Generation Kill

Generation Kill poster


The HBO minis­eries Gen­er­a­tion Kill comes from David Simon and Ed Burns, the mas­ter­minds behind the superla­tive series The Wire. Simon him­self is a for­mer jour­nal­ist, the state thereof being a pri­mary pre­oc­cu­pa­tion of the fifth sea­son of the The Wire. So it makes sense that he would be drawn to a war story seen through the eyes of a fel­low writer. Gen­er­a­tion Kill is based on the non­fic­tion book by Evan Wright, a Rolling Stone reporter embed­ded in the US Marine Corps 1st Recon­nais­sance Bat­tal­ion, the first boots on the ground dur­ing the 2003 inva­sion of Iraq. Actor Lee Terge­sen plays Wright as a wide-eyed inno­cent among per­verse killers, delight­edly scrib­bling the marines’ col­or­ful boast­ings in his note­book, when not dodg­ing sniper fire. The most quotable is the manic dri­ver Cor­po­ral Josh Ray Per­son, well-cast as James Ran­sone, basi­cally repris­ing his char­ac­ter Ziggy Sobotka from The Wire sea­son two.

The marines’ lingo flashes back to pop cul­ture circa 2003, which already seems so very far away. A rumor spreads that J-Lo is dead, remind­ing us of the brief period when Jen­nifer Lopez was the most desired woman on the planet. Everyone’s a “dog” or “bra” (not as in the under­gar­ment but as in “bro”). In between har­row­ing bat­tles (which the war­riors long for but hate when they arrive), much of their expe­ri­ence is com­prised of long stretches of bore­dom. They sup­ply their own sound­track, rec­ol­lect­ing what lyrics they can and recre­at­ing every part of a song a cap­pella with great enthusiasm.

Generation KillCpl. Josh Ray Per­son: “When my band opened up for Limp Bizkit in Kansas City, we fuck­ing sucked. But then again, so did they. The only dif­fer­ence is that they became famous and I became a marine.”

After exhaust­ing the con­ver­sa­tional value of their bowel move­ments and each other’s alleged sex­ual ori­en­ta­tions, there’s noth­ing but time to talk about the ori­gins and moti­va­tions of the war. One pop­u­lar the­ory is that it is a noth­ing but another race war. As one sol­dier puts it, it’s “White man’s des­tiny to rule the world” and “White man won’t be denied.” Or is it to clear the ground for more Star­bucks fran­chises? Or maybe it’s a war over the scarcest resource of all: virgins.

Marines are trained to deper­son­al­ize and vil­ify the enemy, all with the aim of being effec­tive killers. So they are essen­tially ill-equipped for a 21st cen­tury war in which they are expected to request per­mis­sion before engag­ing any tar­get, and for sit­u­a­tions in which they must deal diplo­mat­i­cally with the civil­ian pop­u­la­tion — some of which may be threats in dis­guise, but most often are just peo­ple who either need their help or would rather they just leave. When the marines do wish to offer com­pas­sion, they are thwarted by their com­mand or by cold hard real­ity — often­times there’s noth­ing they can do. They’re also fatally under­equipped in a lit­eral sense: they’re issued less body armor than Wright was able to pur­chase on eBay, they have state-of-the-art nightvi­sion gog­gles but no bat­ter­ies, and as if they didn’t stand out enough, they’re clad in the wrong cam­ou­flage style. They sub­sist on only one M.R.E. (Meal, Ready to Eat) each day, sup­ple­mented with copi­ous caf­feine pills, Skit­tles, Hus­tler, and Skoal. But as one marine quips, “Sem­per Gumby — always flex­i­ble.” As char­ac­ter­ized here, these Marines never miss an oppor­tu­nity to bitch, but pride them­selves on being able to “make do.”

Generation KillLt. Col. Stephen ‘God­fa­ther’ Fer­rando: “What’s fore­most in Godfather’s mind? We’re still very much in the game, gentlemen.”

Aside from the frus­trat­ingly elu­sive Iraqi army or sui­cide bombers, there are few antag­o­nists marines hate more than Reservists, the Army, and their own incom­pe­tent com­mand. But they grad­u­ally learn that their supe­ri­ors are often far wiser than they real­ized. Lieu­tenant Colonel Stephen “God­fa­ther” Fer­rando (Chance Kelly) (so nick­named because of a hoarse voice derived from lung can­cer) nearly causes a mutiny by refus­ing to aid a fatally injured Iraqi boy. In a rare def­er­ence from a man that has no need to explain him­self to his sub­or­di­nates, he explains in detail why he made his deci­sion: it was lit­er­ally impos­si­ble to save the boy. Later, he reveals to the reporter that he is always fully con­scious of inef­fec­tive com­man­ders like the grossly incom­pe­tent Cap­tain Dave McGraw (Eric Nen­ninger), known to his detrac­tors as “Cap­tain Amer­ica.” God­fa­ther can’t always act on every sin­gle infrac­tion, lest polic­ing his peo­ple become his entire role in the mil­i­tary machine. Even the rep­re­hen­si­ble Sergeant Major John Sixta (Neal Jones) turns out to be more canny than any­one sus­pected; he knows his job is to make him­self into a car­toon vil­lain against which the men can direct their frus­tra­tions. His role is part of the time-tested marine tra­di­tion: a morale-building fig­ure. And for audi­ences of this series, a bit of comic relief (“That hel­met is the prop­pity of the Yoo-Ess-of-Ay!”).

I found the series to be dis­ap­point­ingly frac­tured, no rival at all to Simon and Burns’ mas­ter­piece the Wire. Only the sub­lime final scene rises to the vaulted heights The Wire reg­u­larly reached. One marine had spent weeks shoot­ing and edit­ing a home movie of the inva­sion. When the com­pany finally reaches Bagh­dad, they find they lit­er­ally can­not watch the com­pleted movie. Each walks away, in silence, one by one. In the tra­di­tion of The Wire, this clos­ing mon­tage is set to a per­fectly cho­sen piece of music (Johnny Cash’s apoc­a­lyp­tic “When the Man Comes Around”) and sends shiv­ers down the spine.

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Waltz With Bashir

Waltz With Bashir movie poster


Ari Folman’s Waltz With Bashir could eas­ily be filed away under any or all of the fol­low­ing gen­res: doc­u­men­tary, auto­bi­og­ra­phy, mem­oir, jour­nal­ism, and non­fic­tion. If there’s one thing all of these have in com­mon, it’s that none make for nat­ural car­toons. The excep­tion that proves the rule is Mar­jane Satrapi’s Perse­po­lis (read The Dork Report review), which began life as a pair of graphic nov­els before being adapted into an ani­mated fea­ture film. Waltz With Bashir takes the oppo­site route, start­ing as a film and end­ing up as a book. Could ani­mated ver­sions of Joe Sacco’s Pales­tine and Art Spiegelman’s Maus: A Survivor’s Tale be far behind?

Fol­man has lost his mem­o­ries of a key expe­ri­ence dur­ing his ser­vice in the Israel Defense Forces dur­ing the 1982 war in Lebanon. A con­ver­sa­tion with a friend sparks a frag­ment of mem­ory involv­ing the Sabra and Shatila mas­sacre. The Israeli Defense Force sur­rounded Pales­tin­ian refugee camps in Beirut, but stood by as the Pha­langists, a Chris­t­ian Lebanese mili­tia, entered and mas­sa­cred a still unknown num­ber of Pales­tin­ian civil­ians. Was he really there, as he now seems to rec­ol­lect? Did he have any­thing to do with it?

Waltz With Bashir

Fol­man speaks of mem­ory as “some­thing stored in my sys­tem,” as if his brain were merely a com­puter, dis­as­so­ci­ated from any cul­pa­bil­ity in the mas­sacre. He merely wit­nessed it, but it was enough for him to sub­con­sciously erase his mem­o­ries over the inter­ven­ing years. He seeks out old com­rades in the search of some­one else who served with him and may help fill in the blanks in his mem­ory. Like a detec­tive story, the search for clues pro­vides a use­ful sto­ry­telling device while pro­vid­ing an episodic nar­ra­tive structure.

The title refers to a fel­low sol­dier that madly waltzed with a machine gun while sur­rounded on all sides by Lebanese fight­ers. “Bashir” is Bashir Gemayel, the assas­si­nated Pha­langist com­man­der lion­ized by Lebanese, and a celebrity on a scale that one Israeli likens to how he felt about David Bowie.

Fol­man is an artist as well as a film­maker; at one point he asks one of his old friends if it’s OK to sketch his fam­ily dur­ing their inter­view. His visual sense man­i­fests in Waltz With Bashir’s stun­ning images, com­po­si­tion, and color. Like Star Wars: The Clone Wars (read The Dork Report review) and Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Com­plex, it fea­tures stiff, sim­pli­fied char­ac­ters atop fully-rendered 3D envi­ron­ments. Human faces are crudely ren­dered with small looped expres­sions, when not totally still (note that the 2D vec­tor ani­ma­tion is not the same tech­nique used in Wak­ing Life or A Scan­ner Darkly). They con­trast sharply with the fluid move­ment of the detailed, com­plexly lit vehi­cles, back­grounds, and weapons. If such styl­ized human fig­ures were a delib­er­ate artis­tic choice, what is to be gained? A few pos­si­ble explanations:

  • As recent CGI movies like Final Fan­tasy: The Spir­its Within, The Polar Express, and Beowulf have proven to their detri­ment, the uncanny val­ley (the point at which a sim­u­la­tion of a human becomes almost, but not quite, real­is­tic and thus creeps audi­ences out) is a very real prob­lem fac­ing ani­ma­tors as tech­nol­ogy pro­gresses. All three of these are tech­no­log­i­cal mar­vels, but the human char­ac­ters are still just one step away from dead-eyed zombies.
  • In the most prac­ti­cal sense, ani­ma­tion is use­ful to cre­ate images of his­tor­i­cal events where no cam­eras were present. Fol­man does recount see­ing jour­nal­ist Ron Ben-Yishai boldly film the afore­men­tioned fire­fight in which his friend had his machine-gun-waltz with Bashir, so per­haps some actual footage existed for reference.
  • The dream­like unre­al­ity of ani­ma­tion plays into Folman’s theme of the muta­bil­ity of memory.
  • Like Isao Takahata’s stun­ning Grave of Fire­flies, ani­ma­tion makes it slightly eas­ier to watch painful images. Takahata’s emo­tion­ally drain­ing film involved a lit­tle girl slowly starv­ing to death after the World War II fire­bomb­ing of Japan, and Waltz With Bashir fea­tures such images as a field full of dying horses and the corpse of a child buried in rub­ble. The end of the film snatches away this dis­tanc­ing tech­nique; we finally see archival footage of the massacre’s aftermath.

Waltz With Bashir

Is it fair to crit­i­cize the film for tak­ing the Israeli point of view in a story about the Sabra and Shatila mas­sacre? Save for one woman that appears in the actual footage seen at the end, Pales­tini­ans lit­er­ally don’t have a voice in the film. But nei­ther, for that mat­ter, do the Pha­langists. In the case of this his­tor­i­cal event, Israelis were pas­sive bystanders, nei­ther vic­tims (as they were dur­ing the Holo­caust) nor oppres­sors (as they are now over the Pales­tini­ans — I invite objec­tions in the com­ments below, please). If to bluntly ask what Waltz With Bashir is for, it does three things: First, it’s a med­i­ta­tion upon the com­plex­ity and unre­li­a­bil­ity of human mem­ory. Sec­ond, it’s an act of jour­nal­ism; return­ing the Sabra and Shatila Mas­sacre to the pub­lic con­scious­ness. Third, it’s one man’s per­sonal com­ing to terms with his past.

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A Clash of Faiths: Ridley Scott’s Body of Lies

Ridley Scott

Body of Lies movie poster


Rid­ley Scott’s fol­low up to the gen­tle com­edy of A Good Year (read The Dork Report review) and the crime drama Amer­i­can Gang­ster (partly mod­eled, I think, on Michael Mann’s epic Heat), returns to the politically-themed yet still action-oriented ter­ri­tory he first vis­ited in Black Hawk Down. The key dif­fer­ence here is that, like Peter Weir’s The King­dom and Pete Travis’ Van­tage Point (read The Dork Report review), Body of Lies is set in a fan­ta­sy­land safely divorced from the very, very real events that inspired Black Hawk Down. All of these films have the air of gritty real­ism, but still indulge in the wish ful­fill­ment of a very cin­e­matic war on terror.

Body of Lies can be seen as com­plet­ing a kind of Mid­dle East tril­ogy for Scott, after the afore­men­tioned Black Hawk Down plus the Cru­sades epic King­dom of Heaven (read The Dork Report review). Screen­writer William Mon­a­han wrote both King­dom of Heaven and Body of Lies (adapted from the novel by David Ignatius). But of the three, Body of Lies is clearly the least serious.

Russell Crowe and Leonardo DiCaprio in Body of LiesMesopotamia, and step on it!

No doubt movie stu­dio exec­u­tives have cal­cu­lated down to the last cent that world audi­ences are still too sen­si­tive to actual ter­ror­ist attacks like Lon­don and Madrid in order to buy tick­ets for dra­matic recre­ations on the big screen. Instead, most main­stream terrorism-themed movies are basi­cally enter­tain­ments that only have the feel of seri­ous import, and none of the sub­stance. Body of Lies invents anal­o­gous ter­ror­ist attacks such as a sleeper cell blow­ing up their Lon­don flat, and later, the bomb­ing of a U.S. marine base in Turkey (I hope O’Neal — Demi Moore — from Scott’s G.I. Jane — read The Dork Report Review — wasn’t sta­tioned there). Van­tage Point is a lit­tle more cre­ative in imag­in­ing a worst-case-scenario of a pres­i­den­tial assas­si­na­tion, but has no inter­est in the reper­cus­sions beyond a Rashomon-like recount­ing of the imme­di­ate aftermath.

So audi­ences get films like this, where shad­owy CIA oper­a­tives sneak around Iraq and Jor­dan, sav­ing the world from Islamic fun­da­men­tal­ism. They have seem­ingly lim­it­less resources but no gov­ern­ment over­sight, and any­thing is pos­si­ble with a lit­tle com­puter hack­ing. Mean­while, more seri­ous and real­is­tic movies are ignored, like In the Val­ley of Elah (read The Dork Report review) and the truly excel­lent but emo­tion­ally dev­as­tat­ing United 93. In com­par­i­son, Scott’s Black Hawk Down was unafraid to recre­ate actual events still raw in the Amer­i­can public’s mem­ory: the cat­a­strophic marine incur­sion into Soma­lia in 1993. And even to limit the scope to Scott’s own oeu­vre, King­dom of Heaven is a much smarter con­sid­er­a­tion of the clash of faiths in the Mid­dle East.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Golshifteh Farahani in Body of LiesLeo meets cute with an Iran­ian nurse (Gol­shifteh Farahani)

Body of Lies is Rus­sell Crowe’s fourth film with Scott, fol­low­ing Glad­i­a­tor, A Good Year, and Amer­i­can Gang­ster. Here, he packs on some seri­ous poundage to enter the same schlubby mode he debuted in Michael Mann’s The Insider, sea­soned with a lit­tle of the crass bas­tard he played in A Good Year. Leonardo DiCaprio, on tem­po­rary loan from Mar­tin Scors­ese, sports a scrappy beard but still looks like a teenager. The pretty boy is con­stantly get­ting beaten up, cut, bruised, and los­ing fin­gers. But he meets cute with pretty Iran­ian nurse Aisah (Gol­shifteh Fara­hani), so that’s alright, then.

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Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven

Ridley Scott

Kingdom of Heaven movie poster


Rid­ley Scott’s video intro­duc­tion to the Director’s Cut of King­dom of Heaven claims it is more than a merely extended ver­sion of the film. The Director’s Cut rep­re­sents his inten­tions, and is “the best ver­sion” of the film. The most sig­nif­i­cant restora­tion he sin­gles out is a sub­plot involv­ing Princess Sibylla’s son. This ver­sion is long, yes, but always engross­ing and inter­est­ing. It’s incred­i­ble that this much mate­r­ial was shot for one movie. It must have been clear from the length of the script that much of it was going to have be cut, but the expense and ded­i­ca­tion was there to shoot more than was needed in order to be able to shape the story later in the edit­ing room. I might have lost my patience with a three-and-a-half hour long movie in the the­ater, but it’s per­fect for home viewing.

Eva Green in Kingdom of HeavenGal­lic God­dess Eva Green

King­dom of Heaven opens in France in 1184. At the time, Jews, Chris­tians, and Mus­lims were shar­ing Jerusalem not quite in peace, but in rel­a­tive sta­bil­ity. The wise King Bald­win IV and the cyn­i­cal but basi­cally decent Tiberias (Jeremy Irons) are barely pre­serv­ing the frag­ile stale­mate. By and large, Mus­lim char­ac­ters are pre­sented as more sane and civ­i­lized than the Chris­tians. Inter­est­ingly, Jews are men­tioned but are absent from the pro­ceed­ings — evi­dently to this Dork Reporter unschooled in the rel­e­vant his­tory, they had lit­tle polit­i­cal power at the time. Indeed, Chris­t­ian holy men come across the worst of all. Early in the film, a preacher in a ram­shackle Euro­pean lay­over camp along the route to the Holy Land pro­claims to prospec­tive Cru­saders that “To kill an infi­del, the Pope has said, is not mur­der. It is the path to heaven.” Later, as the Chris­t­ian army is about to be over­run by the Mus­lim army, one priest advises every­one to “Con­vert to Islam. Repent later.”

Balian de Ibelin (Orlando Bloom) is a wid­owed French black­smith swept up in vast his­tor­i­cal events. Bloom’s per­for­mance as the real-life his­tor­i­cal fig­ure isn’t bad, exactly, but he’s deadly dull. He is cer­tainly earnest and hand­some, but with­out the sym­pa­thetic star­power of a true lead­ing man. Balian is a largely pas­sive man caught up in key moments of his­tory by the arbi­trary whims of birth and luck, not unlike For­rest Gump. A plot not dri­ven by the actions of the pro­tag­o­nist could be seen as a sign of bad screen­writ­ing, but I’m pre­pared to accept the basic arc if it means it can hold such an inter­est­ing core con­cept together.

Orlando Bloom and Liam Neeson in Kingdom of HeavenLiam Nee­son teaches his young padawan Orlando Bloom the ways of the Force

Balian dis­cov­ers he is the ille­git­i­mate son to the Knight of Jerusalem God­frey de Ibelin (Liam Nee­son). He inher­its the man­tle and is launched on a jour­ney that makes him a knight, friend and coun­selor to the wise King Bald­win (Edward Nor­ton), lover of his beau­ti­ful sis­ter Princess Sibylla (Eva Green), and leader of the doomed defense of Jerusalem. But what’s most implau­si­ble is his sud­den emer­gence as a mas­ter swords­man, mil­i­tary strate­gist, archi­tect of fortresses, civil engi­neer of irri­ga­tion sys­tems, and hon­or­able lord who treats his sub­jects fairly. True, he is estab­lished early on as an “enginer” who despairs have hav­ing fought in mean­ing­less con­flicts and designed war machines for the slaugh­ter of inno­cents. But it is absurd for this largely une­d­u­cated man to wield such knowl­edge and wisdom.

More­over, Balian arguably causes more harm than good. His pride in being a good knight (as per his father’s dying instruc­tion) leads to the slaugh­ter of an entire army and to an evil man becom­ing king of Jerusalem. His piety doesn’t stop him from sleep­ing with a mar­ried princess, but he later hyp­o­crit­i­cally decides sleep­ing with her is no longer morally accept­able when her hus­band Guy of Lusig­nan (Mar­ton Csokas) becomes king. And what kind of man would kick Eva Green out of bed?

Eva Green in Kingdom of HeavenThis review can’t have enough pic­tures of Eva Green

The vil­lain­ous Guy is car­toon­ishly fey and sneer­ing, and prob­a­bly not coin­ci­den­tally the most obvi­ously French of all the char­ac­ters (per­haps for the best, few other cast mem­bers attempt to affect French accents). It is sug­gested that he knows his son has lep­rosy, and cal­lously banks on him dying and thus allow­ing him to be king. But what exactly does he want? If power, he gets it. So why then spark a holy war? The film­mak­ers’ inten­tions may have been to draw an ana­log to Bush’s mis­ad­ven­tures in the Mid­dle East, but Guy doesn’t seem to be the pious sort who believes it is his duty as a Chris­t­ian to purge the Holy Land of infi­del Muslims.

Spe­cial men­tion must go to Edward Nor­ton, excel­lent as King Bald­win IV, whose advanced lep­rosy left him a face­less man in an iron mask. I don’t mean this praise as a back­handed slight to Nor­ton; he expertly con­veys intel­li­gence and wis­dom through his voice and body lan­guage alone.

Edward Norton in Kingdom of HeavenEdward Nor­ton as the orig­i­nal man in the iron mask

Inter­est­ingly for a Hol­ly­wood epic, King­dom of Heaven actu­ally fea­tures very few of the grand bat­tles usu­ally required for the genre. The tension-and-release struc­ture of William Monahan’s screen­play is almost musi­cal. After a long buildup, the first con­flict is cur­tailed before it begins. King Bald­win can­nily nego­ti­ates for peace by per­son­ally show­ing up despite his advanced (and known to the enemy) ill­ness; also, his rep­u­ta­tion as in intel­li­gent man pre­cedes him. The sec­ond bat­tle hap­pens mostly off-screen. Finally, very late in the film, we see the spec­tac­u­lar defense of Jerusalem against the Mus­lim army. Other direc­tors might not have been able to resist wow­ing us with spec­tac­u­lar bat­tles for so long, but Scott and Monahan’s inter­ests are admirably else­where: in the characters.

On release in 2005, King­dom of Heaven was lumped in with Wolf­gang Petersen’s Troy, only inso­far as they were both his­tor­i­cal epics. It’s a dou­bly unfair com­par­i­son in that Troy, a far infe­rior film, is set hun­dreds of years ear­lier and based on a work of lit­er­a­ture. King­dom of Heaven was inter­preted as a direct com­men­tary on US incur­sions in the Mid­dle East, not least because one of George W. Bush’s most breath­tak­ing gaffes (in a pres­i­dency full of them) was to cast his war on ter­ror as a “cru­sade.” If he ever screens King­dom of Heaven, per­haps he will gain a lit­tle per­spec­tive and be inspired to read up on the long, com­pli­cated three-way reli­gious con­flict in The Mid­dle East.

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