a zoo in hell


Endless War

There are many moments in Restrepo (2010) that make it easy to forget that this is an actual documentary, and not some hybrid of authentic documentary and staged re-enactments. There are as many moments that make it easier to think of the events as theater, not real moments caught by real cameras. When the cameraman's Humvee is caught in an unexpected IED explosion, the need to see it as a special effect is a hard one to resist. Likewise, when the camera is shooting over the shoulder of a grunt, facing incoming fire, it is far easier to imagine that the whole thing is a staged take, and that at some point a director is going to call "cut".

Because of the narrative skill, the technical accomplishments, the pure nerve of the filmmakers behind Restrepo, it is very easy to engage with the film as if it were a dramatic war film. The storytelling is seamless, and the arc of the story parallels what we've come to know as the movement of a war movie. Perhaps this is why the film didn't win the Oscar, perhaps some feel that the film is too artificial in its presentation of the raw matter of organized violence.  In a documentary of a smaller scale, I would echo this complaint, but Sebastian Junger was not collaborating with the Taliban, insurgents or the movements of the Army. There was no script, even a guarded one, telling where to point the camera and who the bullets were going to hit.

I believe this tension is what makes Restrepo so effective. By laying the facts of the year on the ground with 2nd Battle Company over and against the conventions of war movies, the aching realities are made all the more raw. By not giving the audience a single protagonist to root for, the final outcomes at the end of the tour are impossible to predict. For much the same reason, there is little political reach or overstatement in the film; it is clear that this film is about this company, in this valley, in this war. There are few big political questions in the film, the details of living and dying in a war zone trump them. This lack of messaging also keeps the film honest; I got the sense the filmmakers were more interested in making it out alive than making an ideological piece. So, for all of the artificial crafting that may have occurred in the editing room, the fixation on the experience of each moment keeps the film from drifting too far from the dirt and blood toward the abstract and irrelevant.

Restrepo demonstrates that while we all know that war is horrible, bloody and dirty, it is always uniquely somebody's horror, blood and dirt for those who experience it. The film has the courage to engage the particulars of a few men, rather than provide glossy generalizations which are easier to watch and consume.

There are war movies which are war movies, and there are movies which occur in war but are not entirely war movies. War is such a massive human horror that any attempt to capture it, in truth, will fail in absurdity or pretense. However, it is the task of filmmaking to bring an audience into a simulation of the experience it presents. At it's best, a film can give you the ability to best imagine what it may be like to be in that extreme; it can offer you a guide to follow into your understanding of conflict. You cannot call Apocalypse Now a war movie, because it is a mythic film which occurs within a war. The sweep of that film goes far astray from the raw details Restrepo dwells upon. Perhaps the mayhem of Saving Private Ryan brings it closer to being a war movie than Catch-22, but even for all of its chaos and futility, there is a structured story that moves under it all. There is a narrative order which provides themes other than the kill or be killed order of warfare. (Band of Brothers and The Pacific move further from this, partly because of the factual basis and because of the disorder the longer arc allows for.)

9th Company, a Belarussian film about the Soviet war in Afghanistan, contradicts itself in many ways. On one hand, it comments on the current international conflict on that same soil. At the same time, it is distinctly Soviet, sympathies are clearly with the Soviet troops as they face the CIA-supplied Mujahdeen.  We are supposed to see the story through the eyes of the men of 9th Company, but as a whole, there is little to endear them. They start out rough, at best, and the trials of war only make them worse. I suppose this is a kind of honesty, certainly there are any number of assholes in any military, and far too often war movies assume all men fall from innocence when they enter the war zone. However, it is also hard to care about their fates, and in some ways war seems like a fair penance for them. There is an inkling to cheer their doom.

Aside from this, there is little to distinguish 9th Company from other genre war films. The trials of war are much the same as they always are on film, and many of the soldiers die in just the way you'd expect them too. There is little to surprise, and the film borrows heavily from Blackhawk Down, Apocalypse Now, and other landmark films. The violence, when it occurs, is clearly choreographed and closer to the mythic than the faux newsreel style of Saving Private Ryan, so in this way, it is almost a step back to old war films from the pre-Vietnam era. It's like an R-rated The Longest Day.

James Cameron said that Aliens wasn't so much a science fiction movie as it was a war movie. Battle: Los Angeles takes this one step further. Directed by Jonathan Liebesman, whose most recent claim to fame was Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning, the film seems to aim for somewhere between Independence Day, Blackhawk Down,  and the Transformers movies. While the narrative focus is essentially Sgt. Michael Nantz's (Aaron Eckhart) journey into redemption for wartime errors, this feels like an afterthought compared to the string of firefights that follows the squad as they move through war-torn Los Angeles. Not a big surprise though, this is really just a summer action film that didn't make it to the big leagues. For all of the viral  marketing attempts to cultivate a Cloverfield kind of cool, it doesn't provide much more than b-movie action thrills.

So, it's a war movie. Earth is in a war with alien invaders, and those aliens want to take our water. (Maybe this is a reaction to the critics of Signs -- maybe it's revenge for their defeat at the hands of rain water.) These aliens, they fire energy-projectile weapons. They work in small squads. They have heavy weapons, tanks and drones. Their military is pretty much a mirror image of Terran forces, although with some fancier looking technology. This alone isn't a problem, at least the filmmakers put their cards on the table and just made the aliens more or less equal to human troops. More often than not the movie aliens are supposed to be super advanced but strangely weak in one regard (Water, germs, etc). This equality could've been a cool theme, but in this movie, it's really just a way to have some cool action sequences without having to worry about offending a human population. Daleks have more personality than these aliens.

Mostly this is a war movie without the war, though. Rife with cliches and characters cut from the most cardboard of combat films, there is little it has in common with its cinematic inspirations besides military hardware and onscreen mayhem. There's a video game for this film, which to me seems redundant.

I suppose I am including in this piece as a counter-point to Restrepo. This is a big high-tech war which is the sort of thing America thinks it wants, but has yet to get. The aliens don't disappear into the population. The aliens don't use any real intelligent tactics, their battle plan seems straight out of the 19th Century. The aliens don't adapt, and the aliens don't seem to understand intelligence or the importance of knowing your enemy. Maybe, in this regard, they are a closer mirror to some parts of our military than the filmmakers intended. Battle: Los Angeles is our dream of 21st Century warfare.

I would suggest Monsters as a nice palette cleanser.