Has it ever struck you as odd that a well-acknowledged genre in cinema is that of the war film? The fact that war has been allocated its own genre for cinematic representation is, when you think about it, quite troubling. After centuries of struggle with how one can possibly represent the horrific and destructive emotional, physical and indeed political magnitude of war in art, cinema has set up a unique channel and format in which war can be portrayed. It seems at times like permission to use the forum of war for a specific brand of action film, and I’ve always been troubled by how a theme as colossal and important as war can be diluted in such a way.
It is perhaps a testament to the sensitivity and intelligence of the cinema’s greatest filmmaking talents, however, that the greatest war films do take the idea of warfare and human combat quite seriously. Even the best examples of more escapist war films, which place emphasis upon adventure and courageous deeds, have a serious and historically faithful undercurrent running through them. “The Great Escape” has become an iconic star caper, famous for a theme tune and a motorbike chase, yet the film ends with the cruel and illegal assassination of fifty officers. “A Bridge Too Far” is a film similarly dependent upon its staging of vast battles and star power, but it’s also a comprehensive analysis of what was an avoidable military disaster. The war films that have endured all treat their subject with reverence, in the form of historical accuracy, battle authenticity, or attention paid to the dramatic tropes or human costs of war: the films that haven’t done this have withered in the memory of our collective cinema subconscious.
What’s even more significant about war as portrayed in cinema, perhaps, is how each individual war has become individually defined with some accuracy by the films that have used it as a setting. The socio-political significance of each war of the twentieth century has been perfectly encapsulated by the body of films accompanying it. “All Quiet on the Western Front” and Kubrick’s phenomenal “Paths of Glory” capture the sense of waste and stupidity that defined the thousands of bright young things marching to death in the trenches in World War One. World War Two movies have emphasised elements of individual human risk and bravery in combatting an oppressive fascist regime which for humanitarian reasons could not be allowed to endure, and only with recent films, such as “Come And See” and “The Thin Red Line,” has a Western-style revisionism kicked in to expose the spiritual damage soldiers and civilian victims of the conflict endured. Vietnam is inextricably linked with the chaotic rage, civil turmoil and sense of alienation felt by the youth of Nixon’s America, and the anger, brutality and confusion of the conflict is again heavily present in that impressive wave of films made about the war.
This brings us neatly round to the twenty-first century, and the post-9/11 invasion of Iraq. Here is another incredibly controversial war, which has already been discussed and argued about in the media to the point of saturation and weariness. No-one wants to talk about Iraq any more, despite the fact that so many questions about its inception, execution and aftermath remain unanswered. Cinema has also been slow to pick up the gauntlet of examination and interrogation of the war through art, and maybe filmmakers are put off by the definite ambivalence concerning Iraq that currently exists. This does strike me, however, as a severe neglect of duty: cinema is the supreme art form of our time, and as such has a responsibility, at its best, to comment upon our social and spiritual condition as it exists in the present. The few Iraq war films that have already surfaced variously avoid the politics behind the war, seeking solace in set pieces and allegories. More markedly, however, is the fact that so far no consistency of opinion, perception and representation has been reached by Iraq war films. Is this break from the general rule troubling, or an all too understandably mixed response to a war which isn’t easy to fully come to grips with?
The elephant in the room of my “Iraq hasn’t been adequately covered in contemporary cinema” argument is of course last year’s Best Picture winner, “The Hurt Locker.” It’s certainly a solidly scripted and acted film, and Bigelow’s direction is extraordinary: the level of suspense maintained in the action sequences and subliminally elevated throughout the film made for a breathlessly visceral viewing experience. But the film wasn’t really about Iraq, was it? It was just set there. The film is, like Terrence Malick’s aforementioned poetic masterwork, more about the universal nature of human combat, but where Malick focussed upon the damage of human folly upon the order and tranquillity of the natural world, Bigelow is far more pre-occupied by the effect of conflict upon the soldiers’ psychological well-being. The audience certainly gets an adrenaline rush out of the direction, editing and staging of the suspense sequences, but at the film’s climax, when Jeremy Renner’s squaddie on leave trawls uneventfully through a local supermarket, we come to understand that the soldiers are also experiencing this adrenaline rush. This provides a refreshing counterpoint to the typical presentation of soldiers in war films: normally they are courageous but fallible men of integrity, longing for home and release from the terror surrounding them, but in “The Hurt Locker” the soldiers are battle junkies, who need the surge from potential death and destruction like a fix. It’s a troubling psychological dependency, and renders an average soldier’s morality highly questionable, but it doesn’t tell us anything about that specific war.
Neither does Sam Mendes’ film “Jarhead.” Although it’s set in the first Gulf War and taken from the memoir of a soldier who wouldn’t have been at the second one, the metaphorical resonance of the work is clear in its final line: “we are still in the desert.” Again, the emphasis is not upon the Iraq question, but on the effect of war upon the soldiers who fight in it. The virtue of Mendes’ troops is never put under as much scrutiny as Bigelow’s soldiers, but Gyllenhaal and company are certainly not saints. They are crude, loutish and volatile. They place each other at risk by neglecting their duty and their sanity, and they watch with lustful fascination as one by one word reaches each soldier of their wives and girlfriends’ unfaithfulness. The film has its moments of real commentary and provocation concerning the war: the soldiers have moments when they are confronted by the oil-based ulterior motive for both Iraq invasions, and the highlighted fact that Gyllenhaal and Sarsgaard don’t even fire their guns until after the war is over hints at the increasing redundancy of courageous human resources in ever more technologically-dominated arena of warfare. But again, this is a universal idea about the nature of war, and whilst that’s all well and good it doesn’t tackle the Iraq issue.
You’d expect Paul Greengrass to have done better with it, too. This is, after all, the man who not only made “Bloody Sunday” and “United 93,” the definitive Northern Ireland and 9/11 films respectively, but who also used the Bourne blockbusters, as I commented upon last week, to assess the damage inflicted upon the patriotic soldier by an amoral, dubious and monomaniacal political machine. His Iraq war film of last year, “Green Zone” was rather disappointing: a somewhat bog-standard war thriller elevated by a solid Matt Damon performance (of course) and Greengrass’ brilliantly kinetic visual style. Again, there are times when it latched onto something quite interesting and important: for example, at the climax there is a memorable moment of attacking the interventionist mentality of America, when the civilian advisor guns down Jason Isaacs and tells Damon, “You don’t get to decide what happens here.” The majority of the film, however, can’t get past the over-simplified issue of the absence of WMDs: an important lie told to sell the justification for the war, but the conflict has surely taken on a resonance beyond this issue.
Only this week, with “Fair Game,” do we see the emergence of a film which takes on the shady politics of the Iraq war head on, and how fitting that Doug Liman is the director to do it: although Greengrass surpassed him twice, Liman did lay the foundations for Greengrass’ sterling sequel work when he made the first Bourne film. It’s a film which fully explores the WMD absence from political, intelligence and media perspectives, thus offering an encapsulation of the numerous ways in which the issue proliferated society. Yet this exploration of various perspectives is a thematic McGuffin for a much more profound questioning of the relativity of truth. The film is in no doubt that the Bush administration’s choice to ignore the intelligence presented to them was a morally bankrupt, war-mongering decision, but this is a film about a strained personal and professional marriage between Naomi Watts’ intelligence officer and Sean Penn’s former international ambassador. When the intelligence they both helped to gather is contradicted by the US invasion of Iraq, Penn goes to the press to fight for the truth, but Watts consents to being silenced on the matter. It is her husband’s integrity in speaking out that costs Watts her career, threatens the lives of their family, leads to the abandonment of her Iraq contacts, and damn near destroys her marriage. In the end they are reconciled, and both commit to advocating the truth behind the deceptive circumstances for the invasion, but not before the film has dared to ask a complicated question. Is the truth that important when the most precious unit of society, the family, is at risk? Are the deception and the silence, ultimately, necessary evils? If so, was the lie upon which Iraq was invaded, and hundreds of lives lost, justified as a means to an end, in which dictatorship is ultimately replaced by democracy?
Of course, the flaw in my appraisal of this film in this article is that it’s a political thriller. The war film genre is yet to ask the big questions about the war with the kind of serious contemplation and reflection demonstrated by this highly engrossing drama.