Wouldn’t it be funny if one day, when all our current political concerns have vanished into the mist of time, we are brought back to life and judged by disheveled archaeologists whose faces are layered with dust? How would we fare if they used our filmography to divine our collective mind the way we use cuneiform tablets to guess at the zeitgeist of the ancient Sumerians? The answer to that question would depend on which shelf of footage is exposed in the dig.
We would do quite well if our judges relied on Hollywood’s critique of the American posture at the outset of the 21st century—assuming, of course, that they don’t stumble upon the speeches of our leaders, the records of our Congress, the decisions of our Supreme Court or the content of our right-wing media.
One might wonder why so many movies about the politics of war and terrorism have been released in recent months. Perhaps Hollywood is picking up the slack for our absent public intellectuals. Socrates had intellectuals acting as solitary gadflies who keep the slumbering steed of the State awake. Judging from the nervous swatting of sycophants in the right wing media there is a swarm of gadflies blowing from the West Coast—and thank God for that. Without Hollywood, American history of this period would read like an uninterrupted orgy of national narcissism and international aggression.
Movies are not “history written in lightning” as Woodrow Wilson would have it. But they may be a record of how we think about history. If this is true, then Hollywood is breaking new ground in the struggle against tribalism. The old adage that history is written by the victors was blown to bits by Clint Eastwood’s twin movies, Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima, where a bitter American campaign is seen alternatively from the vantage point of the victors and the vanquished. The same revolutionary tendency is seen in the current and continuing series of films on the war on terror. They express a desire for sober self-examination that counterbalances the prevailing national penchant for nervous self-congratulation between fits of self-pity and xenophobia.
Paul Haggis’ In the Valley of Elah tells the story of a father (Hank Deerfield played by Tommy Lee Jones) in search of a son who has gone AWOL after his return from Iraq. Charlize Theron plays an overworked police officer who starts by resenting Lee’s meddlesome father but slowly emerges as the witness to the quiet heroism and dogged resolve of this old soldier. Like King Oedipus, Hank is unflinching in his pursuit of a truth that may destroy him. And he does discover the terrible truth not only about his son but also about war. Regardless of how just or holy it is supposed to be, war erodes the value of life and brutalizes victims and victimizers alike. And what do we do with the morally misshapen monsters who return from such conflicts—if they return at all? Would you buy a secondhand car from an ex-torturer? Be careful how you answer that question because having seen this movie you might not want to turn your back to him either.
Of course, soldiers dragooned into a dirty war are not puppets. They can say no. And difficult as it might be, they can walk away. In the Gavin Hood film, Rendition, we see how torture rankles the CIA agent played by Jake Gyllenhaal who observes and occasionally inflicts it. Information extracted by torture is notoriously unreliable—as this movie and the real case that inspired it both demonstrate. But the question is not only one of the efficiency of torture as a tool. There is also the problem of the morality of the act, regardless of its consequences. To its credit, Rendition does not demonize the American facilitators of torture who seem to consider it a necessary evil. But Hood’s film does underline the cavalier attitude toward certain groups that develops when torture is sanctioned and routinized. It’s the reason why those who “render” Anwar Al-Ibrahimi (played by actor Omar Metwally) to a squalid torture cell in Egypt don’t seem too torn up about torturing a fellow human being. They are merely rendering one of “them.”
The Kingdom explores both the temptation and perils of lumping all of “them”—whether Arab or Muslim—together. Director Peter Berg’s tightly narrated movie feels like one breathless action sequence with car chases that raise the bar on the Hollywood staple. The film successfully taps into our worst nightmares about violent and virulent Al Qaeda terrorism. It disturbs our facile demonology of fanatical, swarthy lone wolves by showing small hands carefully packing suicide belts with nail and toy marbles under the fawning care of their elders. When the bombs eventually go off there is massive confusion: who are the terrorists? Who are the good guys? They’re all dressed alike and they all look the same. The temptation is to paint the answer in broad strokes. But The Kingdom’s brush is blissfully narrow. It depicts practicing Muslims who are outwardly indistinguishable from terrorists but who fight valiantly against terrorism.
In this film, FBI agent Ronald Fleury (played by Jamie Foxx) discovers a deep, if barely expressed, friendship with a Saudi colonel, dazzlingly portrayed by Ashraf Barhum. With virtually no words or obvious backslapping gestures, the two law enforcers find common purpose and bask in their shared humanity as a hailstorm of bullets erupts around them. Berg’s tweaking of the buddy action pic formula is no less spellbinding than his car chases. But there are no easy solutions. At the end of the film, the good and bad Muslims are still difficult to tell apart. Yet the operative word here is difficult, not impossible. The Kingdom, an adrenaline-soaked action flick that hits it out of the park, is also a subtle meditation on the importance of that distinction for our humanity as well as safety.
By contrast, Robert Redford’s Lions for Lambs is a not-so-subtle meditation. This is My Dinner with Andre for a nation pushed into an inconclusive war by quixotic leaders, venal politicians, warmongering pundits, monomaniacal talk show hosts and a supine media. Meryl Streep superbly inhabits the character of Janine Roth who represents the aching conscience of a national media bullied into submission at the outset of the Iraq campaign. But she rebels when yet another simpering politician (Senator Jasper Irving as played by Tom Cruise) attempts to recruit her as an accomplice to his new campaign in Afghanistan. Irving’s confrontation of Roth is spliced with harrowing scenes of operations going badly as starship trooper bravado and gee wiz weaponry are overwhelmed by a primitive enemy that swarms like insects on a real-time satellite screen.
Yet the film is not about crooked politicians or pusillanimous reporters. The main audience of Lions for Lambs is the selfish (and hence, slavish) citizenry that lets them get away with it all. The aforementioned sequences are crosscut by a conversation in which Robert Redford (as Professor Stephen Malley) confronts student Todd Hayes, who is drifting towards the kind of self-serving cynicism that tempts the young to abandon their roles as public citizens for a life of myopic self-indulgence. Redford has been accused of pontificating in this movie. He has also been accused of hiding behind his character to hold forth against the narcissism of a depoliticized nation that allows an irresponsible elite to rule and wage war in its name. Well, somebody had to.
There is a sense of urgency about all these films. Something has to be done—or at the very least, said—about the debacle in Iraq. The directors of these films would likely balk at the much-dreaded and oft-denied notion of producing “message” movies, with the exception of Brian De Palma, whose Redacted is the most strident film in this vein. While Elah was concerned with how war corrupts our wide-eyed young men, Redacted is interested in the opposite problem: how psychopaths recruited into the army as a result of lowered standards are wrecking the war.
The movie is based on a real atrocity that occurred last year in Muhammadiah, Iraq: a band of American soldiers raped a 14-year-old girl named Abeer and tried to cover their tracks by shooting her in the face, setting her body on fire and murdering her entire family. Making a movie about this incident is the equivalent of a monumentally pacifist statement by an American director against an ongoing war. Fortunately, this is still possible in the democracy that is America. Of course, Brian De Palma had to shoot on the cheap—he filmed in HD video and used unknown actors but these restrictions do not detract from the film: Redacted depicts the war in all its immediate brutality before it is sanitized (redacted) by mass media.
It is also a movie about painful choices. When pressured by the ringleaders to participate in their midnight raid, Gabe (played by Kel O’Neill) and Lawyer (actor Rob Dvaney) choose different paths. The bookish Gabe takes a principled stand against the atrocity. He stays out of the plan at the expense of becoming an outcast. But the congenial Lawyer goes along with his friends’ scheme, not to rape and ravage but to keep an eye on his friends who do all the raping and ravaging. Misplaced loyalties are the undoing of this character whose tearful pathos wash over the last sequence of this movie.
Who was right? Who was the true patriot? These are the questions we are anxiously contemplating at this defining moment in our culture and in five major American movies released this past fall.
Ahmad Sadri is Professor of Sociology and the James P. Gorter Chair of Islamic World Studies at Lake Forest College. This review first appeared in the January 2008 issue of Muslim Girl Magazine.