Author Archives: Alex Good

XX (2017)

*. XX is an anthology horror film, and judged alongside its peers I’d rate it above average. That’s a slightly backhanded compliment, as most such movies aren’t very good. But I thought each of the four separate stories here worth watching, with at least one of them being a lot of fun. The tendency in the 2010s has been for horror anthologies to speed things up with a lot of very short films (think of the V/H/S, P.O.E., or ABCs of Death series). The stories here, however, all come in feeling just the right length.
*. The other thing about XX is that each of the four stories was written and directed by a woman and women play all the leading roles. That’s where the title comes from, with the double-X chromosones.
*. This seems like a good idea, as it lets a group of young women filmmakers showcase their work in the horror genre. But is there anything more to it? Do the results suggest any particular female (or feminist) vision?
*. Well, maybe. In an interview included with the DVD Karyn Kusama (who directed the last episode) mentions being drawn toward “the domestic dynamics of horror.” And it’s true that three of the four stories put the family in the foreground, with key scenes set around dining-room or kitchen tables. In each of these films a mother is the main character, and she has to deal with what are typical anxieties of motherhood, albeit imagined in scarier ways.
*. First up is “The Box,” which is the one film that isn’t an original story but is based on the Jack Ketchum story of the same name. I thought this was nicely done, with director Jovanka Vuckovic creating an effectively creepy atmosphere. There’s no big payoff, but that’s the story, which takes the form of a puzzle without a solution. Basically the kids have developed an eating disorder that their mom is unable to address, as she is shut out from their inner lives. Most parents know the feeling. Even without their falling sick we might expect her to crack up from the repetition of “nothing,” which becomes the film’s refrain of Nevermore.
*. Second is “The Birthday Party” (directed by Annie Clark). I liked this the best. It’s another take on the “how can I hide this body?” premise much loved as a source of black humour. Again we have a mother overwhelmed: this time having to manage a child’s birthday party on the same day as her husband’s suicide. The sinister nanny with a spooky hairdo is no help, but a singing Pandagram seems to offer a solution. I thought the sound and music were a little over the top here, but I guess they were meant to be.

*. Third is “Don’t Fall.” Director Roxanne Benjamin (she produced the V/H/S films) wanted a traditional “creature feature” campfire tale and got it, complete with cheesy dialogue referencing some cursed petroglyphs that are “clearly pre-Native American.” It’s well done, but the basic idea and how it plays out, including the look of the monster itself, isn’t that interesting. I thought it needed a twist.
*. Fourth is “Her Only Living Son” (directed by Karyn Kusama). Rosemary’s baby has grown up (and apparently John Cassavetes has made it big in Hollywood). I just thought this was OK. The parental anxiety is the teenager acting up at school and home. The devil, we learn, is no match for a smother mother.
*. There’s also some stop-motion puppet work by Sofia Carrillo that plays in-between the separate stories. I’d call it a frame, but it’s not since there’s no connection between it and the other parts of the movie. There’s also no narrative. It looks great, but I honestly couldn’t figure out what the point of any of it was.
*. XX had a limited release, and seems to have done a lot better with critics than it did with audiences. That seems weird to me. As I began these notes by saying, it’s a better movie than most of its peers. What are people comparing it to?
*. Another weird thing I noticed when going through the reviews was that there is so much disagreement among critics about which of the stories is the best. This leads me to believe that I may have missed something in the ones I didn’t care as much for. For the record, I liked “The Box” and “The Birthday Party,” but thought the second two fell a bit short.
*. I don’t think there’s much of a political point being made, or empowering message to be absorbed. But for genre fans I don’t think it needs one. They may in fact like it better that way.

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Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)

*. There’s no question mark at the end of the title. I didn’t know that. Seems odd. The source (which only provided the basic premise for the film) was a novel by Gary K. Wolf titled Who Censored Roger Rabbit? and it had a question mark.
*. With that important point out of the way, on with the show (this is it).
*. Up until this latest reviewing, I don’t think I’d seen Who Framed Roger Rabbit, at least all the way through, since it first came out thirty years ago. I seem to remember catching bits of it on TV a while back, but that’s it. So I was really wondering how it would hold up.
*. Of course, on one level I think it’s fair to call it a gimmick movie. The mixture of real and animated footage had been done before, but nothing like on this scale, and as such an essential part of the plot. There are two points I want to make about this.
*. In the first place, it was not a technological breakthrough. That would come later, with the digital revolution in computer animation. The animation here is old school. As the director of animation Richard Williams says on the “making of” documentary included with the DVD, there was never any problem with being able to do the animation, the problem was time and money. A studio was going to have to (and in the event did) throw a ton of money at such a project to make it work, including hiring a small army of animators.
*. My second point, following on the first, is that because it’s a movie defined more by its craftsmanship than its use of a new technology it doesn’t fall into the trap of dating as badly as other movies that were all about their new effects. Early CGI, for example, looks pretty awful by today’s standards, but the animation here is something different, rather than something more primitive, than you’d see today.
*. It certainly looks like a different species of animation than CGI. It’s not as crisp and the colours aren’t nearly as bright. Put another way, the figures look dark and blurry to an eye trained to the arcade-style visuals of today’s computer effects. That doesn’t bother me too much, because while I don’t think this makes the animation more “realistic” (whatever that might mean in this context), I do think it fits the film’s noir setting. I only wonder how it plays with younger audiences, the digital natives. To be honest, I don’t even know any young people who have seen it that I could ask. This was a very successful movie when it came out but I don’t know how well known it is today.

*. David Thomson: “one of the last great works of wit and beauty, magic and terror, to come out of a Hollywood studio.” Wow. That’s pretty high praise (I think; but Thomson doesn’t think much of the direction Hollywood was going in around this time). Still, it’s an opinion that I think a lot of people share. I really enjoy it too, but just to register a couple of negative notes . . .
*. I don’t like the character of Roger Rabbit. I don’t like his manic personality, or his voice, or his appearance. He looks strung out most of the time and doesn’t have the same kind of freshness as the classic Disney and Warner Bros. characters we meet still possess. After just a couple of scenes I started finding him irritating, and he never really grew on me.
*. I don’t find the story that interesting. It’s basically just Chinatown with a twist. It seems to me they might have done more.
*. I don’t think there’s anything very funny going on, particularly with the script. It’s littered with groaner gags, the verbal equivalent of the hand buzzers and whoopie cushions put out by Acme. Then there are some adult double entendres that get a smile because they’re coming from ‘toons. But really there’s not a lot of wit to any of it.
*. What makes it so watchable? Bob Hoskins is great. Perhaps no one has ever played against an absent element better, even as stars have had to all become used to it. Jessica Rabbit’s shape was immediately iconic, with the pneumatic bliss of her figure bouncing and swinging in every different direction. Christopher Lloyd is perfect as the villain cartoonish enough to be a ‘toon. And finally, while there’s nothing special about the story, it is all neatly done from start to finish, with no loose ends or excess weight. It was just too expensive a production to be wasteful, so pretty much whatever they shot had to count. The DVD contains only one deleted scene that I’m glad they cut (the rather grim pig head business).
*. There’s been a lot of talk of a sequel over the years, but given the fullness of the closure we get at the end I’m glad they’ve resisted opening it up again. Why bother? I don’t think I’d go so far as David Thomson does in the line I quoted above, but I do agree that there’s something about this movie that stands at the end of something, more so than the change in animation. Even if there were a sequel I don’t think they could ever do something like this again. Why not? Because it’s only fluff.
*. One suggestion: I think this movie really was a labour of love. Sure it’s a send-up of the genre in lots of ways, as so many movies in our own time are, but there isn’t a hint of cynicism about it. Maybe that’s what did the rabbit in.

Even — As You and I (1937)

*. As with any distinctive style, surrealism soon became the stuff of parody. Anybody could “do” surrealism: all you needed was to grab a camera, shoot some random film, and then edit it together in an obscure way.
*. The next step was that the whole process became material for a meta-parody. This is what we get in Even — As You and I, a short film about three rather dim fellows (the three credited directors) who decide to enter an amateur filmmaker contest. After a brainstorming screenplay-writing session comes up with nothing but variations on the “boy meets girl” scenario they are inspired by a magazine article on surrealism to give that a try. At least they won’t have to worry about a script!
*. Taking their cameras to the street they set about trying to assemble a surrealist masterpiece, with copies of Dali paintings being their only guide. It seems their main preoccupation with surrealism is in tricks of perspective. Their Eureka moment comes from looking at a picture in the magazine that represents something different depending on which way the page is turned. So they drop a camera down a manhole and climb a hydro pole to capture odd angles.
*. This is a bit odd, since when they screen the final cut of their film, The Afternoon of a Rubberband, it doesn’t include any such material. Instead there are the usual surrealist props in motion and an homage to the eyeball-cutting scene in Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou.
*. Finally, they realize that they are too late to enter the contest, which depresses them until they realize that there is another contest for cinematographers advertised under the headline of tricks and gadgets. They are in business again.
*. Well, it’s a send-up of a style of filmmaking that was already pretty much over and an industry that most of the people who know it best have viewed as comically absurd. There are a bunch of movie in-jokes to smile at. The filmmakers didn’t go on to do much, with Harry Hay being probably the best known name and he was mostly famous for being an early gay rights activist. Otherwise, it’s a reminder of what happened to surrealism: how a groundbreaking and controversial movement had, in the space of ten years, become “tricks and gadgets” and the stuff of parody. Ironically, such a fate may be the truest measure of its success.

Junkyard (2012)

*. It’s a pretty simple little film really, but then (1) a short film can’t be too complex, at least in terms of plot, and (2) sometimes the best stories really are quite simple.
*. That said, can we say there’s all that much going on here? At one time do conventions and universals become clichés? The idea that we are granted some profound insight into the meaning or shape of our lives in our final moments, for example. Really?
*. Here it at least has a trigger, the reappearance of Anthony, but I doubt it’s that realistic. Shouldn’t we be thinking of other things in our last few firings of consciousness? Or, perhaps even more realistically (and absurdly), be thinking of some trivial thing that never meant much of anything? Must we all imagine Rosebud?
*. We might say the same for the story. Most of us tend to fall away from the friends of our youth. On balance, I think that’s a good thing. People should be encouraged to move on. If he’d recognized Anthony earlier Paul might have said “There but for the grace of God . . .” As it is, what does he feel? Karma paying him back?
*. That’s a question worth asking because it’s about the only moral I draw from the film (aside from the obvious bit about not doing drugs). You shouldn’t rat on your friends. Not because it’s the wrong thing to do but because it’s pointless. The authorities don’t really care (what did Anthony do anyway?) and you’re not going to get anything out of it but a nagging feeling of guilt. In fact, such a betrayal might come back to bite you in the ass years from now.
*. As with any tragedy, fate has its role to play. Paul was only kidding himself if he thought he was escaping the junkyard/projects. We carry such environments with us.
*. I don’t think there’s much more to say than that. Aside from Anthony’s getting hooked on drugs and having a less involved mother there’s no real explanation for how the two friends came to such divergent ends. But then, little changes at an early enough age probably do have magnified effects as we get older.
*. The art and direction by Hisko Hulsing is a nice tonal balance of realism, lending everything a golden glow of nostalgia. You can never go home again though. Indeed, you might not even get the chance.

13 Hours (2016)

*. There’s a moment in 13 Hours when one of the band of bearded brothers defending the not-so-secret compound says that he feels like he’s in a horror movie. I nodded my head. You can trace various strands of cultural influence feeding into this movie, from the defence of the Alamo to the films of Howard Hawks and John Carpenter to Black Hawk Down to the Call of Duty video games, but the one I felt to be the strongest was the zombie siege film. One of the areas outside the compound is even called “zombieland,” and the shadowy figures seem to be rising out of the grave like an army of the undead.
*. Politics of this sort had arisen in the zombie genre before. In the remake of Dawn of the Dead a newsreel at the beginning seems to suggest a parallel between Muslims at prayer and the coming zombie apocalypse. And in World War Z we have Jerusalm besieged by zombie hordes that we don’t have to use too much imagination to identify. So this was already part of the zombie mythology, and seeing it in this movie just completes the circle.
*. So even on that level 13 Hours is a political film. But of course it was much more than that when it came out. “Benghazi” was shorthand for government bungling, leading to various investigations and reports that dogged the candidacy of Hillary Clinton. I don’t know if it was meant as a dog-whistle, but it would be naive to think it didn’t play that way to some audiences. Four years earlier the release of Zero Dark Thirty had been pushed back because it was felt to contain an implied criticism of President Obama, who was then running for re-election, something everyone involved with this film must have been aware of.
*. Director Michael Bay said he didn’t think it was political at all but was merely an objective record of what really happened. This can, however, only be an aspiration for any dramatic filmmaker, no matter what the subject. When dealing with this material it was impossible. What “really happened” is probably unrecoverable. The events seem to have been chaotic, there were elements of secrecy involved, and when it comes to military history you can always expect a lot of embellishment in the retelling (the proverbial “war stories”). Real life doesn’t usually sort out into heroes and villains this neatly, and the CIA station chief has apparently complained about the accuracy of his portrayal here, as one could well imagine he would no matter the facts of the case.
*. Then there is Mark Kermode’s take: “when Michael Bay says it’s not political what he means is that it’s not really about anything at all, it’s just about the action sequences.” For Kermode, and many other reviewers, Bay is only interested in the mechanics of blowing things up and making movies that are “loud and noisy and incoherent.”
*. There’s some truth to this. 13 Hours is an action film and most of the attempts made at characterization consist of the clichéd calls home to the loving family (now being done via Skype or Facetime). And when I say clichéd, I really mean it. If not for the geniality of the hirsute and buff John Krasinski, who is surprisingly good in the part, I think I would have groaned through all of these uplinks.
*. Still, I’d say there’s a little more to this than Bay’s usual fare. As soon as I type those words, however, I am forced to concede that Bay’s usual fare consists of robots fighting each other. So . . . I don’t know.
*. I don’t even know how realistic the action sequences are. I’m sure Bay was going for verisimilitude in painstakingly rebuilding the compound and getting all sorts of expert advice on the tactics. But then there were some silly shots thrown in. Apparently a bus never actually blew up, and I had a hard time believing the guy taking himself out with an RPG. I also wasn’t too sure about the team’s tactical movements. Would they really stay bunched together that much when they went into action? And why weren’t they getting into a prone position more often? They spend a lot of time standing up throughout the firefights. I don’t remember much from my own basic training but this struck me as not all that realistic.
*. Beyond all this, I found the film jingostic in an imperialistic way, down to the inclusion of a Gunga Din character and the reiterated point about how every American life is sacred. The military men are sweaty and muscled and capable while the bureaucrats and civilians are incompetent or cowardly wimps. This is all standard fare, but I didn’t find any of it offensive so much as boring.
*. Judged just as an action film though I think it works pretty well. Despite taking so much time to give us the layout I was still confused as to what was going on at various times but even that might have been intentional.
*. Somewhat surprisingly, it did not do well at the box office. Because of the politics? Did people want something a little more complicated, less propagandistic? I doubt it. American Sniper had been a big hit and it was almost as jingoistic. I think the politics did alienate a lot of people though, and what with the election going on it was probably seen as being a bit too much.

American Sniper (2014)

*. A lot of what I’m going to say about American Sniper is going to repeat stuff I said about Black Hawk Down. We’re in Iraq here and not Somalia but I doubt it made a lot of difference to audiences. We still have American soldiers in generic urban war zones surrounded by hordes of murderous “savages.” And in the critical response there was much discussion of how political it all was.
*. As with Black Hawk Down there was lip service paid to the notion that American Sniper might have an anti-war message. Director Clint Eastwood thought the statement of war’s effects on those who fight it made it anti-war, but I don’t buy that. Kyle is still presented as a larger-than-life hero (his nickname is the “the Legend”), brought low not by his own PTSD but by a shaky-looking vet he is only trying to help. In the final scene Kyle seems to have adjusted to home life quite well, has got his mojo back and is having sex again, and is happily living his own version of the American Dream.
*. As for the politics, that again is pushed to the background but is still present. Note, for example, the direct link between Kyle watching the 9/11 attacks on TV and his enlisting and going on his revenge tours in Iraq. That Iraq was not behind the 9/11 attacks is never mentioned.
*. Basically Iraq becomes, again, a battle between paleface and redskin. We know what side we’re on from the moment Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) walks toward the camera wearing a white cowboy hat and the voiceover tells us that he now has a purpose in life (that purpose being his role as one of Plato’s specially trained guard dogs of the republic). On the other side of the world a sinister gunslinger shrouded in black named Mustafa (played by Lee Van Cleef . . . no, Sammy Sheik) lies in wait. It’s time for a showdown at the O.K. Corral.

*. Another link to Black Hawk Down is the siege paradigm. Despite thinking that it would be hard to work this into the plot, the climactic battle is in fact a siege, with the Americans on top of a group of buildings surrounded by the natives, waiting for the cavalry to arrive. It’s pretty much the same set-up as 13 Hours except in daylight. You even get all the satellite shots of the action, making it seem even more like a video game (the first-person shooter POV and the overhead tactical shot being the standard dual perspectives for a lot of violent video games).
*. What I couldn’t understand about the final battle is why, since there was only one way up to the roof, the defenders didn’t target the doorway at the top of the staircase. All of the bad guys have to come out of there, so why not just shoot them as they came out?
*. A larger question has to do with why Americans cast themselves in this role so quickly after 9/11: not as the leader of the free world, with military bases all over the globe, but as a tiny, vulnerable nation surrounded by enemies, fighting back against savages and sandstorm (both being represented as forces of nature that the outpost of civilization stands against here). Is it some kind of Israel complex? The U.S. is not Israel and I always find it weird when it presents itself in those terms.
*. Bradley Cooper strikes me as being very good playing the baffled brute. I wonder how sympathetically we’re supposed to view him though. Are we meant to discern some hidden depths beyond his love of country and reactionary brutality?
*. Much of the plot seems a dramatic heightening. Mustafa was made into a more central figure than he apparently was in real life because Kyle needed a foil. The Butcher was an invented character. The opening kill, with the woman and child facing down the tank, seemed highly improbable to me. They were just going to run right down the middle of the street at the tank with the grenade?
*. It was wildly successful at the box office, becoming the highest-grossing film of the year and the highest-grossing war film of all time, unadjusted for inflation. I’m not sure why. Sure it’s a jingoistic bit of popular entertainment, but it struck me as only professionally made. It’s never very interesting and I didn’t think any of the combat scenes were that well done. But people wanted real-life heroes I guess.
*. At the end of my notes on Black Hawk Down I remarked on how it presented a world where everyone was either a shooter or a target, and that these roles were largely interchangeable. When I wrote that I had a buzzing in the back of my head that I’d said something very similar before. When I did a little digging I found it in my notes on . . . Dirty Harry. There I said that the number of (camera) shots looking down the barrel of a gun (in both directions) leads to a certain kind of reductive politics and restricted world view, and how the shooter firing down from on high (as Chris Kyle does) becomes the scourge of God.
*. Well, whether Kyle is Blondie in a spaghetti Western or Harry Callahan taking out punks on the mean streets of Fallujah, Eastwood has clearly made this material his own. The thing is, he’s done it better in the past. Putting the politics aside, I just didn’t find this to be a very good movie. It’s watchable, but ultimately too bland for its own good. How it excited and upset so many people is a bit of a mystery to me.

Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

*. Zero Dark Thirty is a well-made movie that left me with a bad feeling for at least three different reasons.
*. First, and least problematically, it’s too long. I don’t mean by this that it was ever dull or dragged, but rather that there was a whole bunch of stuff I felt they could have, and should have, left out. Most of it being material in the first half of the film. Meanwhile, the raid on the compound at the end felt almost entirely dislocated from the rest of the picture.
*. This is a significant structural flaw. The character of Maya (Jessica Chastain) is simply dropped from the final act. And while the raid sequence is effective it’s presented in a way that’s become quite generic: with the satellite images being fed to the operations room and the team on the ground fully linked up and equipped with night vision goggles. About the only thing I flagged as interesting was the morose score. It underlines the way the action is presented in a manner that’s more mechanical than heroic.
*. The second reason for my feeling bad has to do with Zero Dark Thirty‘s status as the dramatization of a true story. Right from the start a documentary note is struck with the introduction of actual 9/11 recordings of panicked victims. This signals fierce and unflinching authenticity, a promise that is maintained right up through the raid upon a meticulously reconstruction of Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad. Kathryn Bigelow wanted the compound to be “100% accurate” so that she could precisely re-enact all the movements of the SEAL team, and it certainly has that feel.
*. But it is not a true story. Not at all. The opening title screen only announces that “the following motion picture is based on first hand accounts of actual events.” There’s a lot of wiggle room in that, and it’s room that gets exploited. To start with the most obvious example, the central character of the CIA agent Maya is entirely fictional. At best she’s a composite of several actual figures, but her story here is made up.
*. Does that matter? Some critics complained that Maya had no personal identity or back story fleshed out over the course of the film, but that may be missing the point. She’s not really a character. She’s only there to serve the function of tying the story together.
*. Now I have nothing against taking liberties with the facts. This happens with every movie based on true events. Some selection and heightening has to occur for reasons of narrative economy and dramatic effect. This isn’t a documentary, despite being shot in a documentary style.

*. That said, some liberties are bigger than others. Chief among these is the handling of torture. In Zero Dark Thirty Osama bin Laden is tracked down by locating his chief courier, who is in turn located by way of torturing lower-level flunkies.
*. This is not, by all (and I mean all) reports, how it happened. Aside from any moral questions, the biggest knock against torture (or use of “enhanced interrogation techniques”) is that it doesn’t work. It really doesn’t, and it didn’t in this case either. I have nothing against Bigelow making torture such an essential part of the story here, but she creates a false narrative around its use in two ways: she doesn’t mention any of the controversy its use occasioned at the time, even within the ranks of the intelligence community, and she shows it as having been effective when it wasn’t. This is too big a lie, on too important a subject, for me to give a pass to.
*. My final reason for feeling bad about Zero Dark Thirty has to do with its feminism. Just typing that makes me anxiously look about, but I’ll try to explain what I mean.
*. Kathryn Bigelow may be Hollywood’s best known woman director, and her desire to tell the story of the bin Laden manhunt from a woman’s perspective is at the very least an interesting one. And, despite the fact that “Maya” (I assumed this was a code name) isn’t a real or fully realized character, I think we are meant to see her in a feminist light. She’s trying to prove herself in a man’s world. She’s up against the old boy’s network and at every step she has to prove that she’s as tough and smart as they are. There’s a scene where a colleague tells her to calm down when she’s arguing her case and I think everyone can relate to her “I am calm!” need to reassert herself and establish that she’s not going in to hysterics.
*. The other place where I thought the different perspective really worked was in the business where Jessica (Jennifer Ehle) gets blown up by a terrorist. I felt emotionally drawn in to this part of the film more than by anything else because it had such a relatable everyday analogy. Jessica has met someone on the Internet and has arranged a date, even baking a cake for him. She’s so looking forward to it! And then everything goes so spectacularly to shit. I thought that whole chapter of the film was the best part.
*. The character of Maya, however, just depressed me. That I didn’t find her likeable wasn’t the problem. I didn’t find any of the leads likeable (Jason Clarke is downright annoying). But I didn’t find her credible either. I suppose she’s meant to represent the aggressive “alpha female,” but is this really how anyone thinks the world works? That if you’re a big enough asshole and act obnoxious to everyone you will eventually succeed? The way Maya yells at superiors makes no sense. She writes threatening numbers on her boss’s office window without being told to stop. She mouths off to the SEAL team, telling them that they’re going to kill bin Laden for her. And no one questions this when she says it!
*. I get that she’s being presented as bin Laden’s Ahab, but is it empowering for a woman to be portrayed as such a total asshole? An obnoxious, self-centered, bullying jerk? Are her tears at the end meant to humanize her somehow? Show us how much she has suffered too? Is she a hero?
*. Well, maybe there are people who find Maya heroic and see her as a feminist role model. And I’m sure there are people who believe in torture too. But personally I think the first point is misleading at best and the second is a lie. Is that a problem? Can Zero Dark Thirty still be appreciated as art, or just entertainment? It was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture, after all.
*. As I began by saying, I think it’s a well-made movie. I don’t think it’s anything special though. Its look is generic and its structure clunky. It also does a little dance over the matter of its politics. “The film doesn’t have an agenda,” Bigelow announced. I think that’s nonsense. This is not an objective account but a shaping and revisioning of actual events, and not just to make them more exciting or easier to follow. This didn’t make me angry but disappointed. For all its rawness and intensity, this is a movie that doesn’t take any chances and has little new to say. What makes this so sad is that the line it sticks to is so wrong.

Black Hawk Down (2001)

*. There’s a scene near the beginning of Black Hawk Down where one of the vets (played by Eric Bana) has to explain to the idealistic Sergeant Eversmann (Josh Hartnett) how war (and, incidentally, war movies) work. “Y’know what I think?” he says when Eversmann tries to draw him out on the U.S. mission in Somalia. “Don’t really matter what I think. Once that first bullet goes past your head, politics and all that shit just goes right out the window.”
*. This is an important, and telling, act of elision. The swerve it indicates is typical of how Hollywood handled the War on Terror and America’s adventures abroad during this period. And by “handled” I’m referring to their attempts to avoid being political. Black Hawk Down is not an anti-war movie, or even a movie that is critical of war. Once the bullets start to fly that shit just goes right out the window. The reasons for this are obvious but may be worth going over.
*. To begin with there is the line, usually attributed to François Truffaut, that there is no such thing as an anti-war film because war is by its very nature an exciting experience highlighted by individual moments of heroism and comradeship. Actually, I think a lot of military service is very dull, but movies cut those parts out. Politics is dull too, and complicated. In cases like Somalia or Yugoslavia or Libya or Syria I doubt any movie could hope to sort the various American missions out.
*. Hollywood is in the business of putting bums in seats, and you don’t fill theatres by making people think too much about where these soldiers are or what they’re doing there. Indeed, aside from Eversmann the characters in the film don’t seem that interested in such matters themselves.
*. Then there is the business of actually making the movie. At least since Top Gun (1986) the U.S. military has played a major role in such productions, and you don’t get the kind of logistical support they can deliver without surrendering some editorial control. These have to be stories the military wants told, in the way they want them told. For Top Gun the U.S. Navy played a crucial role in producing the film and had input on the script throughout. They later claimed it had been an extremely effective recruiting tool. For Black Hawk Down all the materiel was supplied by the U.S. Army, which also provided helicopter pilots and helped with the training of the actors. You couldn’t imagine a movie like this being made today without such assistance. So there was no way this was going to be an anti-war movie.
*. And finally there was the whole shift in the media after the Gulf War of 1991, which was seen as kicking what had been dubbed the Vietnam Syndrome. Part of the Vietnam Syndrome was the representation of that conflict in the media, so it was a Vietnam War Movie Syndrome too. Hollywood was expected to get in line, and in order to do this without compromising themselves too much they avoided politics like the plague. Instead they went with the tide, which meant creating action films drawing heavily on the look of comic books and video games.
*. Ten years after the Gulf War there was 9/11, which made things even simpler. American involvement abroad, anywhere, was seen through the lens of a response to Islamic terrorism. It didn’t matter that the events of Black Hawk Down didn’t have anything to do with 9/11, but then neither did the invasion of Iraq (despite the efforts of American Sniper to draw a direct link), and even less Libya in 13 Hours. Each of these films could be absorbed into the narrative of “America fighting back.”

*. All of this is just setting the scene, and isn’t meant as a fierce criticism of these films (which can be criticized on other grounds). Over the last hundred years most war movies, indeed the vast majority, have been openly propagandistic if not downright war-porn. The Vietnam-era war films (which would include movies like Patton) were the exception, and they tended to peter out around the time Top Gun took off (Platoon came out in 1986, and the anti-imperialist biopic Walker in 1987). I just want to underline that these were very political movies, and very effectively political, despite on their surface eschewing politics altogether.
*. Now on to the film itself.

*. I had a curious and telling experience watching it recently on DVD. I couldn’t watch it all at once and so I made a note of the chapter I was on and came back and watched the rest of it the next day. It seemed I had written the wrong chapter number down as I was a bit lost as to what was going on. But then I scanned around and figured I probably had it right. The thing is, I couldn’t be completely sure. The reason I couldn’t be sure is because “once that first bullet goes past your head” this movie is all the same. We see men running through streets or driving through streets being shot at by faceless natives from rooftops or doorways. After a while I even started to wonder if the streets themselves were different or if they were just being filmed from different directions or with different lighting. And it goes on for two-and-half hours!
*. Still, given how much of it is all the same I was surprised at how lively it all played. The action is chaotic and lots of times I had no idea where we were or what was going on, but such is the fog of war. You do feel caught up in the excitement of the events. None of the terror or pain, mind you, but plenty of excitement.
*. It’s also very beautiful to look at. The helicopters flying over the beach are lovingly photographed in a way that recalls the ride of the air cavalry in Apocalypse Now, albeit without any of that film’s operatic sense of parody. War never looked so good.

*. As for the enemy, I’ve referred to them as faceless. There are a couple of actors who get lines but for the most part they may as well be the Zulu hoards launching themselves in human waves against the frontier outposts of Western Civ. Despite the fact that the actual event being portrayed was a raid, it quickly turns into the familiar siege paradigm. That is to say, the Americans are on the defensive against the barbarians. If only the natives would leave them alone! This is another motif that is returned to time and again in the films of this period, presumably representing the idea of America being surrounded by enemies. I don’t think this is an accurate reflection of reality, but it obviously expresses some kind of widely-held perception.
*. The enemy also seem to be very poor shots. Given that they’re firing down on the grunts from the rooftops shouldn’t that be like shooting fish in a barrel? Instead everybody just seems to be ripping off rounds without even aiming.
*. The battle scenes are done in such a way that we’re meant to cheer when the bad guys get shot or blown up. This is cathartic if nothing else but it also made me think more of a narrative that was following a certain entertainment paradigm rather than attempting to do anything new.
*. Given that this is a movie that doesn’t really want to say anything I had a hard time relating to it or extracting any kind of a point. Eversmann ends up a sadder but I don’t think a wiser man. Poor Sam Shepard is left to suffer vicariously watching the events on TV but there is no sense of his character traveling any kind of arc or coming to a fuller understanding about what has happened. Perhaps no such understanding is possible. Perhaps he’s never quite sure whether he is an actor in the film or part of the audience. Or is there a difference? In this world we’re either shooters or targets. Once it gets going nearly every “shot” in the movie is composed in this way. But the roles are finally interchangeable. That may be the most apolitical thing about Black Hawk Down: its reduction of everything to a line of sight that goes both ways. Who needs politics in such a world? It’s all very simple.