforward biopic.

Stone intersperses highlights of Bush’s White House years with episodic flashbacks and flash forwards, beginning in the late 60s (when Junior was attending Yale) and taking us up to the end of his second term.

I’m not saying that Stone doesn’t take a point of view; he wouldn’t be Oliver Stone if he didn’t. He caught some flak for dwelling on Bush’s battle with the bottle (the manufacturers of Jack Daniels must have laid out serious bucks for the ubiquitous product placement). Bush’s history of boozing is a matter of record.

Some took umbrage at another one of the underlying themes in Stanley Weisner’s screenplay, which is that Bush’s angst (and the drive to succeed at all costs) is propelled by an unrequited desire to please a perennially disapproving George Senior. I’m no psychologist, but that sounds reasonable to me. (Full review)

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A War – This powerful 2015 Oscar-nominated drama is from writer-director Tobias Lindholm. Pilou Aesbaek stars as a Danish military company commander serving in the Afghanistan War. After one of his units is demoralized by the loss of a man to a Taliban sniper while on recon, the commander bolsters morale by personally leading a patrol, which becomes hopelessly pinned down during an intense firefight. Faced with a split-second decision, the commander requests air support, resulting in a “fog of war” misstep. The commander is ordered back home, facing charges of murdering civilians.

For the first two-thirds of the film Lindholm intersperses the commander’s front line travails with those of his family back home, as his wife (Yuva Novotny) struggles to keep life and soul together while maintaining as much of a sense of “normalcy” as she can muster for the sake their three kids. The home front and the war front are both played “for real” (aside from the obvious fact that it’s a Danish production, this is a refreshingly “un-Hollywoodized” war movie).

Some may be dismayed by the moral and ethical ambivalence of the denouement. Then again, there are few tidy endings in life…particularly in war, which (to quote Bertrand Russell) never determines who is “right”, but who is left. Is that a tired trope? Perhaps; but it’s one that bears repeating…until that very last bullet on Earth gets fired in anger. (Full review)

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Zero Dark Thirty – “Whadaya think…this is like the Army, where you can shoot ‘em from a mile away?! No, you gotta get up like this, and budda-bing, you blow their brains all over your nice Ivy League suit.”

–from The Godfather, screenplay by Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola

If CIA operative Maya (Jessica Chastain), the partially fictionalized protagonist of Zero Dark Thirty had her druthers, she would “drop a bomb” on Osama Bin Laden’s compound, as opposed to dispatching a Navy SEAL team with all their “…Velcro and gear.” Therein lays the crux of my dilemma regarding Kathryn Bigelow’s film recounting the 10-year hunt for the 9-11 mastermind and events surrounding his take down; I can’t decide if it’s “like the Army” or a glorified mob movie.

But that’s just me. Perhaps the film is intended as a litmus test for its viewers (the cries of “Foul!” that emitted from both poles of the political spectrum, even before its wide release back in 2013 would seem to bear this out). And indeed, Bigelow has nearly succeeded in making an objective, apolitical docudrama.

Notice I said “nearly”. But if you can get past the fact that Bigelow or screenwriter Mark Boal are not ones to necessarily allow the truth to get in the way of a good story (and that The Battle of Algiers or The Day of the Jackal…this definitely ain’t), in terms of pure film making, there is an impressive amount of (if I may appropriate an oft-used phrase from the movie) cinematic “trade craft” on display.

While lukewarm as a political thriller, it does make a terrific detective story, and the recreation of the SEAL mission, while up for debate as to accuracy (only those who were there could say for sure, and keeping mum on such escapades is kind of a major part of their job description) is quite taut and exciting. The best I can do is arm you with those caveats; so you will have to judge for yourself. (Full review)

…and one more thing

2 weeks ago I posted a review of Mariam Ghani’s new documentary What We Left Unfinished, which takes a rare look at the Afghan film industry, and how a group of filmmakers kept it flourishing during Afghanistan’s Communist era (1978 to 1991). Earlier this week, it was announced that tickets purchased via Dekanalog Eventive will go to the Emergency Funds For Afghan Artists Go Fund Me organized by the Afghan American Artists and Writers Association. You will find more detailed information and latest updates here.

Tribeca 2021: 9/11: One Day in America (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 12, 2021)

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Tribeca is premiering this 72-minute pilot episode of an upcoming 6-part National Geographic Channel series. There have been quite a few documentaries recounting the horrors and heroics of that day, but I think this is the most affecting one I’ve seen to date. Much of the footage may be all-too-familiar, but director Daniel Bogado’s compelling, minute-by-minute network narrative-style reconstruction gives equal import to intimate testimonies of survivors and the broader historical context.

Bringing the war back home: A Top 10 list

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 14, 2020)

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Dress me up for battle
When all I want is peace
Those of us who pay the price
Come home with the least

–from “Harvest for the World”, by the Isley Brothers

Veteran’s Day was November 11th; but every day is Veteran’s Day for those who have been there and back. Here are my top picks for films dealing with the aftermath of war.

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Americana – David Carradine and Barabara Hershey star in this unique, no-budget 1973 character study (released in 1981). Carradine, who also directed and co-produced, plays a Vietnam vet who drifts into a small Kansas town, and for his own enigmatic reasons, decides to restore an abandoned merry-go-round. The reaction from the clannish townsfolk ranges from bemused to spiteful.

It’s part Rambo, part Billy Jack (although nowhere near as violent), and a genre curio in the sense that none of the violence depicted is perpetrated by its war-damaged protagonist. Carradine also composed and performed the song that plays in the closing credits. It’s worth noting that Americana predates Deer Hunter and Coming Home, which are generally considered the “first” narrative films to deal with Vietnam vets.

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The Best Years of Our Lives – William Wyler’s 1946 drama pretty much set the standard for the “coming home” genre. Robert E. Sherwood adapted the screenplay from a novella by former war correspondent MacKinlay Kantor.

The story centers on three WW2 vets (Fredric March, Dana Andrews, and Harold Russell), each from a different branch of military service who meet while returning home to the same small Midwestern town. While they all came from different social stratum in civilian life, the film demonstrates how war is the great equalizer, as we observe how the three men face similar difficulties in returning to normalcy.

Well-written and directed, and wonderfully acted. Real-life WW 2 vet Russell (the only non-actor in the cast) picked up a Best Supporting Actor Oscar; one of 7 the film earned that year. Also starring Myrna Loy, Teresa Wright, and Virginia Mayo.

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Coming Home – Hal Ashby’s 1978 drama was one of the first major studio films to tackle the plight of Vietnam vets. Jane Fonda stars as a Marine wife whose husband (Bruce Dern) has deployed to Vietnam. She volunteers at a VA hospital, where she is surprised to recognize a former high-school acquaintance (Jon Voight) who is now an embittered, paraplegic war vet.

While they have opposing political views on the war, Fonda and Voight form a friendship, which blossoms into a romantic relationship once the wheelchair-bound vet is released from assisted care and begins the laborious transition to becoming self-reliant.

The film’s penultimate scene, involving a confrontation between Dern (who has returned from his tour of duty with severe PTSD), Fonda and Voight is one of the most affecting and emotionally shattering pieces of ensemble acting I have seen in any film; Voight’s moving monologue in the denouement is on an equal par. Voight and Fonda each won an Oscar (Dern was nominated in the Best Supporting Actor category), as did co-writers Waldo Salt, Robert C. Jones and Nancy Dowd for their screenplay.

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The Deer Hunter – “If anything happens…don’t leave me over there. You gotta promise me that, Mike.” 1978 was a pivotal year for American films dealing head on with the country’s deep scars (social, political and emotional) from the nightmare of the war in Vietnam; that one year alone saw the release of The Boys in Company C, Go Tell the Spartans, Coming Home, and writer-director Michael Cimino’s shattering drama.

Cimino’s sprawling 3 hour film is a character study about three blue collar buddies (Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken and Jon Savage) hailing from a Pennsylvania steel town who enlist in the military, share a harrowing POW experience in Vietnam, and suffer through PTSD (each in their own fashion).

Uniformly excellent performances from the entire cast, which includes Meryl Streep, John Cazale, Chuck Aspegren and George Dzundza. I remember the first time I saw this film in a theater. I sat all the way through the end credits, and continued sitting for at least five minutes, absolutely stunned. I literally had to “collect myself”.  No film has ever affected me like that, before or since.

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The Manchurian Candidate (1962) – John Frankenheimer’s 1962 Cold War thriller (with a screenplay adapted from Richard Condon’s novel by George Axelrod) stars Frank Sinatra as Korean War veteran and former POW Major Bennett Marco. Marco and his platoon were captured by the Soviets and transported to Manchuria for a period, then released. Consequently, Marco suffers PTSD, in the form of recurring nightmares.

Marco’s memories of the captivity are hazy; but he suspects his dreams hold the key. His suspicions are confirmed when he hears from several fellow POWs, who all share very specific and disconcerting details in their dreams involving the platoon’s sergeant, Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey, in a great performance). As the mystery unfolds, a byzantine conspiracy is uncovered, involving brainwashing, subterfuge and assassination.

I’ve watched this film maybe 15 or 20 times over the years, and I must say that it has held up remarkably well, despite a few dated trappings. It works on a number of levels; as a conspiracy thriller, political satire, and a perverse family melodrama. Interestingly, each time I revisit, it strikes me more and more as a black comedy; which could be attributable to its prescient nature (perhaps the political reality has finally caught up with its more far-fetched elements…which now makes it a closer cousin to Dr. Strangelove and Network). (Full review)

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Sir! No Sir! – Most people who have seen Oliver Stone’s Born On The Fourth Of July were likely left with the impression that paralyzed Vietnam vet and activist Ron Kovic was the main impetus and focus of the G.I. veterans and active-duty anti-war movement, but Kovic’s story was in fact only one of thousands. Director David Zeigler combines present-day interviews with archival footage to good effect in this well-paced documentary about members of the armed forces who openly opposed the Vietnam war.

While the aforementioned Kovic received a certain amount of media attention at the time, the full extent and history of the involvement by military personnel has been suppressed from public knowledge for a number of years, and that is the focus of Zeigler’s 2006 film.

All the present-day interviewees (military vets) have interesting (and at times emotionally wrenching) stories to share. Jane Fonda speaks candidly about her infamous “FTA” (“Fuck the Army”) shows that she organized for troops as an alternative to the more traditionally gung-ho Bob Hope U.S.O. tours. Eye-opening and well worth your time.

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Slaughterhouse-Five – Film adaptations of Kurt Vonnegut stories have a checkered history; from downright awful (Slapstick of Another Kind) or campy misfires (Breakfast of Champions) to passable time killers (Happy Birthday, Wanda June and Mother Night). For my money, your best bets are Jonathan Demme’s 1982 PBS American Playhouse short Who Am I This Time? and this 1974 feature film  by director George Roy Hill.

Michael Sacks stars as milquetoast daydreamer Billy Pilgrim, a WW2 vet who weathers the devastating Allied firebombing of Dresden as a POW. After the war, he marries his sweetheart, fathers a son and daughter and settles into a comfortable middle-class life, making a living as an optometrist.

So far, that’s a standard all-American postwar scenario, nu? Except for the part where a UFO lands on his nice manicured lawn one night and spirits him off to the planet Tralfamadore, after which he becomes permanently “unstuck” in time; i.e., begins living (and re-living) his life in random order. Great performances from Valerie Perrine and Ron Leibman. Stephen Geller adapted the script.

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Stop-Loss – This powerful and heartfelt 2008 drama is from Boys Don’t Cry director Kimberly Peirce. Co-written by the director along with Mark Richard, it was one of the first substantive films to address the plight of Iraq war vets.

As the film opens, we meet Sgt. Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe), an infantry squad leader leading his men in hot pursuit of a carload of heavily armed insurgents through the streets of Tikrit. The chase ends in a harrowing ambush, with the squad suffering heavy casualties.

Brandon is wounded in the skirmish, as are two of his lifelong buddies, Steve (Channing Tatum) and Tommy (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). They return to their small Texas hometown to receive Purple Hearts and a hero’s welcome, infusing the battle-weary vets with a brief euphoria that inevitably gives way to varying degrees of PTSD for the trio. A road trip that drives the film’s third act becomes a metaphorical journey through the zeitgeist of the modern-day American veteran.

Peirce and her co-writer (largely) avoid clichés and remain low-key on political subtext; this is ultimately a soldier’s story. Regardless of your political stance on the Iraq War(s), anyone with an ounce of compassion will find this film both heart wrenching and moving. (Full review)

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Waltz With Bashir – In this animated film, writer-director Ari Forman mixes the hallucinatory expressionism of Apocalypse Now with personal sense memories of his own experiences as an Israeli soldier serving in the 1982 conflict in Lebanon to paint a searing portrait of the horrors of war and its devastating psychic aftermath. A true visual wonder, the film is comprised of equal parts documentary, war diary and bad acid trip.

The director generally steers clear of heavy-handed polemics; this is more of a “soldier’s story”, a universal grunt’s-eye view of the confusion and madness of war, in which none are really to blame, yet all remain complicit. This eternal dichotomy, I think, lies at the heart of the matter in trying to understand what it is that snaps inside the mind of the walking wounded who carry their war experiences home with them.

The film begs a question or two that knows no borders: How do we help them? How do we help them help themselves? I think these questions are more important than ever, for a whole new generation of psychically damaged men and women all over the world.  (Full review)

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A War – This powerful 2015 Oscar-nominated drama is from writer-director Tobias Lindholm. Pilou Aesbaek stars as a Danish military company commander serving in the Afghanistan War. After one of his units is demoralized by the loss of a man to a Taliban sniper while on recon, the commander bolsters morale by personally leading a patrol, which becomes hopelessly pinned down during an intense firefight. Faced with a split-second decision, the commander requests air support, resulting in a “fog of war” misstep. The commander is ordered back home, facing charges of murdering civilians.

For the first two-thirds of the film Lindholm intersperses the commander’s front line travails with those of his family back home, as his wife (Yuva Novotny) struggles to keep life and soul together while maintaining as much of a sense of “normalcy” as she can muster for the sake their three kids. The home front and the war front are both played “for real” (aside from the obvious fact that it’s a Danish production, this is a refreshingly “un-Hollywoodized” war movie).

Some may be dismayed by the moral and ethical ambivalence of the denouement. Then again, there are few tidy endings in life…particularly in war, which (to quote Bertrand Russell) never determines who is “right”, but who is left. Is that a tired trope? Perhaps; but it’s one that bears repeating…until that very last bullet on Earth gets fired in anger. (Full review)

Learn how you can help vets at the Department of Veteran’s Affairs site.

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For my father: Robert A. Hartley 1933-2018 (Served in Vietnam 1969-1970)

 

Nothing without its meaning: Mali Blues ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 29, 2017)

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“Puritanism: The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”              

-H.L. Mencken

African women live through too much hell and suffering                               We should look again at our ancestral beliefs and assess them               Keep what’s good for us, and reject all that harms us                               African women live through too much hell and suffering                            They cut it…stop female circumcision!                                                           Mother, it hurts so much                                                                                                    It hurts so much

-from “Boloko”, by Fatoumata Diawara

Needless to say, self-taught Mali guitarist-singer-songwriter Fatoumata Diawara does not make her living churning out moon-June pop tunes. She is a creative artist who is fiercely and fearlessly dedicated to speaking truth to power. That’s the kind of stance that makes you a lightning rod anywhere in the world (especially if you are a woman), but it borders on suicidal in an impoverished West African nation where Islamic militants have declared war on music and musicians. From a 2012 Guardian article by Andy Morgan:

The pickup halted in Kidal, the far-flung Malian desert town that is home to members of the Grammy award-winning band Tinariwen. Seven AK47-toting militiamen got out and marched to the family home of a local musician. He wasn’t home, but the message delivered to his sister was chilling: “If you speak to him, tell him that if he ever shows his face in this town again, we’ll cut off all the fingers he uses to play his guitar with.”

The gang then removed guitars, amplifiers, speakers, microphones and a drum kit from the house, doused them with petrol, and set them ablaze. In northern Mali, religious war has been declared on music.

When a rabble of different Islamist groups took control of the region in April there were fears that its rich culture would suffer. But no one imagined that music would almost cease to exist – not in Mali, a country that has become internationally renowned for its sound.

“Culture is our petrol,” says Toumani Diabaté, the Malian kora player who has collaborated with Damon Albarn and Björk, to name but a few. “Music is our mineral wealth. There isn’t a single major music prize in the world today that hasn’t been won by a Malian artist.”

“Music regulates the life of every Malian,” adds Cheich Tidiane Seck, a prolific Malian musician and producer. “From the cradle to the grave. From ancient times right up to today. A Mali without music? No … I mean … give me another one!”

In his new documentary, Mali Blues, Lutz Gregor follows popular world music artist Fatoumata Diawara as she prepares for her appearance at the 2015 Festival of the Niger. Originally born in Ivory Coast to Malian parents and currently living in France, Diawara has not been back to Mali since she left at age 19. That is why her participation in the festival has profound personal significance; it signals Diawara’s first performance in her home country since achieving international recognition and success.

Several of Diawara’s fellow Malian musicians also appearing at the festival are also profiled, including Taureg guitarist Ahmed Ag Kaedi, rapper Master Soumy, and ngoni player Bassekou Kouyate. As a guitar player, I was particularly taken with Kouyate’s mastery of his instrument…he’s like the Hendrix of the ngoni. I have never seen anyone play an electrified ngoni before; much less with pedal effects (like a wah-wah). To just look at this oddly rectangular, 4-string banjo-like instrument, you’d never imagine one could wriggle such a broad spectrum of power, beauty and spacious tonality out of it.

Beautifully photographed and edited, with no voice-over to take you out of the frame, Gregor’s documentary plays like a meditative narrative film. In the film’s most bittersweet scene, Diawara performs “Boloko” (her song about the draconian practice of female circumcision) for a small audience of women and girls in a Mali village where she spent her formative years. After a moment of silence following the performance, the women begin to ruminate.

“A song is nothing without its meaning,” one woman says to Diawara, continuing, “You are good and courageous.” And, as this extraordinary film illustrates, a culture is nothing without its music…or its poetry, literature, or art for that matter. Those who would destroy it will never hold a candle to the good and courageous.

Shell-shocker: Disorder **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 27, 2016)

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In my 2009 review of the war drama Waltz With Bashir, I referred to an observation by the late great George Carlin, wherein he analyzes the etymology of the phrase “post-traumatic stress syndrome” and traces it back to WWI (when it was called “shell shock”). To which I appended:

A rose by any other name. Whether you want to call it ‘shell-shock’, ‘battle fatigue’, ‘operational exhaustion’ or ‘PTSD’, there’s one thing for certain: unless you are a complete sociopath and really DO love the smell of napalm in the morning…war will fuck you up.

True that. And while Carlin was referring to America’s war veterans through the decades, PTSD knows no borders. Consider Vincent (Matthias Schoenaerts) a French Special Forces Afghan War vet. He is the central character in Disorder, a new psychological thriller from director Alice Winocour (who also co-wrote with Jean-Stephane Bron, Robin Campillo, and Vincent Poymiro).

Insular, taciturn, and more than a little twitchy, Vincent can’t quite get a handle on things since getting back to the world. So much so, in fact, that he actually looks forward to being re-deployed for another tour of combat duty. Due to his condition, perhaps he can only find a sense of order in the chaos of war. His friend and fellow vet Denis (Paul Hami) is also his co-worker at a private security firm; Denis always keeps one concerned eye on him whenever they’re on an assignment.

Indeed, there does seem to be something a bit “off” about Vincent’s behavior one night when he and Denis are providing security for a large soiree taking place at the estate of a wealthy Lebanese businessman. Vincent seems more bent on running surveillance on the client’s activities; his interest is particularly piqued by an apparent heated exchange between the businessman and a couple of his shadier-looking guests, sequestered in a private office well out of earshot from the festivities.

When Vincent is tasked to provide security for the client’s wife (Diane Kruger) and young son while he is out of town on a business trip, Vincent’s inherent paranoia really comes to the fore (while wariness and diligence is something you look for in a bodyguard, any behavior bordering on delusional should raise a red flag). Another red flag: Vincent takes a sudden, uncharacteristic interest in the wife, but it’s hard to read whether his intentions are devious or protective in nature.

So is Vincent the possible threat to the safety and well-being of the clients’ wife and child? Or was he actually on to something the night of the party, with his suspicions that his client’s luxurious lifestyle hinges on potentially dangerous partnerships? Since we know going in that Vincent isn’t quite all there, due to his PTSD condition, the conundrum is all the more unnerving.

Unfortunately, after building up this considerable tension and intrigue (the first act hints at something brewing in the vein of Ridley Scott’s Someone To Watch Over Me), the director doesn’t seem to quite know what to do with it; the narrative fizzles, and by the crucial third act (a tepid knockoff of Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs), the film hits the ground with a resounding thud.

Schoenaerts and Kruger are both fine actors (and easy on the eye), but they can only do so much with the uninspired script they’re working with. The film does sport some nice atmospheric work by cinematographer Georges Lechaptois and a unique (and appropriately unsettling) soundtrack by Mark Levy, but alas, it still can’t make up for a thriller that is curiously devoid of any…thrills.

Enemy to all mankind: A War ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on  February 27, 2016)

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Dress me up for battle
When all I want is peace
Those of us who pay the price
Come home with the least

–from “Harvest for the World”, by the Isley Brothers

Remember the Afghanistan War? What do you mean, “which one”? Y’know…the latest one; the one that “ended” in 2014 (or are we just taking a breather? I’ve long lost track). At any rate, while it’s no secret it was/is largely a “we” (as in “American”) problem, it is easy to forget that “we” weren’t the only ones who invested precious blood and treasure in that war; there were coalition forces involved as well. Take Denmark, for example. 43 dead, 211 wounded, and 15 billion kroner spent by the time the Danes pulled out in 2013.

And now, those young men and women who have “paid the price” of the Danish-Afghan conflict may have their generation’s Coming Home (or The Deer Hunter) in the guise of A War, a powerful and sobering Oscar-nominated drama from writer-director Tobias Lindholm.

Pilou Aesbaek stars as a compassionate company commander stationed in the Helmand Province. After one of his units is demoralized by the loss of a man to a Taliban sniper while on recon, the commander bolsters morale by personally leading a patrol, which becomes hopelessly pinned down during an intense firefight. Faced with a split-second decision, the commander requests air support, resulting in a “fog of war” misstep. The commander is ordered back home, facing charges of murdering civilians.

For the first two-thirds of the film Lindholm intersperses the commander’s front line travails with those of his family back home, as his wife (Yuva Novotny) struggles to keep life and soul together while maintaining as much of a sense of “normalcy” as she can muster for the sake their three kids (especially the youngest, who frequently wonders aloud when his dad’s coming home).

The home front and the war front are both played “for real” (aside from the obvious fact that it’s a Danish production, this is a refreshingly un-Hollywoodized war movie; the mundanities of everyday life hold equal import with the odd rush of adrenaline). The only nod to convention comes in a slight tonal shift in the third act; a touch of military courtroom drama recalling Breaker Morant (my review).

Some may be dismayed by the moral and ethical ambivalence of the denouement. Then again, there are few tidy endings in life…particularly in war, which (to quote Bertrand Russell) never determines who is “right”, but who is left. Is that a tired trope? Perhaps; but it’s one that bears repeating…until that very last bullet on Earth gets fired in anger.

Through a glass, darkly: The Tainted Veil ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 19, 2015)

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In my 2013 review of the documentary The Trials of Muhammad Ali, I wrote:

[…] Ali’s vilification was America’s pre-9/11 flirt with Islamophobia. Ali was “safe” and acceptable as a sports celebrity (as long as he played the face-pulling, poetry-spouting ham with Howard Cosell), but was recast as a dangerous black radical once he declared himself a Muslim and began to publicly speak his mind on hot-button issues. The Islam quotient is best summarized by an interviewee who says “…Since 9/11, ‘Islam’ has acquired so many layers and dimensions and textures. When the Nation of Islam was considered as a ‘threatening’ religion, traditional Islam was seen as a gentle alternative. And now, quite the contrary […]

What Ali went through back in the 1960s was a romp in the fields compared to what every day law-abiding Americans who happen to be Muslim have to put up with in our current political climate; particularly in the wake of the San Bernardino mass shooting incident.

Between the vile hate rhetoric spewing from certain presidential hopefuls and wingnut commentators, and the only slightly more subtle notes of hysteria ginned up by mainstream media outlets who should know better, I would imagine many of these folks are involuntarily compelled to look over their shoulder as they go about their daily lives.

Am I being shrill? Alex Wagner interviewed Dr. Suzanne Barakat on MSNBC’s All In this past Thursday. She is the sister of Deah Barakat, one of the 3 Muslim students who were slain by a neighbor this past February in Chapel Hill (authorities have not ruled out  a hate crime).

At one point in the interview, Wagner asks Dr. Barakat (who works at San Francisco General) what her personal experience has been, as a professional who happens to wear a head scarf. She recalls fellow hospital workers making comments like “…she mustn’t be a terrorist…because she has a badge.”

Apparently, this is not a sporadic occurrence; she adds “I was almost run over the other day in the parking lot by a patient leaving the hospital, who stuck out his middle finger and called me [an] ‘effing B’ [sic].” She’s a doctor. An American citizen. All her attacker saw was a woman wearing a hijab.

All the more reason for me to bring a rather timely new documentary to your attention. While ostensibly a PBS Frontline-styled, multi-viewpoint treatise “about” the venerable Muslim tradition requiring a woman to wear a head scarf in public, The Tainted Veil is also a kind of litmus test that subtly prompts a non-Muslim viewer to step back and take stock of his or her own autonomic response when encountering a person who is so attired.

When a modern-day Muslim woman dons a hijab, what does it telegraph to the world? Does it denote a personal spiritual conviction? Is it a cultural/ideological symbol; a kind of uniform? A fashion statement? A feminist statement? A symbol of male oppression?

With their eclectic array of interviewees, which includes scholars (Islamic, Christian and Jewish), clergy, educators, liberals, conservatives and a cross-section of Muslim women around the world who have worn the hijab, co-directors Ovidio Salazar, Nahla Al Fahad and Mazen al Khayrat demonstrate that the answer to all those questions could be “yes.”

Some viewers may be flummoxed that the film doesn’t adhere to any specific point of view; but that is precisely what I liked about it. It doesn’t take sides, and by not doing so it stimulates the kind of open-minded dialogue that we need to have in a day and age of such acute political and cultural polarization.

As one of the interviewees observes (paraphrasing Edward Said), “We are not living in a clash of civilization, but a clash of ignorance…people don’t approach each other, even though we live in a ‘connected’ world.” We’d best find a path to connecting with one another soon, because as one of the religious scholars cautions, “When Earth lives in misery, the heavens bloom.” Er, amen?

All good soldiers crack like boulders: The Kill Team ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 16, 2014)

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If you ladies leave my island, if you survive recruit training, you will be a weapon. You will be a minister of death, praying for war.”

 – Gunnery Sgt. Hartman, from Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket.

In an ideal world, no one should ever have to “go to war”. But it’s not an ideal world. As long as humans have existed, there has been conflict. And always with the hitting, and the stoning, and the clubbing, and then later with the skewering and the slicing and stabbing…then eventually with the shooting and the bombing and the vaporizing.

So if we absolutely have to have a military, one would hope that the majority of the men and women who serve in our armed forces at least “go to war” as fearless, disciplined, trained professionals, instilled with a sense of honor and integrity. In an ideal world. Which again, this is not.

And according to The Kill Team, there is an insidious culture of lizard-brain savagery within the U.S. military not far evolved from the old days with all the hitting, the stoning and the clubbing.

In his documentary,  Dan Krauss artfully blends intimate interviews with moody composition (recalling the films of Errol Morris),  coaxing extraordinary confessionals from key participants and witnesses involved in a series of 2010 Afghanistan War incidents usually referred to as the “Maywand District murders“.

In 2011, five soldiers from the Fifth Stryker Brigade, Second Infantry Division (stationed near Kandahar) were officially accused of murdering three innocent Afghan civilians. Led by an apparently psychopathic  squad leader, Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs, the men were  members of 3rd Platoon, which became known as “The Kill Team”.

Gibbs is alleged to have encouraged his men to score as many “kills” as they could get away with, devising a system based on windows of opportunity and keeping “drop” weapons on hand to implicate victims as combatants. As if that weren’t evil enough, participants memorialized the kills with photographs and videos depicting the cheerful perpetrators clowning around with the bodies. It gets worse…victim’s fingers were cut off as trophies.

Krauss puts his primary focus on Specialist Adam Winfield, a soft-spoken, slightly-built young man. While Winfield admits participating in one of the killings (he maintains that he was bullied into involvement, and purposefully aimed high and away from the victim) he was the de facto “conscience” of the squad.

Krauss suggests this through a recreation of Facebook chats between Adam and his ex-Marine dad, in which he expresses shock and dismay over the troubling culture of inhumanity within the platoon, and his growing personal disillusionment with the overall mission. “The army really let me down here…I find out it’s all a lie,” he notes, later offering this ominous assessment: “There are no good men here.”

The full implications of Adam’s moral dilemma obviously did not sink in right away with his father, who asks during one exchange, “Can’t you just ask for a transfer?” to which Adam replies that the infantry doesn’t work that way-especially when you’re on a deployment (eventually, his father did try to reach out to authorities…but was stonewalled).

Winfield alleges that once word reached Staff Sgt. Gibbs that he had been expressing concerns to fellow soldiers, there were strong indications that Gibbs and his co-conspirators began entertaining scenarios on how they might take him out….if need be.

While the director does seem to be taking pains to put him in the most sympathetic light possible, it should be noted that Specialist Winfield was not the “official” whistle blower. That was Specialist Justin Stoner (who also appears in the film).

Ironically, while he was well aware of the Kill Team’s murderous behavior (he was not directly involved in any of the incidents), Stoner’s initial complaint to superiors involved the squad’s insistence on repeatedly crashing his room to get baked on hash (despite his surname, he did not partake, but worried that the lingering smell would unfairly get him into trouble).

When Staff Sgt. Gibbs found out Stoner was the nark, he gathered up his goon squad and gave him a late night beat down in his room (as Stoner philosophically offers with a shrug, “Snitches get stitches.”). It was only during a subsequent inquiry regarding his injuries that Stoner spilled the beans about the murders.

This is really quite a story (sadly, an old one), and because it can be analyzed in many contexts (first person, historical, political, sociological, and psychological), some may find Krauss’ film frustrating, incomplete, or even slanted. But judging purely on the context he has chosen to use (first person) I think it works quite well.

At the time of filming, Specialist Winfield was involved in his trial (he was charged with involuntary manslaughter). Krauss lets us quietly observe the emotional toll on Winfield and his loving parents.

Granted, the nature of the actions that took place begs larger questions, regarding ultimate accountability. Were these men aberrations, as the military’s official line would have us believe? Or is there indeed a culture of barbarism built in to the military psyche?

After all, infantry soldiers are trained to kill, armed to the teeth, and generally thrown into combat situations at a biological stage of life where testosterone levels are running rampant…so what do we expect, right?

Then there’s that time-honored military tradition of scapegoating. As someone brings up in the film, why is it that no one above the rank of Staff Sergeant went to trial in this case? And historically, (aside from Lt. Calley in the My Lai Massacre case) when have any brass ever been held accountable? I guess it’ll always be with the hitting, and the stoning, and the clubbing…

Bring me the head of you-know-who: Zero Dark Thirty **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 5, 2013)

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Whadaya think…this is like the Army, where you can shoot ‘em from a mile away?! No, you gotta get up like this, and budda-bing, you blow their brains all over your nice Ivy League suit.”

–from The Godfather, screenplay by Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola

If CIA operative Maya (Jessica Chastain), the partially fictionalized protagonist of Zero Dark Thirty had her druthers, she would “drop a bomb” on Osama Bin Laden’s compound, as opposed to dispatching a Navy SEAL team with all their “…Velcro and gear.” Therein lays the crux of my dilemma regarding Kathryn Bigelow’s film recounting the 10-year hunt for the 9-11 mastermind and events surrounding his take down; I can’t decide if it’s “like the Army” or a glorified mob movie.

At any rate, by the time I reached the end of its exhausting 157 minutes, any vicarious feeling of “victory” (intended or otherwise) I may have experienced watching Maya’s (that is to say, “America’s”) long-sought quarry go down in a hail of bullets was Pyrrhic at best; the same curiously ambivalent reaction I had watching Hitler and Goebbels getting blown to bits by another all-‘Murcan hit team in Quentin Tarantino’s 2010 WW2 revenge fantasy, Inglourious Basterds (and neither film’s denouement made me feel, you know…patriotic). Or, as I wrote regarding this peculiarly post 9-11 form of Weltschmerz in my review of Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today, Stuart Schulberg’s 2011 doc about the Nazi war trials:

Unfortunately, humanity in general hasn’t learned too awful much [since 1946]; the semantics may have changed, but the behavior, sadly, remains the same […] “Crimes against humanity” are still perpetrated every day-so why haven’t we had any more Nurembergs? If it can’t be caught via cell phone camera and posted five minutes later on YouTube like Saddam Hussein’s execution, so we can take a quick peek, go “Yay! Justice is served!” and then get back to our busy schedule of eating stuffed-crust pizza and watching the Superbowl, I guess we just can’t be bothered. Besides, who wants to follow some boring 11-month long trial, anyway (unless an ex-football player is somehow involved).

But that’s just me. Perhaps Zero Dark Thirty is intended as a litmus test for its viewers (the cries of “Foul!” that have emitted from both poles of the political spectrum, even before its wide release this weekend would seem to bear this out). And indeed, Bigelow has nearly succeeded in making an objective, apolitical docudrama.

Notice that I say nearly. Here’s how she cheats. After opening with a powerfully affecting collage of now sadly familiar audio clips of horrified air traffic controllers, poignant answering machine adieus and heartbreaking exchanges between frustrated 911 operators and hapless World Trade Center office workers, Bigelow segues into those torture scenes you have undoubtedly heard about.

Tugging at our heartstrings to incite us to vengeful thoughts? That’s not playing fair. “Remember how terrible that day was?” she seems to be saying, “…so the ends justify the means, right? Anyone? Bueller?” The rub is that by most accounts, none of the intelligence instrumental to locating Bin Laden’s whereabouts was garnered via torture…unless the director knows something the rest of us don’t. That being said, the harrowing scenes (around 10 minutes of screen time) would not be out of place in a film about, say, Abu Ghraib (maybe Bigelow is making an oblique reference?).

However, if you can get past the fact that Bigelow or screenwriter Mark Boal are not ones to necessarily allow the truth to get in the way of a good story (and that The Battle of Algiers or The Day of the Jackal…this definitely ain’t), in terms of pure film making, there is an impressive amount of (if I may appropriate an oft-used phrase from the movie) cinematic “trade craft” on display.

While  lukewarm as a political thriller, it does make a terrific detective story, and the recreation of the SEAL mission, while up for debate as to accuracy (only those who were there could say for sure, and keeping mum on such escapades is kind of a major part of their job description) is quite taut and exciting.

Chastain compellingly inhabits her obsessive character, and there are excellent supporting performances from Jennifer Ehle, Jason Clark, Kyle Chandler and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’s Mark Strong (who is becoming one of my favorite character actors). If this sounds like a mixed review-well, I suppose it is. But hey, I still support the troops!

Like drama for Dramamine: Captain Phillips **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 12, 2013)

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In his “New Rules” segment on HBO’s Real Time program last week, Bill Maher issued an important advisement: “Before seeing the new Tom Hanks movie, Captain Phillips, liberals in the audience must be warned that yes, the bad guys in the movie are black…and we apologize.” Apology accepted, Bill. That doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m not going to mention the teensy-weensy hint of colonial stereotyping I detected while watching the latest “ripped from the headlines” docudrama from British director Paul Greengrass.

Of course, I understand that Mr. Greengrass had no control over the fact that the pirates who hijacked the U.S. container ship Maersk Alabama and took its captain hostage back in 2009 happened to be Somali nationals. Or that the Navy Seals came riding in (technically…rowing in) like the US Cavalry (along with seemingly half of the American fleet in the region) to take out three pirates and rescue one white guy. I mean, you couldn’t fantasize a more perfect mash-up for a director who specializes in real-world-based political dramas like United 93 or taut thrillers like The Bourne Supremacy.

And Greengrass does indeed run with it, enlisting screenwriter Billy Ray (State of Play, Breach) who co-adapted from the real-life Phillips’ autobiography, A Captain’s Duty along with the author and Stephan Talty, as well as relentlessly utilizing his signature “I think I’m gonna hurl” pseudo-cinema verite shaky-cam  (you’ll feel like you’ve been on a raft for three days by the end of the film).

There’s very little point in giving you a plot summary, as anyone who watched the events unfold on the nightly news will remember how it went down. Even someone too young to remember can logically assume that since it is based on the protagonist’s personal memoir about his ordeal with his captors, he doesn’t like, you know, (spoiler alert!) die at the end.

So the key to the success or failure of any such film dramatization lies in the artistry of its execution and/or visceral entertainment value; and from that purely cinematic standpoint, Greengrass does an expert job at ratcheting up the tension and the thrills (although I wish he could have kept that goddamned camera still long enough for me to regain my purchase at some point before the credits rolled).

In its best moments, the film recalls Hitchcock’s Lifeboat, in the way Greengrass uses the claustrophobic staging to present a cross-sectional microcosm of (in this case) the effects of globalization on impoverished third-world nations.

To his credit, Greengrass at least takes a stab at examining the sociopolitical factors fueling the pirates’ actions, particularly in several brief but well-played exchanges between Phillips (Hanks) and the Somali leader (Barkhad Abdi), but it feels perfunctory. Truth be told, Cy Enfield did a more effective job humanizing the “enemy” and reforming antiquated colonial stereotypes of Africans in his 1964 historical drama, Zulu.

Okay, the entertainment value is there, the acting is fine…so what’s my problem? I’m so glad you asked. It’s the same “problem” I had with Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty. While I’m proud to be a ‘murcan and all, and thank (insert local deity here) everyday that there are dedicated men and women much stronger and braver than I putting their lives on the line protecting “our” interests around the world 24/7, I just really get uncomfortable with this whole booyah kill mission thing that we do so (disturbingly) well.

Greengrass tries for a hole-in-one, but drives his movie ass-over-teakettle into the same fist-pumping for the death squad sand trap Bigelow did. I guess I’m tired of expecting a Secret Decoder Ring, only to discover at the end of the day that  it’s just another crummy commercial…in this case, for American exceptionalism.

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Anyone for a nice cup o’ hubris? Ovaltine?