Welcome to my movie blog, containing reviews and articles. I've been writing since 2004 - with a short break during 2009.

Breakfast academia

All wars, past and present, have a cinematic touchstone for how they are portrayed. The First World War is written by Wilfred Owen - the pathos of men dying in trenches, the movies like cattle. World War two has a better time - it is appropriate to make Kelly's Heroes, say, adventure, derring-do, and patriotism - after all, we won! An easily villainised bad guy, perhaps, makes WW2 far more straightforward. Vietnam is harder to pin down, I admit.

My favourite war movie is the Dustwar - you know, almost contemporary, south of the Equator, realistic violence, vaguely factual? Stylistically, this is a war that happens on the television - lots of handheld, fuzzy footage. Dustwar movies are always, absolutely about "the other", and the keynote in these films is, I believe, "confusion". Some common themes:
  • How do we tell the bad guys from the good guys?
  • What are they saying?
  • Where are the weapons?
  • Is that car safe, or is it a car bomb?
  • Should we even be here?
Black Hawk Down - one of my favourites, and also one of the most shallow. American helicopter crashes in Mogadishu. Chaos reigns as the army decides to rescue their downed men. Then a second helicopter crashes.

It's not a particularly intelligent film - unlike most of these, it doesn't confront the entire problem of conflict, and is in its own way to be criticised for turning the enemy army into a faceless mass of shuffling zombies. There also is its strength, because it conveys the experience of being a soldier on the ground for a few hours - to whom I imagine the enemy are as impersonal as a telesales operator. It is powerful for ignoring Why We Are In Mogadishu entirely, and focusing on what a soldier experiences to survive the next three minutes - a balanced view would have weakened, not strengthened, this film's uniqueness.

This film elegantly illustrates my first point: physical confusion. They get lost, all the houses look the same, they get split up from one another. In fact, the first time I watched this with dad he drew me a map of Mogadishu so we could keep track. Black Hawk Down is about the horror of being lost in a strange place and unable to get physical bearings.

Is it just me, or are you really darn glad for the all-star cast? They're all scruffy men of the same age with identical clothes and hairstyles. Ridley Scott insisited they wear helmets with their character names on them, for the sake of the audience, even though this is inaccurate.

Now watch what I am about to do:

Three Kings - After the first Gulf War, four soldiers go on a private mission to steal Saddam's hidden gold. Sorted! But Three Kings is about moral confusion, as they gradually get drawn into the plight of the abandoned locals.

I mean, it's not that confusing. After about 20 minutes, Clooney decides he's too beautiful to be brutal and starts saving women and children. So at it's core, there is a pretty comforting white narrative to enjoy. But the film points to its ambiguities - the American army are pulling out, with orders not to help the locals, even while our heroes can see that's wrong. Head torturer turns out to be a decent chap who was just following orders. And the moral journey of the heroes is headlined: it is Barlow who is keenest to abandon Amir who they have just rescued from electroshock torture in a bunker, because his survival is incidental. He gets his comeuppance: later the rebels sort-of attack the soldiers in his area, but only to steal a truck, and Barlow is left with the same torturer in a different bunker.

It's not quite that obvious when you're watching. Honest. Other great confusions - the gas bomb which separates the group because they cannot see; Barlow attempting to shoot an Iraqi not realising he is an ally; the torturer has learnt his warfare (and English) in America; the journalist being sent on a wild goose chase to drive around in circles; our heroes finding the right village, but the wrong bunker, and having to return a second time. They even turn confusion against the Other, by mimicing the arrival of Saddam to clear the castle.

This kind of moral confusion is the preserve of the Dustwar movie. I am fairly sure that Black Hawk also contains a morality-charged torture scene - don't the opposition have any better information they want out of soldiers, that they have time to guilt trip them instead?

The Kingdom? Moral confusion. Syriana? Moral confusion. Confusion full stop if you don't make notes.

Hurt Locker - not a film I liked, though I cannot now remember why. The stereotypes seemed too broad, I think. What I did feel, though, is that it is primarily about linguistic confusion. Yeah, that's the worst thing about those foreign people - they don't even speak American! It BAFFLES me that as a soldier, you would go into a war zone and not learn the basic lingo. You know. "Hello". "Where are the toilets please?" "Get on the motherfucking ground!" There are similar scenes in most of these films, but Hurt Locker in particular makes you think that if the two sides could simply communicate, so much time could have been saved. All these scenes of Americans shouting in English, and Iraqis shouting in Arabic, or Kurdish, and I just want to bash their heads together and say "people don't understand if you just talk louder!"

Being part of the bomb disposal squad, there is also considerable uncertainty as to what can be trusted. Car or carbomb? Refugee, or prisoner-attached-to-a-bomb? Or corpse with a bomb surgically implanted?

Thought for the day!


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