Thursday, 10 February 2011

Film reviews: the War on Terror

Since 2001 Hollywood has been gingerly approaching the subject of the War on Terror, with directors feeling their way in a moral jungle that can be difficult to navigate and protray effectively. The 'conflict' and the issues it raises has been done well in some cases, but in others there has been a distinct failure to really get to grips with the topic. Here are some examples I've watched recently, and the opinions I have which stem from them.

The Kingdom (2007), dir Peter Berg; Jamie Foxx, Jennifer Garner, Chris Cooper

The Kingdom deals with an FBI team sent to Saudi Arabia to 'assist' the local authorities in their investigation of the bombing of an American civilian compound. In many ways it reminded me of Black Rain, 1989's Ridley Scott exercise about a joint investigation into Japan's yakuza crime cartels.

The Kingdom is more about the Arab-American culture clash that results when gung-ho US cops are unleashed into a more totalitarian environment, where they must respect (or not) the wishes of their hosts as well as the delicate ongoing domestic political situation in the kingdom as well as the larger diplomatic game. More could really have been made of this in The Kingdom to be honest. The State Department does rear its ugly head on a couple of occasions, but if I had been running this scenario as an RPG adventure, I'd have made more use of the FBI v State possibilities.

The photography is lush in this movie, and as a former resident of the Gulf, I could almost feel the heat, even though much of this was shot in Arizona or New Mexico or somesuch. You would not know from watching it, however. Saudi Arabia remains a key battleground in the War on Terror, and is a critical strategic ally of the US in the Middle East region, but the delicacies surrounding this relationship are quickly lost once Foxx and company start the gunplay.

I think more could have been made of what actually goes on in Saudi, and why it is that the Saudi regime is higher on Al Qaeda's hit list than the US, but Berg chooses not to go there.

Body of Lies (2008), dir Ridley Scott; Leonardo diCaprio, Russell Crowe, Mark Strong

Body of Lies swaps the FBI for the CIA, and Saudi Arabia for Iraq and Jordan. This film is much more about the off-the-books, covert espionage side of the War on Terror. As with The Kingdom, some effort is made to tackle some of the human issues, including the legacy of the Palestinian problem. I've always been impressed by the Palestinians I've met in the Middle East, and the Palestinian character in this film lives up to that high standard of education you see elsewhere.

Body of Lies' main CIA characters come across fairly realistically, and it certainly brings home some of the difficulties of inter-agency cooperation in the Middle East, as well as the frustrating turf wars that can crop up in any large organisation staffed with ambitious individuals who see a dynamic situation as a way to climb the greasy career pole.

Mark Strong, who plays Hani, the head of the Jordanian counter-terrorism unit, is a real find. I've been very impressed with his work in Stardust and Sherlock Holmes, and he is good here as well. If Body of Lies does succeed, it is with the message that only by relying on trust and solid relationships locally, as well as the value of human intelligence over the high tech espoinage the US is increasingly relying on, will progress be made on this front.

Rendition (2007), dir Gavin Hood; Meryl Streep, Jake Gyllenhaal, Reece Witherspoon

Rendition deals with the controversial CIA tactic of moving suspects to interrogation centres outside US jurisdiction, in order to avoid any 'inconvenient' legal complications, a policy I suspect will come home to roost for many of the individuals and governments involved.

In this case, it deals with an Egyptian-born American citizen who has a background in chemistry and is mistakenly thought by the CIA to be involved in some way with a terror network. It shows how he can be kidnapped from a US airport and shipped to a North African ally of the USA's, and there tortured for information he does not have.

Rendition also looks at the relationship between the daughter of the head of the country's secret police, and a young lad who is being inducted into the terror cell his dead brother was a member of. It examines what motivates the terrorist, and the human cost of terror on their families. The film is structured interestingly, in that the sequence of events is not what it seems, and much falls into place in the last 20 minutes, but I won't say more than that.

I was most interested in Gyllenhaal's character, the CIA analyst who thinks he can hack it as a field agent once his main 'knuckle dragger' in-country is killed in an explosion, but ultimately finds he can't deal with the blood and guts side of counter-terrorism.

Syriana (2005), dir Stephen Gaghan; George Clooney, Matt Damon, Alexander Siddig.

Syriana is a massive canvas portraying the interlocking lives of a number of people involved in a Gulf state's political trials. It feels a little like a James Clavell novel. Clooney is an embittered CIA agent on the trail of a missing Stinger missile, Damon is a securities analyst who thinks he can make it as a power broker, and Jeffrey Wright is a forensic accountant looking into corporate wrong-doing while battling with a dysfunctional relationship with his ageing father. There are others of course - the great Alexander Siddig as the far-sighted emir trying to modernise his country is particularly good, and reminiscent of Qatar's Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, on whom the character is probably based.

Like Rendition, Syriana also takes time to answer the question, 'What makes a terrorist?' In this case, it features the very tough working conditions suffered by migrant workers in the Gulf States, although whether these have produced many terrorists in the past, compared with, say, grinding urban poverty in other parts of the region, is an open question.

Syriana is almost Tarantino-esque in the way it tries to weave together the various plot lines. It is interesting how many of the key characters 'see the light' and recognise the error of their ways towards the end of the film. My only real criticism is the attempt to somehow mesh an Enron-style corporate malfeasance scandal into Mid-Eastern politics. I didn't really feel it worked, and the movie feels almost too crammed as a result.

1 comment:

  1. When you mentioned Mark Strong, I immediately thought of Syriana, because he's in that too.

    One might argue that Scott's Kingdom of Heaven is a War on Terror movie; despite the film's specific setting, it's easy to see it as metaphor, given the time of its release.