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Vice (2018)

If Oscar-winning funnyman Adam McKay can take the arcane, convoluted world of finance and spin it into one of the most entertaining, accessible, and enraging films of that year, then just imagine what he could do with the life of Dick Cheney?

We follow Dick Cheney (Christian Bale) from his early days as a college washout, to Washington intern to Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell), to youngest chief of staff in a White House administration, to Wyoming Congressman, and eventually Vice President to George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell) where Cheney redefined the VP role as a defacto second president. This is the story of his 60 years shaping the annuls of political power.

If you have one reason to watch Vice, it’s the staggering performance by Bale (Hostiles). As is custom, the man completely transforms himself into his subject, gaining weight, building muscle in his neck to simulate the Cheney shoulder hunch, and going unrecognizable in startling older age makeup. He doesn’t just look the spitting image of Dick Cheney but he sounds like him too, exhibiting his cadences and mannerisms, and fully inhabiting the man every second he’s onscreen. It’s a compelling, captivating turn that ranks up there with Bale’s best. He’s beyond great but strangely nobody else is. Amy Adams (Arrival) plays Lynne Cheney, Dick’s wife and shrewd political partner, and her worst acting moment is her introductory scene where she lays into the young Cheney. It’s like an audition where the actor is hitting the wrong notes too strongly. Adams regains herself as the film carries on but never has a standout scene. Nobody else other than Bale is given the material to stand out. Rockwell (Three Billboards) and Carell (Beautiful Boy) are enjoyable and aided by impressive makeup, especially old Rumsfeld, but they’re given one note to play. Their roles become more impression than performance and both men drop out of the movie for long periods of time. The next best actor might by Tyler Perry (Gone Girl) as Colin Powell, and maybe that’s because Perry is used to brokering nonsense with his own array of nonsensical characters. He’s already the weary adult.

The meta interludes and fourth wall breaks that helped The Big Short succeed conversely are part of the problem with Vice. Most Americans know a decent amount about the Iraq War and its documented fallout, so there’s less need to have celebrities interject and explain complex scenarios and institutions (the absence of Margot Robbie in a bubble bath will always be felt). The narration by Jesse Plemons (Game Night) doesn’t feel necessary, and his ordinary identity becomes a guessing game for most of the film, trying to link him with Cheney. I was thinking he would be an Iraq War soldier and get killed later on, that way establishing a stand-in for the thousands of men and women who are no longer walking this Earth as a direct result of Cheney’s misguided action. Nope. When his identity is finally revealed you’ll go, “Oh,” and that’s it. Because he wasn’t really a character, he was a narrative device and one that didn’t stand for anything larger. The visual metaphors can also be very, very obvious. There are consistent cuts to Cheney fly-fishing in a river, meant to evoke him luring others into his desired machinations. Even the end credits feature fly-fishing imagery, in case you had forgotten about this enduring metaphor. The conclusion literally involves a heart being removed and the sequence cut along a more figurative betrayal, and you can feel McKay vigorously pointing at the screen and yelling, “See, it’s because he’s heartless, get it? Do you get it?” We get it. The documentary-style and comedic techniques that allowed The Big Short to be as entertaining and accessible, and one of the best films of 2015, are paradoxically the things that seem at odds with Vice.

The meta breaks are meant to provide a degree of comedy to the picture, which is generally absent comedy otherwise, unless you count the rise of Cheney’s reign as the darkest of comedies. I suppose Cheney’s nonchalant recognition of his heart attacks (he’s had five) could be a potential comedic lifeline if you’re being generous. One second we’re told people don’t speak in Shakespearean soliloquies in real life, and the next second the Cheneys are talking in Shakespearean verse. When it looks like the Cheneys will drop out of public office to spare their gay daughter Mary (Alison Pill) the inevitable storm of harassment, the movie has a fake-out end credit sequence to sum up their hypothetical lives. To demonstrate Cheney’s knack for making the most ridiculous statement sound statesmen, he recommends that the Oval Office team put miniature beards on a part of their anatomy and perform an adult puppet show, which draws solemn nods of approval from the others. It’s a joke that feels too glib, like the intended point is being lost by the lewd nature of the comedic aside. The only meta aspect that feels earned is the final one, where Cheney turns to the camera and directly addresses the audience, acknowledging he can feel their contempt but refuses to apologize for his actions in order to keep people safe. Because he’s having the final say, because he’s offering a rebuff to his movie, it feels more earned and fitting, and it would have had even more power if it were the only break in the movie rather than the last. It’s hard to call this a comedy; it’s more an incredulous indictment looking for its mob.

I honestly think a straightforward biopic might have been the better route for Cheney. The first half of the film is more interesting and successful because it is the more illuminating half. I never knew that Lynne Cheney’s father likely killed her mother. That’s a pretty bold charge on behalf of the filmmakers. The early Cheney years are the moments the majority of Americans don’t know about, whereas the later years have been well documented by a slew of hard-hitting documentaries, books, and journalistic exposes. There are whole movies about topics like the Valerie Plame leaking (Fair Game), the mounting mistakes after the invasion of Iraq (No End in Sight), the administration’s policy on torture (Taxi to the Dark Side, Standard Operating Procedure), the drumbeat to the war and snuffing out of critical journalism (Shock and Awe, Lions for Lambs), the missing WMDs (Green Zone, Body of Lies), the Bush deferment memos (Truth), the long-term consequences for those servicemen who survive (The Hurt Locker, The Messenger, Stop-Loss, Last Flag Flying, In the Valley of Elah, American Sniper, Thank You For Your Service) and anything that Michael Moore sets his sights on. This list is not exhaustive by any means. Because of that the film seems to become a rudimentary montage once the Iraq War kicks off, sprinting through the rest as an intended tableau of hubris as Cheney’s star and influence falls. I would rather have learned more about Cheney’s early years in the Nixon, Ford, and H.W. Bush administrations and gleaned more personal insights into the man before he becomes this shadowy, mythic figure that seems downright Machiavellian in his control of government. It’s interesting to watch Cheney and his cohorts plot their unchecked executive power behind the back of President Bush, but then what?

It’s the “then what?” question I keep revisiting with McKay’s film, trying to figure out the larger intended message, themes, and dire warnings. I feel like because of the expanse of time covered, and the meta quirks applied, that the film too often feels like it’s just scratching the surface of Cheney, providing a slight gloss to a political caricature. The biggest takeaway is the slippery slope of the “unitary executive theory,” a term you’ll hear often, that basically follows Nixon’s own words: “If the president does it, it’s not illegal.” This questionable interpretation of Article II of the Constitution gives the president powers that approach a monarch, which seems antithetical the Founders’ intents. McKay warns that any president could take advantage of this theory to do whatever he or she (sad trombone noise… sigh) desires. This is clearly meant to draw a line right to President Trump, but it’s not like the 45th president needs sketchy legal cover to do his misdeeds. The idea that the Justice Department memos would be a lurking danger is quaint. A bad man with power is not going to look for the rules to allow him or her to break them. The idea that a president could be above the law is also a legally specious argument and one I don’t believe our courts would readily back, even with the “unitary executive theory” (at least I hope so). With that in mind, Vice becomes a cautionary tale about the expenditure of power but lacks the adequate follow-through.

Vice is a tricky biopic for a tricky subject and I wonder if it would have worked better being stripped of its prankster, meta interjections and tricks. It’s a condemnation of Dick Cheney but it doesn’t feel like it goes far enough if McKay’s eventual thesis is that the current world problems began, or were grossly exacerbated, by the actions of Cheney. Climate change warnings going unheeded, ISIS formations going ignored, the generational consequences for unsettling the Middle East, and laying the foundation for an authoritarian strongman to be an acceptable political position for millions of Americans. These charges are clearly intended to be a denunciation of Cheney’s legacy, but the end results play out somewhat differently, like a slap on the wrist. I think Dick Cheney could even watch this movie and nod in appreciation. That seems like a mistake. McKay is still a talented writer and filmmaker that knows how to keep his movie flowing and entertaining, buoyed by an outstanding performance from Bale. It’s a movie with great components but seems to clumsily get in its own way with its presentation. If you’re going to expose Dick Cheney as a heinous manipulator of power that has wrecked havoc for billions, then maybe you don’t want to dilute your message.

Nate’s Grade: B-

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American Sniper (2014)

American-Sniper-Poster1When killing is a man’s gift, what effect does that have on the man? American Sniper follows the real-life heroics of the most prolific sniper in United States history. With director Clint Eastwood attached and awards buzz building, you’d expect that the film would get at the heart of a complex man who placed himself back into danger by choice. For a biopic on Chris Kyle, the man seems to get lost in the fog of war (movies).

Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) enlisted in the military right before 9/11 and served four tours of duty in Iraq. He served as cover for many missions, protecting thousands of soldiers. The troops just felt better knowing that Kyle had their back. Kyle got married and had several kids with his wife (Sienna Miller) but he kept leaping back into the fight, the place he felt he belonged.

american_sniper_stillFrom the opening sequence on, American Sniper is often a gripping suspense piece. The opening moral dilemma sucks you right in. Should Chris shoot the mother and child? Are they a threat or is there just a misunderstanding? Will they change their minds and turn away? Is there time to debate all this with advancing U.S. troops? Eastwood does a great job of drawing out the tension with shot selections and the precise editing. The bulk of the movie hews closer to a conventional action movie, with Chris and his team clearing out Iraqi insurgents. We get to know a bit about the mechanics of sniper warfare. But Kyle gets restless being the guardian angel of death for the ground troops, and he goes down to their level and clears neighborhoods. This causes some conflict with his superiors because Kyle is far more valuable as a sniper. His reputation for killing is also getting him notoriety with his enemies. There is a price on Kyle’s head and skilled snipers are seeking him out for the prize. This is a natural way to build suspense as Kyle keeps returning back into Iraq with multiple tours, every tour increasing his personal danger. It allows for real consequences for the increasing prowess of our super sniper. There’s a sense of collateral damage to every kill, as every dead body creates more enemies and those enemies grow more incensed to take him out. Even if you know how exactly Kyle met his untimely end, there’s still plenty of suspense and well-orchestrated action sequences to please casual fans of the genre and true-life military thrillers.

It does feel like the complex story of Kyle, as well as the Iraq War, are being simplified into action movie fodder. There’s a steady supply of interchangeable supporting players, soldiers and spotters and the like, all of them without much to distinguish them as characters. They’re here to be sacrificed, to watch the splatter of red, and to increase the sense of loss because we know that Chris Kyle will not be taken down so we need other expendables. As expected, Miller gets rather short shrift as Kyle’s wife who gets to alternate between worry and unease. The screenplay by Jason Hall sets up some excellently harrowing suspense sequences but seems better engineered like its establishing video game stages of combat than complex people. As a result, when we lose characters it doesn’t feel like we’ve lost people we care about. It doesn’t have an impact beyond sudden shock, and even that is tempered in time with the sniper angle. You start expecting characters to get popped in mid-sentence.

1412258342001-XXX-AMERICAN-SNIPER-MOV-jy-2898-Where the film leaves you lacking is at its center with the man who is supposed to be the focal point of American Sniper. At the start we’re told that Kyle is the deadliest sniper in U.S. history and by the end that’s about all we know about the guy. He’s an ace killer. The movie has some top-notch suspense sequences with Kyle killing people. The early scenes with Kyle’s family do the bare minimum to establish a sense of pride in not backing down from a fight. There’s a scene where his girlfriend explains to him and the audience exactly why he’s difficult. It’s pretty transparent exposition but it’s also the last bout of clear characterization you’ll get until the end. There’s a slight nod to the mounting PTSD that is transforming Kyle into a man who feels whole only on the battlefield, but these are notes of characterization that are only cursory. It’s only at the very end does the movie remember to flesh out Kyle as a person rather than as an action hero, and by then there’s only enough time to hint at elements we’ve seen explored better in other war movies, particularly The Hurt Locker. As an action film, the movie works and works quite ably, but as a biopic on Chris Kyle it forgets what makes him human, instead focusing on his superhuman killing ability.

Cooper (American Hustle) bulked up a considerable amount of muscle to portray Kyle. He fits the part well and has the acting ability to communicate the troubled psychology of a man making sense of his old world after the trauma of war. It’s then a shame that he’s not given more opportunities to use those acting muscles. There is one phone call where Cooper wordlessly finally breaks down, allowing all the scar tissue to finally be seen on his haunted character, but it’s a moment rather than a culmination.

If you go into American Sniper hoping for an elevated thriller with some well-wrought suspense, then you’ll mostly be pleased with the film as a slice of entertainment. As a war commentary or a psychological study of the horrors of war, it comes up lacking, falling back on the action tropes of its genre and neglecting to properly build around its characters. The action is often biting, and a late sequence involving an oncoming sandstorm is an intense climax. However, it’s also emblematic of the shortfalls of the film. While it’s a sequence of action entertainment, it also reduces war into a video game and reminds you that the characters onscreen are not so much portrayed as people but holders of weapons. Kyle was a complex man who was more than his uncanny ability to kill, but you won’t get more in American Sniper. The nature of his death demands a more insightful exploration of the lasting effects of PTSD and what kind of treatment, or failure of treatment, many servicemen receive once they come home.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Green Zone (2010)

I have noticed that I’ve really been dragging my feet when it comes to writing a Green Zone review. I’ve prioritized it only to have something more necessary (catching up on VH1 reality shows) come to the forefront of my attention span. It’s not like the movie is bad. It may have been misleadingly advertised as Jason Bourne’s tour of Iraq, bringing back together Matt Damon and director Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Supremacy), but it’s not bad. It’s a perfectly fine movie, except in this instance, given the politically explosive and monumentally relevant subject matter, “perfectly fine” sounds like a missed opportunity. This movie should be incendiary, shocking, aggravating, enlightening, and if it happens to be entertaining then that ain’t bad either. The subject matter –the false rationale for war, WMDs– deserves a sober examination. Green Zone is not that movie. Green Zone is about uncovering and righting the mistakes of the Iraq War, and I believe I figured out what keeps Green Zone from being a better, more powerful, more engaging movie — it fictionalizes a story that is already wroth telling. This is a true story that could have stood well on its own merits.

Shortly after the fall of Baghdad in 2003, Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller (Damon) is on the hunt for those weapons of mass destruction (WMD), the chief argument for invading Iraq. His team investigates suspected weapons sites but they keep coming up empty. The intelligence appears to be in sharp contrast with the reality on the ground. Miller butts heads with shady government officials (Greg Kinnear) and finds aid in a state department realist (Brendan Gleeson) and a reporter (Amy Ryan) who put her reputation at stake parroting the government intelligence as fact. The Iraqi army is disbanded and now the former generals under Saddam Hussein are conferring what the next steps should be. General Al Rawi (Yigal Naor, who played Saddam in a TV mini-series) is waiting for the Americans to extend a hand, and if not then they will become an insurrection. Miller is racing to track down Al Rawi because he knows the truth in the lead up to the war, which is why those shady government officials are also trying to kill him.

Based upon reporter Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s book Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Life Inside the Green Zone, the filmmakers have resorted to a fictional narrative informed by the real events. My biggest gripe is this: the true story is far more interesting, complicated, and relevant than concocting a story about one military man’s search for answers. The film is laid out like a conspiracy thriller, where our hero gains a small sliver of information that leads to another piece, and another and another, until finally a picture emerges. I get it. With Damon as a soldier, the audience has an obvious rotting point, a protagonist who we can easily be labeled as good. And then when he uncovers the truth, and alerts the media, it provides a tidy, satisfying end for the movie. Except that’s not what happened. In the real world, the hunt for those phantom WMDs carried on for months, and the news trickled drip by drip. There were no smoking guns, no white knights to shine the light of truth (Joe Wilson and Valerie Plame might be the closest in consideration), and there wasn’t anything as conclusive as a military officer writing a report and sending it the mainstream media.

Green Zone attempts to craft a satisfying close to the WMD hunt, and likewise the war itself. This is nothing more than revisionist wish fulfillment, wanting to insert a hero of conscious and ability during a time where we had a malaise of responsibility from those in the realms of higher command. And just to make sure they don’t make too many waves, Greengrass and screenwriter Brian Helgeland (Mystic River) wrap their crusading character in the uniform of America’s finest, making it difficult to criticize his noble hunt, striping away politics. The trouble is that the Bush Administration rarely made apolitical decisions; everything was steeped in politics, even the truth about weapons of mass destruction. So Green Zone does the audience a disservice by trying to play nice, setting up a villainous fictional straw man, and forgoing naming the names of those that led this country astray. Because of placing the film’s point of view squarely with Miller, we never get to examine the bigger picture, the manipulations and machinations that led to war. We are stuck in a very limited focus of finding the WMDs.

Now, I must ask whether or not I’m unfairly judging the movie. Hollywood has often taken fascinating and momentous true-life stories and redirected them toward fiction. Green Zone is certainly a technically proficient film. Greengrass’ trademark shaky camera is ever vigilant, always roving and looking for the action; although in a realistic war setting, the kinetic handheld camerawork can come across as potentially hyperactive. Conversations between two people can come across like intense linguistic battles. Walks down hallways can appear to be speedy jaunts brimming with purpose and anxiety. The tension just doesn’t materialize. Without a nervy story, the Greengrass visual staple can seem over the top, antsy, nervous, and also annoying. This is one narrative for Greengrass that could have improved by the dedicated use of a tripod.

Green Zone is not Bourne at all. The Universal marketing team was trying to hoodwink the public into seeing an Iraq War movie. Damon isn’t as polished and in command as Bourne. Those who argue that Green Zone is anti-American or anti-troops are grossly missing the point. Reactionary, bellicose rhetoric, without a wit of substance, is part of the reason the U.S. is currently in Iraq. You can argue against policy, including war policy, and still be considered a patriot. Patriotism is not synonymous with warmongering. It’s too bad that the filmmakers felt that the true story wasn’t good enough to be told, instead settling for a decent if unmemorable political thriller. This adaptation takes the most significant foreign policy event in modern American history, one where the ramifications will be felt for over a generation, and clears all the hard-boiled details to attach a conventional one-man-fights-for-truth tale. It’s hard to get self-righteous when the movie keeps trying to cover its own ass.

Nate’s Grade: B-

In the Loop (2009)

This is one of those movies that are so sharp, so bristling with intelligence, that you practically need to have a remote control glued to your mitt so that you can rewind and catch all the jokes. I turned the subtitles on myself just to make sure I could get everything. This British comedy is a wicked satire of the miscommunication and blunders that lead the U.S. and Britain into declaring war on a Middle Eastern country. There are some topical jabs but so much of the humor comes from the fractious character interaction; there is a real joy to watching these larger-than-life personalities clash over the course of two nations. It’s fascinating and biting and plays out like a more profane version of The West Wing. The cast is fantastic from top to bottom, with special notice going to My Girl‘s Anna Chlumsky all grown up and perfect with comic timing, and Peter Capaldi as the fearsome, fire-breathing British Director of Communications who can split an epithet like nobody’s business. You might expect his head to burst with how apoplectic he can get. This may be the most quotable comedy in years; every line of this screenplay is gold. There are Hollywood comedies that would kill for just one or two of the choice lines here, but In the Loop is chock full of the funny. It’s a machine gun spray of comedy. Something this scathing and this brilliant doesn’t come along every day.

Nate’s Grade: A

The Hurt Locker (2009)

The Hurt Locker is an action movie on a very human scale. Sure there is a time and place for your Michael Bay-esque action vehicles, the type that scorch square miles and leave recognizable world cities in ruins. However, those kinds of action movies are never the kind where storytelling ever enters the fray beyond a meager question of how to get from Point/Explosion A to Point/Explosion B. In fact, Bay openly admits to planning the story of Transformers 2 by working on various action sequences during the 2007 writer’s strike and then tasking screenwriters to connect the dots. The Hurt Locker exists in a frighteningly believable world. This isn’t a movie about explosions but about the extinguishing of explosions. It follows the Explosives Ordinance Disposal (EOD) unit, tasked with detecting and detonating bombs and other improvised incendiary explosives (IED) in the field of combat. You will not be restless for loud “booms” while watching The Hurt Locker. In fact, you will be on pins and needles hoping that you never hear another loud “boom.”

Delta Company are the men responsible for protecting the other soldiers by disposing of bombs. The new team leader, Staff Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner) has defused over 800 bombs during his tour of duty. He knows he’s the best and he’s addicted to the thrill of being so close to death. He will make occasionally reckless decisions putting himself, but not his fellow company men, at higher risk. This does not sit well with Sergeant JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie), a by-the-book type that doesn’t appreciate his officer chasing a thrill. The other EOD unit member, Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), is a man more accustomed to taking orders than giving them, and his indecision may have actually cost the life of the former head of the EOD. Both Sanborn and Eldridge worry that their new team member is going to get them all killed.

Director Kathryn Bigelow (Near Dark, Point Break) has been directing male-centered action flicks for over two decades; it’s been seven years since her last feature, the regrettable Harrison Ford submarine flick, K-19: The Widowmaker. The Hurt Locker is her finest work to date by far. Her action sequences are visceral and downright agonizing to sit through. She is masterful at setting up the geography of the set piece, ratcheting up the suspense, adding organic obstacles and complications, and then makes sure with her camera and editing that an audience knows exactly what’s happening to whom for every minute that ticks off the clock. Bigelow takes her time to establish the particulars of her locations and sequences, allowing the audience to, surprise, understand what is happening and better engage in the movie. Bigelow chose to shoot the movie in Jordan, the neighboring country to Iraq, and the locations and actual refugee extras add an unvarnished sense of realism. The movie goes without music during much of the action, which makes it all the more uneasy. There isn’t any over eager composer telling you how you should feel, no direction that now things will get even more hairy. You will feel every second of danger, and Bigelow crams in a whole lot of danger. Things can go wrong very, very quickly.

There’s nothing to action cinema quite like the bomb that’s only a few tick-tocks away from doing its dirty work. Do you cut the yellow wire or the green wire? Never cut the red wire. The bombs found in Iraq are a stark range of death. There’s the crude incendiary device just wrapped up in garbage, but then there’s also the fiendishly clever devices with multiple charges and there are grotesque devices as well. At perhaps the film’s most guttural and shocking moment, Staff Sgt. William James finds the corpse of an innocent stuffed with explosives. The easiest thing would be to simply detonate the bomb, but that would also desecrate the body of someone we have come to know. Watching James snip open the crude stitching and dig inside the chest cavity, if we didn’t know then we know now, Bigelow has made sure that The Hurt Locker is the most emotionally resonating contemporary war film in memory.

Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal, an Iraq War journalist, create a vivid sense of dread, antipathy, and most of all, paranoia. Is that a kite flying in the air or is that a signal? Is that a nondescript observer with a cell phone or is that a terrorist with a remote detonator? Is that child being friendly or collecting intelligence? Your mind will race through all these possibilities because Bigelow teases out her action sequences to an unbearably taut level. The audience cares about these soldiers and wants to see them make it back home (we’re informed how many days Delta Company has left on their tour throughout the film), which Bigelow uses to her advantage at every turn. What happens matters. My nerves were frayed during several sequences, including one where the soldiers are pinned down by distant enemy gunfire. The moment turns into a duel and a chess game, as each side tries to adjust their gaze in the searing heat and measure their long-range shot before the other side beats them to it. Then the sequence turns into a waiting game. This is the kind of movie that keeps you poised on the edge of your seat fearful that at any moment something disastrous will suddenly happen. Every time Staff Sgt. William James went back out to defuse another bomb, my sense of dread intensified. I began to doubt everything that I would ordinarily take for granted in other movies.

While being a top-notch action movie, Boal (In the Valley of Elah) has also crafted a great character study. In between the bomb episodes we learn more about these men, which makes it all the more hard to see them then head out to defuse another explosive. The film opens on a quote equating war as a drug, and we explore this notion through the character of Staff Sgt. William James and the weight his unique duty bears. It takes a special person to volunteer for defusing roadside bombs. The defuser must be extremely intelligent, be extremely cool under pressure, and be able to work in a giant suit that makes them look like a chubby astronaut, while enduring debilitating desert temperatures of 110 degrees. It sounds like a suicide mission. James is an adrenaline junkie and war is his drug. He exudes a Zen-like calm in the heat of the moment and this is now the only life for him. Shopping for cereal back home has lost its meaning. Being a husband has lost its meaning. His life now has one purpose. Renner (28 Weeks Later, North Country) gives a stirring performance laced with cavalier confidence and resignation. Mackie (Eagle Eye, We Are Marshall) is also another standout in the pared down cast. When he laments about the dishonor of having no one to remember you in death, you feel the man’s existential sorrow.

Ignore the political cranks that decry The Hurt Locker as another partisan anti-war film from Hollywood. The American public has been mostly indifferent to any contemporary movie that aims to tackle our current military conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, but The Hurt Locker eschews the politics of war to focus on the realities and dangers of its characters. These guys are more concerned with surviving the next bomb than the politics of why they’re in the Middle East. The public has voted with their wallets and does not want to see the reality of war onscreen, or at least the Hollywood version of war reality, but I pray that those same people give The Hurt Locker a fighting chance. There is no preaching to be found here. The Hurt Locker could just have easily taken place during other wars, though the current Iraq War allows for added cultural dissonance (Is the central goal of bomb-defusing a metaphor for our conflict in the region?). This is a film that transcends politics and genre.

The Hurt Locker is more than an action movie, more than a war movie, more than a psychological study; this is an outstanding movie. This movie is a drug to the adrenaline senses and I need another hit. This is one of the finest films of the year and as it expands across the nation, I highly encourage everyone to seek out The Hurt Locker.

Nate’s Grade: A

Grace is Gone (2008)

This Iraq War drama means well but it comes across as manipulative and morally questionable. John Cusack stars as a former military man who just found out his wife, on active duty in Iraq, has been killed. The bulk of the film’s conflict deals with how Cusack will tell his two daughters that mommy is not coming home again. Instead of being upfront with his children, he takes them out of school and whisks them away on a family trip to an amusement park. His reasoning is that he wants to squeeze in a few more happy memories before the kids hear the news. To me, this is irresponsible and psychologically damaging; those kids will resent their father holding onto such important information while he encouraged his kids to shop in ignorance. The film is about 80 minutes of watching a guillotine hang over someone’s head, just waiting for the moment to hit. It can get rather uncomfortable. Somewhere in this misguided drama is a poignant look at the domestic cost of the Iraq War from the family’s perspective, a perspective yet to be fully articulated by the movies. Instead, Grace is Gone is a well-acted but contrived drama that favors delaying the pains of reality to the point of incredulity.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Taxi to the Dark Side (2007)

Just like he did in 2005’s excellent documentary Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, filmmaker Alex Gibney is able to distill a complex topic into a coherent argument. His Oscar-winning documentary Taxi to the Dark Side looks deep into the repugnant state of justice after 9/11 and the Bush Administration’s disregard for the law. It’s decidedly uncomfortable and upsetting, but Gibney’s film should be essential viewing for everyone to fully understand what questionable lessons we are sending out to the world under the guise of winning the indefinite War on Terror.

In late 2002, Dilawar drove two passengers out of town in his taxi. He was stopped at an Afghan militia checkpoint and he and his passengers were turned over to the U.S. military. The Afghan militia leader accused the trio of being responsible for rocket attacks against U.S. forces (In reality, the militia leader was responsible and just turning over innocent men to make inroads with military personnel). Dilawar was sent to Bagram prison where he was subjected to sleep deprivation, physical abuse, and made to stand for hours on end handcuffed to the ceiling. He died after two days in custody. The military coroner ruled that Dilawar’s death was a homicide. The report was swept under the rug until a New York Times journalist went searching for answers. The official who instigated the “interrogation techniques” was rewarded and sent to teach her harsh brand of degrading interrogation to another prison – Abu Ghraib. I think we all know how well that turned out.

Like No End in Sight, which Gibney also produced, the film benefits enormously by staying away from brash finger pointing and hysterics. It slowly assembles its methodical case using hard evidence, like the prison coroner’s report and declassified memos, and a bevy of interviews from the people who were on the frontlines and behind the scenes in Washington. Gibney builds a devastating case that left me sick to my stomach and overwhelmed with the urge to weep. Taxi to the Dark Side is a powerful and masterfully assembled indictment on how far the United States of America has slid from its moral high ground. I felt sorry for the numerous innocent men plucked from their homes and tortured. I felt sorry for the soldiers being pressured to get results fast and through whatever creative means only to be turned into patsies by a government looking to pin “a few bad apples.” I felt intense shame in my own government condoning degrading and humiliating practices that stretch the legal definition of torture. And I felt burning anger at the realization that President Bush had tucked away a little provision in a bill signed into law that stated no officials in his administration could be tried for war crimes. The soldiers on the ground who followed orders set out by those officials, however, were fair game. Bush pardoned himself!

Gibney uses Dilawar’s story as a framing device that broadens the scope of the film. He explores the whole nature of torture and the questionable tactics our government and military have engaged in since 9/11 in the name of keeping the country safe. But as the film continues on we still remember Dilawar. His death casts a pall that hangs over the entire running time that serves as a potent rejoinder to any interview clip or TV segment where officials dismiss the severity of torture techniques (Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld scribbled on one memo complaining that he stands many hours a day, so how could this be torture?). Thankfully, the film also comes back to Dilawar during the closing moments to draw out the man’s humanity and shine a closer look at the personal cost of such illegal practices. It’s sad and shocking that well over 90 percent of the prisoners in Guantanamo Bay and U.S. coalition prisons were turned in by locals for money. Who knows however many innocent men like Dilawar are imprisoned without any path to see a court (recent Supreme Court rulings have said that detainees do have a right to contest their imprisonment in U.S. courts).

What is all too evident is that Bush administration officials were establishing a hazy and vague definition of torture on purpose. This of course had the benefit of not linking their names to illegal practices that could lead to war crimes. This also made sure there was no set guideline for interrogation and detention. Without any guidelines and rules the soldiers were expected to get results with no oversight. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that being isolated in a foreign country and surrounded by a culture of machismo is going to breed cruelty if there is no enforcement of law. The U.S. skirted the Geneva Conventions by denying suspects any rights and saying they could be detained, without charge, for the rest of their lives. Vice President Cheney proudly declares that the enemy plays dirty and therefore America has to resort to the same dirty tactics. One soldier recounts a mentally handicapped prisoner who officials kept swearing was just putting on an act. “This is the new cover for al-Qaeda,” they were told even as the man ate his own feces. I’m sorry, but my country should be morally above whomever we deem an enemy. The “he started it” defense does not register for me.

But perhaps the biggest non moral related sticking point is that torture is notorious for not generating factual claims. When someone is being tortured they will say whatever to make the situation cease, and this includes fabricating tales about terrorists and an Iraq link to 9/11. Instead of verifying and corroborating these confessions, the interrogators jot them down as fact, send them to the brass above, and that’s how the U.S. produced sources that said Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Ladin share a friendship bracelet and have brunch on Tuesdays. Even if you do not object to torture on moral grounds, and I pity you if you cannot, then a thinking person should at least object to torture on the very basis that it does not work. It produces bad intelligence, false intelligence, and in a rush to conflict that can yield terrible and far-reaching ramifications (six years in Iraq and counting, insurgent recruitment rising, the erosion of the U.S.’s standing over the world). The ends clearly do not even approach justifying the means.

After detainee abuses, President Bush declared to TV reporters that, “The United States doesn’t torture.” The asterisk to that declaration is that the U.S. rejects the internationally agreed upon definition of torture and will decide what constitutes torture, and even then we’ll just outsource it to countries that will torture. Taxi to the Dark Side is a sobering and powerful film that will serve as an important reminder for generations to come about the damning evidence of torture. The film is presented with clam and precise logic but it still manages to eradicate any argument that torture is acceptable under the right circumstances (advocates like to cite the idea of a ticking bomb and a suspect who knows the location). One interview says it all. He’s an FBI interrogator for over 20 years, and he says that to glean workable intelligence you don’t beat someone and make them fear you; you make them like you. You play “good cop” not “insane cop,” and you will gather actionable, verifiable, helpful intelligence and you have nothing to feel guilty over. If only the current administration had more men with such clarity and moral fiber.

Nate’s Grade: A

In the Valley of Elah (2007)

Is anyone more polarizing in the film world at this moment than writer/director Paul Haggis? He takes a far subtler approach to exploring difficult subject matter this time, and the lack of histrionics makes the message far more serviceable. The film begins as a mystery, with Tommy Lee Jones investigating the disappearance of his son who was supposed to return from Iraq. Then the film transforms into an examination on the hidden, psychological costs of a war that continues to backslide into incivility and chaos. Jones gives a terrific taciturn performance, expressing so much sorrow with his hangdog expressions and sad, soulful eyes. There isn’t a moment in the movie that feels trite or contrived, and its conclusion is surprising in how subdued it plays out, which makes it far more emotionally troublesome. The title is in reference to the location of the famous biblical battle between David and Goliath. Is America Goliath? Are we David? I can’t honestly decode all the metaphors in this solid slow burn anti-war flick. Haggis is bristling with things to say but effectively buries them below the surface so that the viewer is not beaten over the head but yet left with many significant questions. And what police investigation, even in a war away from home flick, would be complete without a visit to a strip club?

Nate’s Grade: B+

A Mighty Heart (2007)

Good intentions and some proficient camerawork can only go so far to make a film worthwhile. Angelina Jolie gives the best performance of her career as kidnapped Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl’s wife (she’s French and Cuban, making for one really tricky accent). I wanted to like this movie more. The subject matter is serious and timely, the filmmaking has a sturdy docu-drama look, and the acting never comes across as phony, but alas, I think I mentally checked out because much of the film is a detective story that I already know the ending to. Daniel Pearl was infamously beheaded, so watching an hour of his wife, friends, and local police scramble to track down key figures, their allegiances and acquaintances, and the whereabouts of Daniels can come across as fruitless and somewhat cruel. This film doesn’t have the same cathartic feel that United 93 had because that moment was universal, and while I can admire the cinematography and superb acting I can’t ignore the fact that watching people search and fail gives me little emotional reward as a viewer.

Nate’s Grade: B

No End in Sight (2007)

Director Charles Ferguson lived his life as a PhD political scientist, and then he felt compelled to make a movie. No End in Sight doesn’t focus much on the origins of the current Iraq War, which have been well documented and discussed in many other realms, instead the movie takes an exacting look into where the U.S. government fouled up the occupation after toppling Saddam Hussein. Because of this approach, Ferguson’s expose cannot be dismissed under false propaganda claims, and because his interviews mostly consist of the people on the ground who were responsible to stabilize the country, No End in Sight is blessed with plenty of hard-hitting first-hand accounts by the people given the hurried, thankless job of rebuilding a conquered nation.

General Jay Garner and his team, including Colonel Paul Hughes and Ambassador Barbara Bodine, were given 60 days to plan for a post-war Iraq. In contrast, FDR spent years planning ahead for an occupation of Germany. Planning was difficult because when they arrived in Baghdad the post-war looting made setting up a government a formidable task. They not only had to find means to contact people but they had to figure out ways simply to operate in an environment where looting had destroyed buildings and proper tools for communication. They were in charge of ORHA, the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, which was not run through the State department, as would be normal, but run by the Defense department.

The film holds its harshest criticism for L. Paul Bremer, the man appointed to run the Coalition Provisional Authority, formerly ORHA. Bremer, like many who planned the post-war occupation and were placed in key positions within the occupation, had no military experience, no foreign policy experience with the Middle East, a notoriously tricky region, and he didn’t speak a lick of Arabic. In any other scenario, he would be judged unqualified for his heavy duty ahead. No End in Sight lays out three grievous errors that Bremer made in the summer of 2003 that gave birth to the ongoing insurgency and sent Iraq spinning out of control. The first was absolving any previous work to reach out and include Iraqis in helping to form a working provisional government. Bremer was more a my-way-or-the-highway kind of guy, which may be why he was esteemed in a presidential administration filled with these types. This alienated the Iraqi people and began Bremer’s calamitous habit of bridge burning. His second error was his decision to eliminate the Ba’ath party, Saddam Hussein’s ruling party, and bar members from any future government service. This stripped teachers, engineers, intellectuals, the very people integral to build the infrastructure of a nation, and made them permanently unemployed in Iraq. Many members had merely joined the Ba’ath party because it was the only way to secure a steady job.

But by far the most baffling and incompetent decision Bremer made was to disband Iraq’s army. This boneheaded move went against the recommendations of U.S. military figures, and in the blink of an eye, the 500,000-strong Iraqi army were without a job and an income. There were overtures from military leaders to ORHA; Paul Hughes recounts that one officer promised him 12,000 men in a week if asked. So, in a situation where the U.S. military did not have enough soldiers on the ground to even halt looting, Bremer disbanded Iraq’s best solution for restoring law and order. Half a million angry, disenfranchised, combat-trained, well-armed men were now left to fend for themselves, and if the U.S. didn’t care for their expertise than death militias would. It should come as no surprise that shortly after this colossal miscue is when Improvised Explosive Device (IED) attacks on the U.S. troops surged along with U.S. casualties. It seems like at that point the verdict had come against the U.S. occupation.

Bremer’s decisions alienated, humiliated, and inflamed the people of Iraq, and they went against the recommendations by people that knew what they were talking about. The greatest tragedy that comes to mind is that, despite morally questionable, downright repugnant reasons for entering this conflict, the U.S. could have done this right. Saddam was indeed a bad man and the people of Iraq were initially receptive to see what the U.S. occupation would bring about. They weren’t expecting rampant unemployment, no tangible security force, being excluded from decision-making, having American private contractors bleed them dry, and an utter lack of basic human services like power and clean water. Add a long-standing religious feud into the mix and it’s no wonder the country has descended into a quagmire. No End in Sight makes the dots easy to follow and connect the cause-effect relationships into where we are today.

It’s hard to watch the film and not feel your blood boil. While No End in Sight is presented soberly and with clear-headed precision, watching the absurd miscalculations and naiveté prevail over the opinions of experts is infuriating. General Shinseki recommended to Congress that several hundred thousand troops would be required after toppling Saddam. Paul Wolfowitz, deputy Secretary of Defense, swiftly countered this assertion by claiming that it was unimaginable that it would require more troops to secure the peace rather than engage in war. “Unimaginable” is the key word here; Wolfowitz just couldn’t potentially fathom a reality that was known by most high-ranking military officials. Stabilizing a country is far more taxing than simply taking out an opposing force. Shinseki, who guided occupation forces in Bosnia and Kosovo, was ignored and pushed into “early retirement,” and Wolfowitz’s plan was followed (Wolfowitz also famously stated that the war would pay for itself thanks to Iraq’s oil revenues).

No End in Sight does have a figure of amusement and it just so happens to be Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. The film opens with his farewell address after the 2006 midterm elections where Republicans lost control of Congress and Rumsfeld was shortly ousted from his job days later. He calls the Iraq War little understood and declares that Bush and his team’s accomplishments will one-day get the full historical notation they deserve. Of course, the irony is that the designers of the Iraq War had little understanding of what they were getting into and ignored the warnings and advice of those whose opinions conflicted with the Administration line. Many clips of Rumsfeld news conferences are shown and the man comes across as flippant and disingenuous. He dismisses the looting as “stuff happens” and argues TV news is re-running the same image of a man absconding with a vase (“And you have to wonder, are there that many vases in the whole country?” he adds). The Iraq looting destroyed a museum that had artifacts dating back 7,000 years to the dawn of civilization and a library with hundreds of ancient manuscripts was burned to the ground; an entire country’s deep culture and history went up in smoke and Rumsfeld was using it as a setup to a vase joke. The clips further remind the audience that Rumsfeld, one of the chief architects of the war along with Vice President Dick Cheney and Wolfowitz, simply disregards information he doesn’t agree with, whether it may actually be right. The leaders of the Bush Administration demonstrate time and again a supreme disconnect from reality.

No End in Sight is one of the best documentaries yet on the Iraq War and a definitive indictment on the lack of substantial care given to post-war planning. No one can accuse this film of slander or pushing an agenda; this is an exacting autopsy on the current chaos in Iraq, and it has cold facts and hard truths to back up its convictions. Even if you feel that you know all the blunders tied to Iraq, this sensational film is not merely a repackaging of dogma. It’s eye-opening and intensely fascinating and one of the better films of the year; it’s an argument made on the merits of evidence and testimony, and it is damning. One soldier reflects upon the current conditions and flatly asks, “This is the best America can do? Don’t tell me that.” Then after a small pause he adds, “That makes me angry.” You are not alone, brother.

Nate’s Grade: A

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