"I'll be wearing fashionable kevlar"
Over the last few years, every single American film dealing with the War in Iraq has been a commercial failure. Its a surprisingly lengthy list: "Stop Loss", "Lions for Lambs", "In the Valley of Elah", "Home of the Brave" and "Redacted". There are films on that list directed by Brian DePalma and Robert Redford, and starring Tom Cruise, Samuel L Jackson and Tommy Lee Jones. There is a murder mystery, a combat diary, and stories of troops returning home, damaged. None of that matters. All these films died slowly. Nobody wanted to see them. Iraq, you see, is box office poison.
Nobody really made Vietnam movies during the course of that War, except John Wayne, and the reception the ridiculous "The Green Berets" received probably warned off studios and filmmakers for the next decade. By the time Hollywood began making Vietnam War films, America was ready for them, ready for some reflection, some cinematic catarthis. Cimino, Copolla, Stone and Kubrick, among others, promptly made a handful of classics. By the time they did so, the consensus about the Vietnam experience was fairly well-established - it was a bad thing. America had lost, a generation had been brutalized, Vietnam itself destroyed, thousands had died, and there had been some outrageous human rights abuses committed. Filmmakers knew it was safe to approach the conflict from a critical viewpoint. Some - Stone, most obviously - were sympathetic to the grunts on the ground while still criticizing the leadership which had led the country into the War in the first place.
There is no clear consensus about Iraq in America as yet, which is a problem any filmmaker wishing to tackle the War must deal with. Most take the fairly Liberal position of criticizing the War, its rationale and conditions, while refraining from also criticizing the troops. Though their portrayal has already been notably darker and more ambiguous than in most of the films about Vietnam - "In the Valley of Elah" and "Redacted", particularly, are frank in their portrayals of what this war has driven men to. Most - including the television movies "The Mark of Cain" and "Battle for Haditha" and the series "Over There" - show the soldiers as terrified young men, just trying to do their jobs and survive*. But some of the excesses demanded by the unique conditions of the War seem unavoidably brutish and if they are depicted - which they must be, for the sake of honesty - then that depiction seems to carry an ingrained slight of the men involved. So these films cannot hope to have mass appeal. They attract only left-leaning audiences, keen to have their certainties reinforced. Nobody wins.
Two films from the years just prior to the inception of the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan provided contrasting approaches to similar subject matter. In effect they show the ways a modern War story can be successfully told. Ridley Scott's "Black Hawk Down" (2001) is a meticulous, visually stunning account of the military misadventure the US Army underwent in Mogadishu in 1992, an amazing simulation of modern urban combat. Technically masterful and viscerally bruising, it has proven incredibly influential in its visual approach, and indeed in its refusal to politicise its heroes, the fighting men themselves. They are heroic because of their courage, Scott's film says. Politics are irrelevant. Eric Bana's Delta Force super-warrior, Hoot, says it in a couple of lines: "They won't understand that it's about the men next to you, and that's it. That's all it is. " and "Once that first bullet goes past your head, politics and all that shit just goes right out the window."
By comparison, David O. Russell's "Three Kings" (1999) is an unashamedly political film. Russell benefitted from several years of hindsight in his treatment of a War the US had won. He could more or less say what he liked about it. And so his film is highly critical of that Bush Government's treatment of Iraqi rebels who rose up against Saddam when it became apparent that he was losing the War. But Russell was savvy in his criticism - he veiled it in a terrific action comedy which felt, at the time, unlike any film I had ever seen before. Indeed, watching "Three Kings" now it looks like a masterpiece of sorts. It has aged extremely well.
In recent years, American cinema has profited handsomely from the collision of Indie creativity with Studio money. Russell is a great example of this faustian phenomenon. His debut, "Spanking the Monkey" (1994) is a sweatily well-observed, pitch black incest comedy, made for not a lot of money. He followed it with the broader "Flirting With Disaster" (1996) for Miramax, but despite the presence of bigger not-quite stars (Ben Stiller, Tea Leoni) his work managed to retain some of its independent edge. Its there in the off-centre characterisation, the portrayal of America as a zoo for neurotics of various shades. "Three Kings" was something else entirely. A mega-budget semi-Blockbuster with some rising stars and the backing of one of the big studios in Warner Bros, it asked a lot of a young director. The pressure evidently got to Russell (as it would again on his next film, "I Heart Huckabees") - a difficult Arizona shoot saw him come to blows with star George Clooney, who swore never to work with him again. But it was worthwhile. His film manages to feel like a big action movie with an indie sensibility, a fairly unique beast.
Early on, everything is comic. That first shot of featureless desert horizon punctured by the incongruously surreal vision of a young Iraqi waving a white cloth from atop a small bunker/hill, the helmet of a US soldier in the bottom corner of the frame; sets the tone as just slighty askew. This is not how big studio War movies start. That this movie will be different is only underlined by its first dialogue, beginning an instant later, and shouted across the desert floor:
Troy: Are we shooting?
Troy: Are we shooting people or what?
Soldier: Are we shooting?
Troy: That's what I'm asking you!
Soldier: What's the answer?
Troy: I don't know the answer! That's what I'm trying to find out!
Russell treats the soldiers with a cynical detachment - he likes his heroes, you feel, but he is aware that they are all flawed individuals. His montage of their victory celebration paints them as jingoistic, meathead fratboys, a depiction much of the remainder of the film works hard to balance. Even so, there is something of the Coens in his sensibility, the notion that he feels somewhat superior to his characters and periodically cannot resist patronising them, even sneering at their idiocies. The conversation about "perfectly good substitutes" for racial terms of abuse for Iraqis is a good example. Russell was clever enough to cast likeable actors, however, and his film is structured cunningly so that the action and drama kicks in suddenly, and the audience is dragged along with the narrative's momentum, the heroes abruptly established as such.
The comedy, while it lasts, is a mixture of effects. Russell uses whatever may produce a laugh: slapstick, satire, sight gags and funny dialogue all feature. This is a film which depicts an exploding cow, while also featuring a character mistake bullion for "them little cubes you put in hot water to make soup" and employing a sudden, and frankly, quite brilliant cut to Chicago's "If You Leave Me now" in the tense preamble to an action sequence. Russell makes it all work, and it makes the film feel richer, more electric.
If "Three Kings" has a direct ancestor, it is "Kelly's Heroes", Brian G. Hutton's 1970 Clint Eastwood vehicle about a heist by a platoon of GIs in Nazi-controlled Italy. That too was an action-comedy, though it entirely lacked any political dimension and it's action was far tamer than Russell's. He had never directed action before, and as a result those sequences are often sloppy and obviously the work of a director new to this type of material. And yet this inexperience is a boon - the action scenes are entirely lacking in the baggage of a seasoned pro, they seem almost to come without influences. As a result they feel fresh, with more impact and resonance than most action scenes. Russell signals his intentions with the early scene in which Clooney explains how a bullet can cause sepsis and the camera zips into and out of a body like an invisible scalpel, capturing the spurt of bile from a ruptured organ from the inside. Russell takes this violence seriously, it seems, he feels every bullet, and he seems determined to ensure that audiences do too. This pays off later when we see the anatomy of the escalation of the initial gunfight, the camera woozily cutting and panning across the spaces between combatants as a domino effect of thunderous shots and visceral impacts pulses through a town square, leaving men dead. Later on, characters we care about will be shot, even die, and Russell wants us to feel that too, to see the lunacy of it all.
Stylistically, the film is mainly handheld, giving it a jittery immediacy. The colours are washed out, bleached by the desert sun, most obviously in the earlier scenes. This over-exposed look has been much imitated since. Russell also indulges in some strange, almost disturbing frame compositions, and makes a few references to other movies - that first action scene is notable for its self-consciously posed close-ups of Clooney and Ice Cube, filtered light discolouring them, clouds streaming by unnaturally fast overhead. These shots seem like ultra-pop homages to Sergio Leone (which makes sense, given the duel that has just occurred) , and stand out because they are so different to the way the rest of the film is shot. Is Russell underlining that this is the moment priorities changed for these men, or ironically mocking their own possible self-images as bad-ass American fighting men? The way Russell portrays Clooney's character as a cool customer throughout, the latter suggestion seems unlikely. He gives the men credit for following their consciences, the poor treatment afforded to Iraqi villagers snapping them out of their greed and forcing them to intervene. Here he sets the standard so many later Iraq films cling to - he lauds the men on the ground while attacking the politicians.
But this is not a simple issue and Russell does not avoid its complexity, either. He makes it clear that these men are conflicted about helping the rebels in the longer term, beyond the initial situation in the town square. Indeed, they are more or less blackmailed into lending aid after their own lives have been saved. Wahlberg's character emerges from a torture-and-lecture session with more empathy for everybody - he is in severe shock - and falls in line with the others, who have all seen the light during their journey. At the end, the Rebels and their safe passage seems more important to the men than the gold. Of course Russell undercuts this with the final hint that even then, some of the gold was looted.
Much of the political context is made explicit in the dialogue. The film has an entire subplot about one Reporter searching for a story amidst a sea of reporters earching for stories, and indeed begins and ends with TV news report footage. As if that was too subtle, a character says "This is a media War" at one point. Clooney refers to "Bush" with a near-visible sneer, and uses him as a figurehead, with great irony, in his speech to rouse rebellion : "God bless America and God bless a free Iraq!" The speech fails, a possible allusion to the co-opting of American patriotism together with Iraqi nationalism. Clooney's superior, played by a brusque Mykelti Williamson, asks him a prescient question when he wonders what the purpose of the War was, if not to dethrone Saddam: "What do you wanna do, occupy Iraq and do Vietnam all over again?" But the most chilling scenes of political comment are the torture sequences wherein Said Taghmaoui's Captain tortures Wahlberg's frightened grunt for no particular reason. He just seems to want to teach him a lesson. And he does, pouring oil down his throat to ensure he understands the real motivation for the War. Wahlberg's dazed replies to his enquiries: "to maintain the stability of the region" etc, his lack of understanding of why he is there; are perhaps Russell's most pointed comment on his countries role in that conflict.
One of "Three Kings" other great strengths is obvious in that scene - this is unequivocally a film about the modern world, about how we live now, how things are and will be. American cultural imperialism is a given, so alongside torturing Wahlberg, Taghmaoui wants to discuss Michael Jackson with him, all the while awkwardly - and hilariously - using American slang terms to address him : Bro, Mymainman. His men watch MTV on stolen Kuwaiti televisions and risk their lives for Levis. Everybody has an intimate knowledge of Lexus models and Easy Listening tapes hide in Arab cars. Then there is the casual and brilliant realism of many of the references in Russell's dialogue - his soldiers discuss American Football, cars, religion, are at first awed by the violence they encounter. Ice Cube is a devout Christian, Spike Jonze an ignorant hick ("from a group home"). When Wahlberg rings his wife she asks him if she should apply for a job for him. The leader of the Iraqi rebels was educated in the US. Clooney ends up as a consultant on Hollywood action movies. This density of detail gives the movie texture, allows its narrative to breathe because the characters feel real and lived-in. Again, this makes their eventual loss and peril more affecting, meaning that the climax has a real power to it. Even better, Russell ends with a euphoric little coda.
"Three Kings" was a minor hit, earning $60 Million at the US Box Office with a budget of $48 Million. It won the Boston Society of FIlm Critics award for Best Film in 1999, a great year for American cinema (also released that year: "The Insider", "Being John Malkovich", "Boys Dont Cry", "The Sixth Sense", "The Straight Story", "Fight Club", "Magnolia", "American Beauty", "The Matrix" and "The Talented Mr Ripley). It boosted Clooney's career and, on the back of "Out of Sight" made him something of a hipster's choice as Leading Man, leading the Coen Brothers to come calling. Russell himself went on to the equally unique, massively self-indulgent "I Heart Huckabees" and is currently shooting his next film with Vince Vaughn. The direct influence of "Three Kings" is only obvious in Sam Mendes' "Jarhead" (2005) and perhaps in Ben Stiller's "Tropic Thunder" (2008), perhaps to be expected with such a deliberate, original film.
But a new Iraq War movie is soon to test the theory that movies about that subject cannot succeed commercially, with hopes of aping the relative success of Russell's film. Katherine Bigelow's "The Hurt Locker" follows a bomb disposal unit stationed in Baghdad as they deal with their new, adrenaline junkie commanding Officer. It is by all accounts a great return to form for Bigelow after "K-19: The Widowmaker" and an utterly satisfying action movie as well as a vivid portrayal of Baghdad now. Whether or not American audiences can accept it is another thing entirely.
*I would expect David Simon and Ed Burns' HBO adaptation of the fabulous "Generation Kill" by Evan Wright to treat the subject with more ambiguity and complexity, but I haven't seen it yet.