My main recollection of the Gulf War is of being branded a communist, subversive, and un-American by more than one obnoxious Yuppie. Having done my share of time wearing black armbands at antiwar rallies during the Vietnam war, the whole thing had a strange aura of deja vu.
As we prepare to blindly elect yet another empty suit named George Bush as President, I have to thank director David O. Russell for giving us THREE KINGS, a scathing dark comedy about the first true media war. George Bush's war was very carefully choreographed and scripted to look like a tremendous victory for good old American know-how. What we didn't hear much about is what happened to all the Iraqis that Bush exhorted to rebel and topple Saddam Hussein -- those poor souls that Bush then abandoned.
In THREE KINGS, the confusion is not limited to the Iraqis. Looking out over a dry desert wasteland after Bush has decided that the invasion is over, Mark Wahlberg, as military grunt and young dad Troy Barlow, gazes at a man off in the distance and asks, "Are we still shooting?" This bewilderment asks the fundamental question of this film: Why did we shoot at all? And why did we stop?
Barlow, along with loose cannon Archie Gates (George Clooney in a role that was clearly written for Mel Gibson), Bible-thumping Chief Elgin (Ice Cube), and dim cracker/Barlow acolyte Conrad Vig (Spike Jonze), set out in the aftermath of the war to steal a large cache of gold they believe is hidden near their base.
Along the way, the encounter the wreckage of Bush's war, not just the surreal desert landscape punctuated with oil fires or the oil-slicked wildlife, but the wreckage of Iraqi life. The Vietnam movies of the late 1980's did a good job of portraying the other side as human too, yet it takes an extraordinary amount of bravery to portray the Gulf War as the cynical exercise in political and economic self-interest that it was. At one point, a characters admits, "This is a media war," and therefore, the press (as embodied by Nora Dunn as an obvious Christiane Amanpour clone) must be placated.
The film is full of dark and offbeat humor, such as the television monitor showing the tape of the Rodney King beating as two characters debate racial superiority, or the Iraqi cache of Western electronics stolen from the Kuwaitis. Clooney delivers his smartassed lines with a Mel Gibson-like knowing sneer, while Wahlberg (who shows that BOOGIE NIGHTS was no fluke -- this boy can act) plays it completely straight as he argues with Ice Cube's character as to whether it is Infinity or Lexus that makes a convertible.
Michael Winterbottom's 1997 WELCOME TO SARAJEVO was an intensely emotional, angry film decrying the hell of a pointless war. Director Russell captures the same rage, but spices it with dark, cynical humor, thus making it perhaps even more effective. There is plenty of violence here, but none of it is gratuitous. That the mostly male audience at the theatre in which I viewed this film thought a Iraqi soldier's point blank execution of a refugee's wife to be way cool indicates why this film has not performed as well as expected -- it is too emotional to be an action film, and contains too much action to be an art film. And yet, it is both.
Newton Thomas Sigel's cinematography is breathtaking. The film has the washed-out look of the desert, reminiscent of the Vietnam war movies of the 1970's. The violence is graphic, but not gratuitous. A much-talked-about scene involving a depiction on an actual corpse of what a bullet does to the human body is horrifying, but not in the least sensationalistic. Bullets travel in slowed-down motion, followed by the camera, for a more effective hammering home of the destruction of bullets.
Yet what truly sets this film apart from your conventional action flick is the humanity of the characters, portrayed in uniformly fine performances. The inspired casting against type of TV-cutie Clooney as the cynic, ex-rapper/model/bad boy/prosthetic schlong wearer Wahlberg as the straight-arrow soldier/husband/dad, ex-angry rapper Ice Cube as the quiet, devout Christian, and skateboard-culture/music video icon Spike Jonze as an ignorant redneck lends the proceedings a hipness that merely underscores the earnestness of the characters they play. A nice cameo by Said Taghmaoui, last seen bedding Kate Winslet in HIDEOUS KINKY, drives home the betrayal by the Bush Administration in its abrupt withdrawal of support for the Iraqis he had exhorted to revolt against Saddam. The interplay between Taghmaoui and Wahlberg after the latter is taken captive, is perhaps the most compelling captor/captive relationship since Stephen Rea and Forrest Whittaker in THE CRYING GAME.
Jonze in particular, an actor/director/dance company founder/magazine publisher having a phenomenally good year, is a revelation as the ignorant Conrad Vig. Vig provides most of the comic relief, and yet his is perhaps the most touching performance in the film. Jonze, already receiving rave advance reviews and Oscar buzz for his surreal debut directorial effort BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, is certainly one of the names to watch in the new millennium.
The "three kings" of the title, Barlow, Gates and Elgin, find themselves embroiled in the struggle of the rebellion, thus discovering that no, the Iraqis are not faceless enemies, each with Saddam's face pasted on them like a SOUTH PARK cartoon. As a result of the humanization of the enemy, these three characters find the courage within themselves to defer their own gratification in order to do the right thing.
With (at last poll) over 50% of Americans preparing to elect the man whose oil interests in the Middle East were perhaps his father's motivation behind this absurd war, THREE KINGS should be required viewing for all registered voters.