Category Archives: War(s) on Terror

Let them eat yellow cake: Fair Game ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 6, 2010)

And now,  I would like to invite you along for a little stroll down memory lane…to a time, not so long ago, when we had this man in the White House who, well…went a little ‘funny’ in the head after a terrorist group attacked America. You know, funny, and what he did was, you see, he sort of…girded his loins to invade a Middle Eastern country that actually had very little to do with the specific group of terrorists who attacked America. Naturally, he first had to come up with a viable reason to do so. And what he did was, he convinced the Congress that the country in question was not only chockablock with evildoers, but evildoers who had weapons of mass destruction that surely would be wielded against America in the near future.

Now, he couldn’t actually produce any photos of these Doomsday Machines, but they did discover some suspicious aluminum tubes. Oh-and they heard it from a friend who, heard it from a friend who, heard it from another that they had been messin’ around with a substance called “yellow cake” which can be used in the manufacture of WMDs. Again, no real evidence, but nobody in the Congress wanted to be labeled as unpatriotic or anything like that, so they all went “Booyah! Shock and awe!” and opened those bomb bay doors wide.

So, the invasion was going swimmingly for a spell, and even those Americans who may have been scratching their heads a little over the aluminum tubes and yellow cake and such were keeping mum, because they didn’t want to be labeled as unpatriotic, either.Besides, all the journalists on the TV were supporting the troops, too! And they wouldn’t lie, because they’re all purely objective about these kinds of things!

But then, as the war began to drag on, and no stockpiles of WMDs seemed to be turning up, sleeper cells of not-so-patriotic grumblers could be detected all around America. However, as they turned out to be mostly aging, drug-addled old left-leaning hippie panhandlers and radical progressive pundits, the White House didn’t pay much mind to such gibberish-that is, until the summer of 2003.

That is when a former Foreign Service officer and ambassador named Joe Wilson published an op-ed in The New York Times called “What I Didn’t Find in Africa”. Wilson had been sent on a fact-finding trip to Niger in 2002 at the behest of Vice President Dick Cheney, to investigate a report that Iraq had purchased some of the aforementioned yellow cake back in the late 1990s.

The gist of the piece was that there seemed to be a credibility gap between what the guy in the White House (you know, the one who went, sort of ’funny’ in the head) was claiming regarding the alleged stockpiling of yellow cake in Iraq, and what Wilson had actually discovered. ‘Someone’ obviously lied.

And it wasn’t Mr. Wilson.

That’s why ‘someone’ involved with the White House became very cross with Wilson. As a result, ‘someone’ accidentally-on-purpose allowed some confidential information about Wilson’s wife to get leaked. In fact, it was only 8 days after Wilson’s op-ed appeared that conservative journalist Robert Novak published an article in which he identified Valerie Plame Wilson as an “agency operative” (as in CIA). The Wilson’s life became hell, and the question of whether or not ‘someone’ in the Bush administration was guilty of a criminal act (by outing a CIA operative) became a widely debated issue.

Eventually, following a Department of Justice investigation, a member of the administration, Lewis “Scooter” Libby (former chief of staff for VP Cheney) ended up taking the fall in 2007, when he received a 30-month sentence for perjury and obstruction The President (apparently still feeling a little ‘funny’) commuted Libby’s sentence, 4 months after the conviction.

You’ll note that I said Libby “took the fall”. I don’t want to name names, or put on a tin foil hat and suggest that there was a powerful cabal behind the smear, but in 2007, the Wilsons did file a civil suit against Messrs. Dick Cheney, Karl Rove and Richard Armitage (it didn’t take). Ah-(*sigh*) those were the days.

Indeed, many “Kodak moments” from the BushCo era came flashing back as I watched Fair Game, Doug Liman’s slightly uneven dramatization of the “Plame affair”. Jez and John-Henry Butterworth based their screenplay on two separately written memoirs by the couple-The Politics of Truth by Joe Wilson, and Fair Game by Valerie Plame. S

ean 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 who are unfamiliar with the back story could be misled by the Paul Greengrass-style opening scenes-complete with pulse-pounding music and hand held “shaky cam”. You get the impression that you might 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 only 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 (although I would wager that Plame has slightly more credibility than Chuck Barris, nu?).

The most important part of the story, however is what transpired for the couple once Valerie was “outed” by Novak, and how they ultimately stood up to the White House. The CIA, of course was no help; they dropped Plame like a hot potato once her cover was blown (essentially throwing her under the bus while wishing her best of luck).

Although Valerie (the more guarded of the two) is initially reticent to go on the counteroffensive, Joe is able to convince her that there is much more at stake than merely salvaging their pride by pushing back. Liman wisely shifts the focus of his film to showing us how they weathered this storm as a couple, eventually becoming something greater than the sum of their parts once they decided to take Karl Rove and his merry band of ratfuckers head on.

In light of this past Tuesday’s depressing results,  the timing of this film’s release could be seen as an unintentional bit of serendipity in some respects. We know from experience how ugly it’s going to get, and also learned that a bully is a bully until you start pushing back. So why not take a bit of inspiration away from this little political David and Goliath tale from our not-so-distant past? We’d best get in shape now. So…drop and give me 20!

SIFF 2010: Son of Babylon ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 22, 2010)

Son of Babylon  is a tremendously moving “road movie” from Iraq, Set in 2003, 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 travel south to Nasiriyah, 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 (via foot, hitched rides, and alarmingly overstuffed buses) 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.

Sometimes with levity; “I’m going to go call Sadaam,” a man says to Ahmed with a wink as he excuses himself to go take a leak.  At other times, with understated eloquence; when one of their travel companions questions the futility of the pair’s fruitless search through the morass of mass grave sites spanning Saddam’s killing fields, the grandmother says “Losing our sons is like losing our souls.” The man’s mute reaction speaks volumes.

Director Mohamed Al Daradji  and screenwriter Jennifer Norridge have created something that has been conspicuously absent in the growing list of Iraq War(s) movies from Western directors in recent years-an honest and humanistic evaluation of the everyday people who  get caught in the middle of such armed conflicts-not just in Iraq, but in any war, anywhere. With  few exceptions (David O. Russell’s Three Kings comes to mind), most of the Western-produced films about the Iraqi conflicts have generally portrayed the Iraqis as either faceless heavies, or at best, “local color”.

While the film makers do allude to some of the politics involved,  the narrative is constructed in such a way that, whether Ahmed’s father was killed by American bombs or Saddam’s own pogroms becomes moot. This is a universal story about human beings, rendered in a  direct, neorealist style that recalls Vitorrio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves.

If the film has a message, it is distilled in a small, compassionate gesture and a single line of dialogue. An Arabic-speaking woman, who is also searching for a missing loved one at a mass gravesite sets her own suffering aside for a moment to lay a comforting hand on the lamenting grandmother’s shoulder and says “I’m sorry, I don’t speak Kurdish, but I can feel this woman’s pain and sadness.”

There’s one thing I can say for certain regarding this emotionally shattering film (aside that it should be required viewing for heads of state, commanders-in-chief, generals, or anyone else on the planet who wields the power to wage war)…I don’t speak Kurdish, either.

The worst years of our lives: The Messenger ****


(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on  November 7, 2009)

The bad news bearers: Harrelson and Foster in The Messenger

It took long enough. Someone has finally made a film that gets the harrowing national nightmare of the Iraq/Afghanistan wars right. Infused with sharp writing, smart and unobtrusive direction and compelling performances, The Messenger is one of those insightful observations of the human condition that quietly sneaks up and really gets inside you, staying with you long after the credits roll.

This is one of the best films I have seen this year (and one of the few with real substance). 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.

Knock, knock.

“The Secretary of the Army has asked me to express his deep regret that your (son, daughter, husband, wife) (died/was killed in action) in (country/state) on (date). The Secretary extends his deepest sympathy to you and your family in your tragic loss.”

Those are words that no one ever wants to hear, and I can’t imagine any job in the world that could possibly be any worse than being the person assigned to deliver that message. “There’s no such thing as a satisfied customer,” deadpans Casualty Notification Officer Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson) to his new apprentice, Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery (Ben Foster), who is emotionally shattered by his virgin encounter with bereaved “NOK”.

Sgt. Montgomery is a decorated, recently returned Iraq War vet whose enlistment is almost up. Although he accepts this one last thankless assignment with the stoic obedience expected from a professional soldier, he appears to privately suffer from PTSD; a condition that makes an odd bedfellow with his new responsibilities.

Stone is a hard-ass, a cynical careerist who carries a fair share of personal baggage himself. When he bluntly asks Montgomery if he is “a head case” right after meeting him, you suspect that this may be a case of “it takes one to know one”. Stone (and Harrelson’s portrayal) is reminiscent of SM1 “Bad Ass” Buddusky, Jack Nicholson’s character in The Last Detail.

In fact, there is a lot about this film that reminds me of those episodic, naturalistic character studies that directors like Hal Ashby and Bob Rafaelson used to turn out back in the 70s; giving their actors plenty of room to breathe and inhabit their characters in a very real and believable manner.

A subplot involving a relationship between Montgomery and a widowed Army wife (Samantha Morton) strongly recalled one of my all-time favorite sleepers from that particular era and style of film making, Mark Rydell’s Cinderella Liberty (worth seeking out).

Although the filmmakers hold back from making overt political statements, the notification scenes say it all-we continue to ship scores of young American men and women overseas whole of limb and spirit, and return many of them home sans either or both (or in a box)…and for what justifiable reason, exactly? And as heartbreaking, gut-wrenching and hard to watch as these scenes are-I am sure they pale in comparison to the agony of those families and loved ones who have answered the door and received that news for real.

In fact, I’ll take this one step further. I challenge anyone out there who feels we “need” to dig ourselves in deeper into our present Middle East quagmire to watch this film, reassess their justifications, and get back to me. Go. I’ll wait

Ay, cabron! The Men Who Stare at Goats ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 7, 2009)

These are not the droids you are looking for.

So what do you get when you cross Ishtar with Catch-22? Perhaps something along the lines of The Men Who Stare at Goats, the first genuine goofball farce that anyone has managed to squeeze out utilizing the generally unfunny Iraq War, Mark II as a backdrop. Whether that is a good or a bad thing is a matter of personal taste.

The film is directed by Grant Heslove (Clooney’s partner in their Smokehouse Pictures production company) and written by Peter Straughn, who adapted from Jon Ronson’s “non-fiction” book .

Ewan McGregor stars as Bob Wilton, a recently cuckolded Michigan newspaper reporter who decides on a whim to become a freelancing Iraq War journalist (circa 2003). As he tarries in Kuwait City, uncertain about how to actually go about getting himself into Iraq he crosses paths with a mysterious, intriguing fellow named Lyn Cassady (George Clooney) who “happens” to be heading that way. Initially playing it coy and denying that he is any kind of spook (in spite of veritably oozing Eau de Black Ops), Cassady does a 360 and opens up to Wilton, spinning him quite a wild narrative.

Before he knows it, the reporter is tagging along with Cassady on his nebulous “mission”, too gob smacked by tales of top-secret U.S. military programs involving the development of “psychic warriors” who liken themselves to Jedi knights, devoted to honing their mastery of various psychokinetic arts, to realize that he could be heading into the middle of the Iraqi desert with a man who is completely delusional and dangerously unhinged (it’s sort of a Hope and Crosby “on the road” flick-except with insurgents and IEDs).

As Cassady recounts the history of his personal involvement with these experiments, we are introduced to two significant characters in his past via flashback sequences (throughout which Clooney, sporting shoulder-length hair and mustache, bears an uncanny resemblance to a White Album-era George Harrison).

One is Cassady’s mentor, Bill Django (Jeff Bridges), a Vietnam vet who has written a bible of sorts, from which springs the concept of the “New Earth Army”…comprised of the aforementioned psychic warriors, with a litany of tenets co-opted from the Human Potential Movement to help guide them; think of it as a kind of a “hug thy enemy” approach-like if Wavy Gravy was the Secretary of Defense).

The other character is Cassady’s nemesis, Larry Hooper (the perennially hammy Kevin Spacey) a former brother-in-arms who has turned to the Dark Side (Okay, I’ll just say what everyone is thinking right about now-Bridges is Obi-Wan, and Spacey is Darth Vader…happy?). And now, it seems Luke Skywalker, oops, I mean, Lyn Cassady is on a “mission” to get the band back together.

The fact that Ewan McGregor was the young Obi-Wan in the Star Wars prequels is not lost on the filmmakers, who provide him with opportunity for self-referential spoofing reminiscent of Ryan O’Neal’s classic deadpan in What’s Up, Doc? (when he responds to Barbara Streisand’s Love Story quote, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry” with “That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard”).

There is some unevenness of tone, but with a dream cast, who are all obviously having such a great time, it’s easy to enjoy the ride. In fact, the film is a throwback to a certain kind of quirky, unfettered, freewheeling satire that pervaded the mid-to-late 60s; totally-blown fare like The Magic Christian, Skidoo, Candy and The Loved One.

A warning: There are two songs you will not be able to get out of your head for days: Boston’s “More Than a Feeling”, and the theme from Barney the Dinosaur’s TV show. You have been warned!

Just sayin’.

Superbaad: The Baader-Meinhof Complex ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 12, 2009)

Radical chic(k).

The Baader-Meinhof Complex is a new German political thriller that largely eschews the thrills for the politics, with nary a sympathetic character. I feel sorry for writer-producer Bernd Eichinger and director Uli Edel. Marketing a film that dutifully recreates a 10-year reign of terror by Germany’s most notorious (and nihilistic) group of underground radicals (especially this close to another anniversary of the 9/11 attacks) has got to be a tough sell, no matter how honorable the intentions. Still, the objective viewer will find much to admire within this difficult yet rewarding  2½ hour opus.

There are three fearless and incendiary lead performances that lie at the heart of it. Martina Gedeck is a marvel as Ulrike Meinhof. Meinhof was a well-known left-wing journalist in the late 60s, when she first met radical activists Gudrun Ensslin (a super-intense Johanna Wokalek) and Andreas Baader (Mortiz Bleibtreu, who played Franka Potente’s boyfriend in Run Lola Run).

The film begins during this time period, when the couple began to make the transition from protest to action. Their firebombing of a department store (to protest the Vietnam War) made an impression on Mienhof, who was already toying with the idea of making that jump herself. Within a year of their first meeting, Meinhof was firmly in league with Baader and Ensslin, who all eventually would form the nucleus of the self-proclaimed “Red Army Faction”.

After a prison break in 1970 that freed Baader (who had earned a 3-year sentence for the department store arson) and a stint of military training in Jordan with El Fatah, the R.A.F.’s actions began to lead to an ever-increasing body count. This naturally precipitated intense pursuit by authorities, who had the three principals and most of their associates rounded up by 1972.

Although the founding members were now incarcerated for good, there would still be another five years of activities by the R.A.F. Mark II- the so-called “second generation” of the organization; this period of their history (1973-1977) accounts for the final third of the film.

It is this part of the story that I found most fascinating. It demonstrates how (although doesn’t go to any length to explore why) such radical groups inevitably self-destruct by becoming a microcosm of the very thing they were railing against in the first place; in this case, disintegrating into a sort of self-imposed fascistic state that became more and more about internal power plays and individual egos instead of focusing on their original collective idealism.

This aspect of the story strongly recalls the late German filmmaker Rainier Werner Fassbinder’s 1979 political satire, cheekily entitled The Third Generation, in which he carries the idea of an ongoing disconnect between the R.A.F.’s core ideals and what he portrays as little more than a group of increasingly clueless, bumbling middle-class dilettantes who bear scant resemblance to the original group of hardcore revolutionaries, to ridiculous extremes.

As I mentioned at the top of the review, this is not a polemic, per se. Screenwriter/producer Eichinger (who adapted from Stefan Aust’s eponymous book) has stated in an interview that the intention was neither to make “…a didactic film nor a modern morality play about German terrorism,” but rather present events as they occurred, allowing viewers to draw their own conclusion. I think they succeed in achieving this neutrality; a wise choice, as these are not the most pleasant characters to spend 2½ hours with.

This is not a film for everyone. The 150-minute running time will be daunting if you only have a passing interest in the subject matter. If you’re intrigued by the sociopolitical historical angle, and appreciate top-notch acting, you won’t be disappointed. If you go in expecting an action thriller, you may find yourself glancing at your watch.

There is a line in the film that stuck with me. It is uttered by Bruno Ganz, who plays the head of the German Federal Police Force. It’s almost a throwaway, but I think it’s significant. Unfortunately I can’t recall the exact quote, so I will  paraphrase. During a strategy meeting, he says something to the effect of “In order to effectively fight terrorism, it is essential to be able to step back far enough to objectively understand the terrorist’s point of view.”

The reaction of his colleagues is very interesting; they seem aghast and quite ruffled by the fact that he would even say such a thing. It’s such a simple concept (to me, it’s a variation on the axiom, “Know thy enemy”) but so difficult for the powers-that-be to understand sometimes, It reminded me of an era not too far past (September 12, 2001-January 19, 2009 to be precise) during when such “objectivity” was interpreted by certain members of our government as “empathy” ( “unpatriotic”, “not supporting the troops”). Good times!

Generals and majors ah ah: In The Loop ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 8, 2009)

Here’s a revelation, in the midst of summer movie torpor: The political satire is not dead; it’s just been sort of resting …at least since Wag the Dog sped in and out of theaters in 1997. Armando Iannucci and co-writers Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell, Ian Martin and Tony Roche (much of the team responsible for the BBC series The Thick of It) have mined the headlines and produced a nugget of pure satirical gold with In the Loop. I daresay that it recalls the halcyon days of Terry Southern and Paddy Chayefsky, whose sharp, barb-tongued screenplays once ripped the body politic with savage aplomb.

When the British Minister for International Development (Tom Hollander) gets tongue-tied during a BBC news interview and blurts out that “War is unforeseeable” in response to a question about his stance on a possible U.S. military intervention in the Middle East, it stirs up a trans-Atlantic political shit storm, as hawks and doves on both sides of the pond scramble to spin his nebulous statement into an endorsement for their respective agendas.

When he later tries to backpedal by saying “Sometimes, to walk the road of peace, we have to…climb the mountains of conflict” it raises murderous ire from the Prime Minister’s Director of Communications (Peter Capaldi, as a classic Type-A prick) who tells the minister (among other colorful admonishments) that his awkward metaphor made him sound like some kind of “Nazi Julie Andrews”.

The gaffe-prone minister is given a chance to redeem his now precarious career status with a “fact finding” visit to D.C., under the watchful eye of Capaldi. Also along for the trip is the minister’s ambitious new advisor and chief handler (Chris Addison).

They are feted by the dovish Assistant Secretary of Diplomacy( Mimi Kennedy) who is desperately trying to keep him from the clutches of the hawkish Assistant Secretary of State (David Rasche) who is like an amalgam of Rumsfeld and Cheney, and of whom Kennedy observes that “…the voices in his head are now singing barbershop together.” Things get interesting when a war-weary general turned desk-bound Pentagon brass (James Gandolfini) joins the mix.

The filmmakers take aim at multiple targets, and hit the bull’s eye nearly every time with creatively honed insults delivered in deliciously profane pentameter by all members of the cast. Capaldi’s character in particular spouts some of the most uproariously clever lines I’ve heard in years. As for my personal favorite, I’d say that it’s a tossup between “I’m putting you on a probationary period…from today until the end of recorded time” or (b) “I will marshal all the media forces of darkness to hound you to an assisted suicide.”

Politics as usual, I suppose.

Surge protectors: Stop-Loss ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 5, 2008)

Stop-loss was created by the United States Congress after the Vietnam War. It has been used on the legal basis of Title 10 , United States Code , Section 12305(a) which states in part: “… the President may suspend any provision of law relating to promotion, retirement, or separation applicable to any member of the armed forces who the President determines is essential to the national security of the United States” and Paragraph 9(c) of DD Form 4/1 (The Armed Forces Enlistment Contract) which states: “In the event of war, my enlistment in the Armed Forces continues until six (6) months after the war ends, unless the enlistment is ended sooner by the President of the United States.” Furthermore, every person who enlists in branch of the Armed Forces signs an initial contract with an eight (8) year obligation, regardless of how many years of active duty the person enlists for.

 -from Wikipedia

 One year ago (almost to the day) I wrote a post where I tied in some classic “vets coming home” films with a war weary nod to the (then) 4th anniversary of the interminable debacle in Iraq. At the time, Hollywood was yet to tackle a story about our latest generation of walking wounded; I was starting to wonder; did the studios have a case of cold feet on the subject, like they did throughout the duration of the Vietnam War, or was it simply “too soon”?

A few filmmakers have tested the water, with admirable efforts like In the Valley of Elah, Grace is Gone and Robert Redford’s Afghanistan-themed drama Lions for Lambs. Unfortunately, none of the aforementioned films have received much more than a nibble at the domestic box office (sadly, College Road Trip has already grossed more than any of those films have to date).

It will be a damn shame if Stop-Loss, a powerful and heartfelt new drama from director Kimberly Peirce, elicits the same yawning indifference from the American public. With echoes of The Best Years of Our Lives, Deer Hunter, Coming Home and Born on the Fourth of July, this could be the first substantive film to address the plight of Iraq war vets.

Co-written by the director along with Mark Richard, this is Peirce’s belated follow-up to her haunting 1999 heartland noir, Boys Don’t Cry, which was based on circumstances leading up to the tragic real-life murder of trans-gendered Teena Brandon, who re-invented herself as Brandon Teena (interestingly, the protagonist in Peirce’s latest film shares the same first name).

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 an brief euphoria that soon gives way to  varying degrees of PTSD for all members of the trio.

Brandon, who has had a bellyful of war horrors, has decided to pass on his option to re-enlist. Steve, a crack marksman who is also up for re-enlistment, is on the fence. His company commander (Timothy Olyphant) is pressuring him to re-up and return to combat duty; but his long-time fiancée, Michelle (Abbie Cornish) is concerned about Steve’s sometimes violent flashbacks and may leave him if he opts to stay in the Army. Tommy, who is suffering the most mental anguish, dives into a maelstrom of alcohol and textbook self-destructiveness.

Brandon appears to be holding up better than his two friends; that is, until he is ordered to report back to his unit and finds out that he is to be shipped back immediately for another tour of duty in Iraq, on the very day he is slated for his official discharge. When he starts asking questions, he is curtly informed that he has been “stop-lossed, under Title 10 of the United States Code…” (see above) and is summarily dismissed.

Even though he has served in good faith and with a sense of patriotic duty, it now appears that the government has betrayed his trust (and why are we not surprised?). Determined not to take this sitting down, Brandon confronts the company commander, who views his protestations as “mutinous” and orders him to be thrown in the stockade. Brandon gives his M.P. escorts the slip and goes AWOL; Steve’s fiancée Michelle offers to tag along.

Brandon and Michelle’s subsequent road trip drives the film’s third act; it becomes both a literal and metaphorical journey through the zeitgeist of the modern American vet.  Peirce and her co-writer largely avoid clichés; sans a few obligatory nods ( I believe that there is a rule stipulating that every war vet film must contain at least one scene where the protagonist gets goaded into a street fight and goes temporarily medieval after it triggers a flashback).

Aside from a brief (and eye-opening) depiction of an “underground railroad” network that enables U.S. expatriates to flee to Canada, the filmmakers manage to remain low-key on political subtext; this is ultimately a soldier’s story. After all, the bottom line in any appraisal of our current “war” (or any war, for that matter) is (or should be) the human cost.

The irrefutable fact here is that young people are dying, and many who do survive their tours of duty are left to deal with horrendous physical and/or mental damage for the rest of their lives. A beautifully played scene centered on a visit to a V.A. hospital brings this sad point home quite poignantly. Anyone with an ounce of compassion should find Stop-Loss to be wrenching and moving.

It is interesting to peruse the discussion boards on the Internet Movie Database regarding this film. As you might guess, there is predictable wing nut blather condemning the film as anti-American, anti-war hippie propaganda. But the most telling comments are coming from Iraq veterans themselves, who for the most part seem to indicate that the film rings true. Hmm, I wonder which of those two camps is more likely to know of what they speak?

Wish you were here: Standard Operating Procedure ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 24, 2008)

Auschwitz staff, 1944.

Abu Ghraib staff, 2004.

There was a fascinating documentary recently on the National Geographic Channel 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 recently discovered scrapbook 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 Standard Operating Procedure, a new 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.

Since this is primarily a movie review, I don’t feel a need to rehash the back story for you (especially when a Google search of “Abu Ghraib” yields over 3 million results). We’ve all viewed those thoroughly repulsive photos ad nauseam, and the cold hard facts of the case have been well-documented and endlessly dissected.

The next logical question might be, what was Erroll Morris thinking? What startling new insight could he offer on this well-worn subject? This guy is no slouch-he has been responsible for several of the most well-crafted and compelling American documentaries of the last 30 years, from his 1978 debut Gates of Heaven (a knockout doc about pet cemeteries) to the true crime classic The Thin Blue Line (1988), and his most recent critical success The Fog of War (2003). Once again, Morris serves up intimate confessions from his interviewees, delivered directly into a modified teleprompter.

Morris makes an interesting choice here. He aims his spotlight not so much on analyzing the glaringly obvious inhumanity on display in those sickening photos, but rather on our perception of them. 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?

In a weird way, Morris’ insistence on drawing us completely “inside” the photos made me flash on Antonioni’s 1966 classic Blow Up. The protagonist in that film is a fashion photographer who becomes obsessed with examining a series of seemingly benign pictures that he takes in a public park. He begins to believe that he has inadvertently documented a murder taking place in the background of the photos…or is he just seeing what he wants to see? The film challenges our perception of what we “see” as reality.

According to Abu Ghraib poster girl Lyddie England and several other of the convicted MPs who Morris interviews in the film, the “reality” behind the prisoner “abuse” was (in their perception ) “standard operating procedure”; they were merely “softening up” the subjects for the CIA interrogators. You know-just doing their job. One phrase you hear over and over is “everybody knew what was going on”, which sounds suspiciously like that old Nuremberg litany “we were only following orders”.  And so it goes.

Morris also plays up the bizarre love triangle aspect. When asked to explain her hammy poses for the infamous prisoner humiliation photos, England blames it on amore. “What can I say,” she shrugs, “I was in love.” She is referring to Charles Graner, currently serving 10 years for his part in the scandal (Morris was denied permission by the military to interview him).

As we now know, Graner was concurrently dating another MP, Megan Ambuhl, whom he has since married (it’s all so Jerry Springer). Here’s a sobering thought: Thanks to the “softening up” of America’s prestige conducted by the Bush white house, all it took was this taxpayer-funded white trash “scrapbook from hell” to drive the final nail into its coffin.

Morris has taken some flak for focusing only on those who some may consider the low-level “scapegoats” of the Abu Ghraib debacle; these critics seem to be implying that he is not targeting high enough in the food chain. There is some merit in this assertion; the only brass who appears on camera is the palpably embittered ex-brigadier general and former Abu Ghraib overseer Janis Karpinski, who angrily asserts that she was treated to a dog and pony show whenever she visited the facilities. But in all fairness, Morris does not have the hindsight of history on his side in this case.

We can’t expect anything close to that great final shot in All the President’s Men…the close-up of teletype keys pounding out the Nixon resignation bulletin. In a truly “fair and balanced” universe, the only satisfactory denouement to any story about the Iraq “war” should be a closing shot of a spinning newspaper, finally righting itself to declare “Bush and Cheney to be Impeached for War Crimes!” The Nixon administration is history. We’re still living this nightmare.

Oliver Stone looks back, and to the Right: W ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 18, 2008)

Two of America’s finest actors.

No one has ever accused Oliver Stone of being subtle. However, once audiences view his highly anticipated film concerning the life and times of George W. Bush, 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 here (gulp!) 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 present day. I don’t think a full plot summary is necessary; if you are a regular Hullabaloo reader, you know the story all too well: Alcoholic son of Texas oil millionaire stumbles through early adulthood, gets into Yale (eventually Harvard) through the back door, marries a librarian, then discovers his Special Purpose after helping Poppy become President.

Thanks to the savvy guidance of a homunculus sidekick he dubs as “Turdblossom”, he is elected as the governor of Texas (twice) and then finds God, who informs him personally that he is destined to become President, because He has a Special Mission for him. Turns out that his Special Mission is to fight the Evil Doers where they live, after they stage a terrorist attack on America. Trouble is, there seems to be some confusion as to exactly where they live. In the meantime, he’ll need to bitch slap that Bill of Rights (just a little), for our protection.

Best supporting performance?

I’m not saying that Stone doesn’t take a point of view; he wouldn’t be Oliver Stone if he didn’t. He’s already catching flak for the screen time spent 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 are taking umbrage at another one of the chief underlying themes of 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.

Live, from New York…it’s Saturday Night!

As usual, Stone has assembled a massive cast with a bazillion speaking parts. His choice of Josh Brolin for the lead initially struck many people as an odd selection (including yours truly), but now that I have seen the film, I have to say it was a smart move.

Brolin is nothing short of brilliant. He doesn’t go for a cartoon caricature, which would have been the easy route to take; I think he pulls off a Daniel Day Lewis-worthy “total immersion” quite successfully. It is interesting to note that Brolin (tangential to Junior) has been accused of riding into a Hollywood career on the coattails of his dad (James Brolin) and stepmother (Barbara Streisand); if Stone chose his leading man with this in mind, he is a very canny operator.

Some of the other standouts in the cast include Toby Jones as Karl Rove, James Cromwell and the great Ellen Burstyn as President and Mrs. Bush Sr., Jeffrey Wright as Colin Powell and Richard Dreyfuss as Dick Cheney. Wright and Dreyfuss play off each other beautifully while recreating Cheney and Powell’s tiffs. Scott Glenn isn’t given an awful lot to do as Donald Rumsfeld, but he has the evil squint down.

The only casting misfire is an overly mannered Thandie Newton as Condoleezza Rice; it is like she dropped in from an SNL sketch. Perhaps it is not entirely her fault, as there’s so much prosthetic on her face, she can barely move her lips.

Perhaps I should qualify something. When I called this a “straightforward” biopic, I was speaking in relative terms. You have to keep in mind that in one respect, Stone is boldly going where no filmmaker has gone before. PT 109 aside, this is the only biopic about a president to be released while he is still sitting in the Oval Office; and since the former film dealt with JFK’s WW2 exploits, and not his actual presidency, that makes Stone’s film even more unique.

Another hurdle is the fact that the Bush administration has probably been satirized, parodied and ridiculed (via print, blogosphere, TV, film, theater, comedy club, YouTube, T-shirt, billboard, and water cooler chat) more than any other presidency in my lifetime (not that they haven’t asked for it in every way imaginable). This zeitgeist makes it virtually impossible for someone to make a “serious” biopic about W. By playing it straight, Stone is really being subversive (clever boy!).

If the Bush administration had never really happened, and this was a completely fictional creation, I would be describing Stone’s film by throwing out one-sheet ready superlatives like “A wildly imaginative look at the dark side of the American Dream!” or “A vivid, savage satire for our times!” But you see, when it comes to the life and legacy of one George W. Bush and the Strangelovian nightmare that he and his cohorts have plunged this once great nation into for the last eight years, all you have to do is tell the truth…and pass the popcorn.

The comedies of terror: Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay *** & Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden? **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 3, 2008)

They say that tragedy plus time equals comedy. In the 2005 film, The Aristocrats, a documentary about the “filthiest joke in the world”, there is a fascinating bit of footage from the 2001 Friar’s Club Roast for Hugh Hefner, which took place just after 9/11. Gilbert Gottfried launched into  a bit about the attack. Within moments, he was being roundly catcalled by cries of “Too soon!”

Mind you, this was a room full of professional funny people, who make their living from irreverence. But that was then. I don’t know if I should laugh or cry  that we currently have two films  that glibly incorporate 9/11 into their titles: Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay and Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden? Has the War on Terror been slogging on for that long? Yes, it has.

In 2004, a modestly-budgeted stoner comedy, with a juvenile title and two unknown leads, became an unexpected cult phenomenon. Arguably, the most surprising thing about Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle was that, between the bong hits, sex gags and scatological references, there lurked an undercurrent of sharp sociopolitical commentary about racial stereotyping in America (for the uninitiated, Harold and Kumar are portrayed by a Korean-American and Indian-American actor, respectively)

The movie was gut-busting funny, and in a fresh way. The film’s co-creators, Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Scholssberg, now officially turn their baked slacker heroes into a sort of Cheech and Chong franchise for millennials with the release of a politically topical sequel, Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay.

The events of the first film occurred just “last week”.  Harold (John Cho) and Kumar (Kal Penn) are excitedly packing their bags for a dream European vacation in weed-friendly Amsterdam. Unbeknownst to Harold, Kumar has smuggled his new invention, a “smokeless” bong, on board their flight. Since it is a homemade, cylindrical device containing liquid, it resembles a You Know What.

When a “vigilant” passenger, already eyeballing Kumar with suspicion due to his ethnic countenance, accidentally catches a glimpse of him attempting to fire up his device in the bathroom, all hell breaks loose. Before they know it, Harold and Kumar have been handcuffed by on-board air marshals, given the third degree back on the ground by an overzealous, jingoistic government spook (played to the hilt by The Daily Show alumnus Rob Corddry) and issued a pair of orange jumpsuits, courtesy of the Gitmo quartermaster.

Through a serendipitous set of circumstances that could only occur in Harold and Kumar’s resin-encrusted alternate universe, they manage to break out, and hitch a boat ride to Florida (don’t ask). This sets off a series of wacky cross-country misadventures, mostly through the deep South (imagine the possibilities).

As in the first film, the more ridiculously over-the-top and unlikely their predicament gets, the funnier it becomes (it’s like being really stoned, I mean, from what I’ve been told-ahem). And once again, the duo’s Doogie ex machina appears just in time to lend a much-needed hand, in the person of “Neil Patrick Harris” (played with winking, hyper-hetero exaggeration by, erm, Neil Patrick Harris).

I will admit that my unabashed enjoyment of Hurwitz and Schlossberg’s oeuvre (if I may call it that after only two entries) is a guilty pleasure. Okay, so we’re not talking Coppola or Scorsese here. And I’ll grant you, H & K films can be crass, even vulgar at times; but it’s somehow good-naturedly crass and vulgar, in a South Park kind of way. I see a lot of parallels between Hurwitz and Schlosberg’s work and the output of South Park creators, Matt Stone and Trey Parker.

Both teams serve up their social and political satire slyly cloaked by the  silly behavior of their (literally and figuratively) cartoon-like protagonists. You can get away with subversive anarchy when your polemic is delivered “from of the mouth of babes”. At the end of the day, Harold and Kumar are classic “innocents” at heart, as are South Park’s little potty-mouthed darlings. Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay may not be everybody’s bowl of Columbian, but I’ll be goddamned if it ain’t the funniest film I’ve seen so far this year.

I wish I could say the same for the latest from documentary filmmaker Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me), who I like to refer to as “Michael Moore lite”. Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden? is an admirably earnest, if flawed attempt by the likeable Spurlock to reach out to the “everyday folks” living in the Middle East and show Americans that they’re really just like us, after all; you know- “people are people”, and all that. Oh, and while he was there, he thought he might get some leads on where Osama’s bin hidin’.

Spurlock’s concept for his new film was inspired by his wife’s pregnancy (their first child). While brainstorming proactive steps he could take to ensure a “safe world” for his unborn, he thought he might start by doing his part to end the war on terror-by helping our hapless government locate You Know Who. Using the gimmicky framing device of an ersatz video game to introduce film segments, we follow Spurlock’s progress as he travels to Egypt, Israel, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and Morocco in search of the vox populi (and the slippery tall dude with the walkie-talkie).

With the exception of a few cranky customers, like a radical Muslim cleric with a vitriolic demeanor and a Charlie Manson glare , most of Spurlock’s subjects express variations on “I really don’t have any truck with the American people, but I do hate your government with the intensity of a thousand suns.” Proving of course, that they really are like us (well, those of us who have been paying close attention for the last seven years). And, naturally, the response to queries on bin-Laden’s whereabouts is usually a shrug and a laugh, or a vague point in the direction of the border they share with a neighboring country.

My favorite response is from a hard-scrabbled Afghani tribesman who counters, “Who’s ‘Osama’?” When the interpreter tells him: “He’s the one who destroyed the buildings in America”, the old codger  testily snaps: “Fuck him.” Then, as an afterthought, before turning on his heel to dive back into his motley hut, he adds: “And fuck America”. That’s my kind of guy, a real pragmatist.

There are some other genuinely funny moments that temper the underlying grimness. For instance, a high ranking official in Tora Bora (location of the infamous subterranean HQ for bin Laden in Afghanistan) speaks enthusiastically of his proposed plan to turn the caves into a tourist attraction (I think there’s an idea for a Mel Brooks movie in there somewhere). Spurlock is to be admired for keeping a straight face throughout this particular interview.

Unfortunately , Spurlock’s  loses credibility  in two specific scenes. The first takes place in Tel Aviv, where Spurlock and his crew are stonewalled (and nearly stoned) by a group of ultra-orthodox Jews (Haredim, I believe, from their clothing). Spurlock mugs an annoyingly self-righteous “why are they persecuting me?” look at the camera while he’s being shoved about; as if he assumes that the viewer will find these angry men with hats very amusing.

Some sects of orthodox Jews are a very strict, closed society and wary of strangers (not unlike the Amish and the Mormon polygamist sect), so naturally they are not going to be too crazy about an outsider shoving cameras and microphones in their faces. What did he expect? I’d like to think Spurlock is smarter than that, especially when the message of his film is allegedly about reaching out to bridge cultural misunderstandings, as opposed to creating new ones.

The other scene occurs during the Saudi Arabia segment. Spurlock interviews two teenage male students. After giving disclaimers that the two interviewees were  handpicked by the school staff, and that two school officials insisted on being present during the interview, Spurlock precedes to pepper the boys with incendiary questions.

The anxiety and fear is palpable on the young men’s faces; they nervously glance off camera where the school observers are  positioned before answering each question with a variation on “I have no opinion on that.”  Granted, this may be  Spurlock’s point; but by this point, he has already established Saudi Arabia is a draconian oligarchy; what’s he trying to prove by shooting fish in a barrel?

You could call this a mixed review. If you got a kick out of Super Size Me, or his TV series 30 Days, you may be more forgiving of Spurlock’s trespasses in the film. Maybe I’m just being over-sensitive, and others may not glean the same subtext from the particular scenes I found objectionable. To be fair, I did laugh a lot, and as I stated earlier, I applaud the inspiration behind the film. Let’s call it a draw.