As 2002 came to a close, I was getting ready to go on Christmas break and start a new year at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois. The hot issue of the day was the impending war with Iraq. Everyone knew it was coming, but no one knew when. UN weapons inspectors had been combing Iraq for several weeks, with no results. That December, a group of protestors would meet at Old Main on Lincoln Avenue to lend their voices to peace.
Having followed events in Iraq for quite some time, I was skeptical of the threat it posed or the utility of overthrowing Saddam Hussein. Despite Bush Administration horror stories about weapons of mass destruction, I always suspected something worse might replace Saddam, and that starting another war in the Middle East wouldn’t help stamp out Islamic extremism. In 2002, however, the antiwar crowd seemed to be in the minority. A January 2003 CBS poll found 64% of Americans approved of military action against Iraq after all diplomatic options had been exhausted.
On the sixty-first anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 2002, a number of small campus groups, including the Green Party, junior art major Ryan McClure, and Newman Center director Roy Lanham, organized an antiwar protest to coincide with similar marches around the country. I showed up with my video camera to document the event and interview the participants.
Oliver Stone’s two hour lampoon of President George W. Bush failed to leave a lasting legacy.
Written by Stanly Weiser and directed by Oliver Stone, W. (2008) was meant as a final middle-finger to the outgoing Bush Administration; an attempt in film to solidify negative public perceptions surrounding President George W. Bush and the Iraq War. But years later, W. looks more like a relic of its time; a forgettable albeit slightly humorous political drama by filmmakers who accidentally made their subject a sympathetic figure.
W. intercuts between George W. Bush’s ne’er-do-well youth and his presidency, particularly the lead up to the Iraq War in 2003. Events surrounding the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks are glaringly absent. How can you make a film about George W. Bush’s tenure in the White House without mentioning September 11? Probably because he received the highest recorded presidential approval rating in history after the 9/11 attacks, and the filmmakers didn’t want to remind the audience about the tremendous crisis his administration had to face.
The film opens with a young-ish George W. Bush (Josh Brolin) getting hazed in a Yale fraternity. He jumps from job to job, to the great disappointment of his stern father, President George H.W. Bush (James Cromwell), until he meets his future wife, Laura (Elizabeth Banks). With the help of political strategist Karl Rove (Toby Jones), Bush becomes Governor of Texas, and later, President of the United States, where he uses his office to depose Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, something his father never achieved.
The filmmakers use real quotes and incidents to portray George W. Bush as a comedic figure, including one incident in which he almost died choking on a pretzel. In hindsight this comes across as mean spirited, since Josh Brolin’s Bush is sincere in his religious convictions, appears to genuinely believe Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction and wanted the public to be on board with the war, and is constantly frustrated by his disapproving father. As National Review’s Tom Hoopes pointed out, this had the unintended consequence of making Bush relatable and sympathetic to the audience.
Vice President Dick Cheney’s life is creatively recounted in this bullish political biopic.
Written and directed by Adam McKay, Vice (2018) is bolstered by incredible performances by its lead cast, but hindered by strange and often jarring film techniques that pull your attention away from the drama. Both Christian Bale and Amy Adams show once again why they are among the best actors of our time by saving what could have otherwise been another mediocre polemic against the Bush Administration.
As the film opens, Dick Cheney (Christian Bale) is a young man struggling to find his place in the world and teetering on the brink of alcoholism. His wife, Lynn (Amy Adams), gives him an ultimatum to clean up his act. Cheney gets a job as an intern in Washington, DC and is fatefully taken under the wing of Congressman Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell), who becomes the youngest Secretary of Defense in U.S. history under President Gerald Ford. For a time, the two men’s fortunes seem to go hand in hand.
After seemingly retiring from politics, Cheney is approached by presidential candidate George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell), to be his running mate. Cheney manipulates the gullible Bush into handing him unprecedented control in the executive branch. He uses his influence to fill various White House positions with loyalists, and virtually runs the administration from behind the scenes, when he’s not recovering from numerous heart attacks. There he pushes “unitary executive theory,” which seeks to hand greater control to the President, and by extension, himself.
Vice interweaves these political machinations with Cheney’s personal struggles. At home, he tries to juggle his deep love for his two daughters, Mary (Alison Pill) and Liz (Lily Rabe), while shielding them from the public eye. When Liz decides to enter politics, Cheney must decide between supporting her (and her position against same-sex marriage) and his longtime support for Mary, who is a lesbian. This more intimate look at Dick Cheney’s life almost translates into a sympathetic portrayal. At least, his motivations are more relatable.
Twelve special operations soldiers team up with the Northern Alliance to strike back against the Taliban in Afghanistan in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in 12 Strong (2018). Written by Ted Tally and Peter Craig, and directed by Nicolai Fuglsig, 12 Strong is based on the book Horse Soldiers (2009) by Doug Stanton. Unfortunately, epic battle scenes and a compelling real-life story aren’t enough to rescue this film from its lackluster execution and direction.
Green Beret Captain Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth) is moving to a staff job when terrorists destroy the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. With the help of Chief Warrant Officer 5 Hal Spencer (Michael Shannon), he convinces Lt. Colonel Max Bowers (Rob Riggle), Commander of 3rd Battalion, 5th Special Forces Group, to allow him to rejoin his team and deploy with Task Force Dagger against the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan.
In Uzbekistan, Captain Nelson convinces Colonel John Mulholland (William Fichtner) to allow his team to go in first by displaying confidence and a knowledge of Afghan history, despite never having served in combat. Prominent members of his team include SFC Sam Diller (Michael Peña) and SFC Ben Milo (Trevante Rhodes). Together, they must earn the trust of an unpredictable Afghan warlord, General Abdul Rashid Dostum (Navid Negahban), and help him defeat his Taliban rivals around the city of Mazar-i-Sharif using U.S. air power.
Mullah Razzan (Numan Acar), leader of the Taliban forces, is a dark-haired, mustache-twirling villain who executes a woman early in the film for teaching young girls to read. After several confrontations and missteps, Captain Nelson wins Dostum’s trust and together they overwhelm the Taliban in the “Tiangi Gap” and free Mazar-i-Sharif, mostly on horseback.
War Machine (2017) stars Brad Pitt as General Glen McMahon, a fictional commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan in 2009. It is a savage parody of General Stanley McChrystal and the U.S. and Coalition War in Afghanistan, based on The Operators (2012) by Michael Hastings, a sleazy reporter for Rolling Stone and BuzzFeed. Hastings’ hit piece on General McChrystal in Rolling Stone led to his resignation as Commander of the International Security Assistance Force and retirement from the Army in 2010.
The film opens as hard-fighting General Glen McMahon arrives in Afghanistan to whip things into shape and finally win the war. The narrator tells us General McMahon is a soldier’s soldier, a West Point and Ranger School graduate who eats once a day, gets four hours of sleep a night, and runs seven miles every morning.
General McMahon quickly learns he’s up against some tougher opponents than the Taliban, including obstinate government officials, reluctant NATO allies, and a hostile press. Even U.S. soldiers, given voice by Marine Corporal Billy Cole (Lakeith Stanfield), are skeptical of their mission and its chances for success. McMahon must use unconventional tactics and the force of his personality to fully implement his grand plan for victory.
In the military, commanders are given a high degree of discretion over their troops. They are accustomed to getting what they want and not hearing the word “no.” Like Colonel Joshua Chamberlain says in the movie Gettysburg (1993), there’s nothing so much like God on earth as a general on a battlefield. So it’s easy to see how frustrated generals can be when constantly butting heads with civilian authorities who think they know the general’s job better than he does. War Machine artfully and humorously depicts this situation.
Patriots Day follows fictional Boston police sergeant Tommy Saunders (Mark Wahlberg) as he helps track down brothers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who detonated two bombs at the 2013 Boston Marathon. The tragedy occurred at 2:49 p.m. local time on April 15, 2013. Massachusetts celebrates Patriots’ Day on April 15 to commemorate the anniversary of Lexington and Concord, the first battles of the Revolutionary War. It’s estimated around 500,000 spectators attend the marathon. The bombs, made from pressure cookers, detonated 12 seconds apart, killing three and wounding approximately 264.
The film opens the night before the marathon, establishing a backstory for Sergeant Tommy Saunders. He is a well-meaning cop who got into a fight and has to pull guard duty at the marathon finish line before he can assume his regular duties. From there, we are shown snapshots of characters as they get up and start their day, but it is unclear how most of them will tie into the plot. We see future bombers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, his wife and daughter, at their apartment. Their morning is not typical, as one watches a video of masked terrorists demonstrating how to construct a pressure cooker bomb.
The terror, gut-wrenching shock, and confusion of the bombing is dramatically portrayed, as is the following manhunt. We see both law enforcement and the Tsarnaev brothers as they head for a fiery confrontation in the Boston suburb of Watertown. Moments of humor break up the dramatic, heart-racing scenes. During the final shootout with the Tsarnaev brothers, a man tosses a sledgehammer from his porch at police officers crouched behind the fence. “Give ’em hell!” he shouts, as if the crude melee weapon will do anything against the terrorists’ guns and homemade bombs.
It is meant to show defiance and resiliency in the face of terror, and Patriots Day is full of such crowd-pleasing moments, but how accurately does the film depict these events?
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is a clean, colorful, and vibrant movie about the disconnect between war and the home front, fantasy and reality, but trips up in the execution. Its much-praised frame rate of 120 frames per second (twice the previous record) isn’t really justified by the film’s simplistic plot, and in some ways it looked like a film school project. Its stereotypical portrayal of soldiers undermines what it gets right about the relationship between soldiers and civilians. Overall, it’s entertaining enough to watch but not something you’ll come back to again and again.
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is based on a novel of the same name by Ben Fountain, a 58-year-old writer from North Carolina. I haven’t read the book, so I can’t comment about it in relation to the film. While I was watching the movie, however, I couldn’t shake the suspicion that this story wasn’t written by either a former soldier or someone who served in the Iraq War. “This is what a Hollywood screenwriter thinks soldiers sound like,” I thought as I listened to the dialogue. Turns out my suspicions were correct, which explains why the soldiers were so painfully stereotypical. A writer often falls back on stereotypes or popular tropes when not informed by personal experience.
The film’s portrayal of the disconnect between soldiers and civilians, however, is very insightful. It’s hard to describe the oddity of being involved in something like the military, especially if you have been deployed in a war zone. Everyone has an opinion about it, even though they have no direct knowledge or experience. Even comments from someone who supports the troops and the war effort can seem awkward and embarrassing, and this film captures that beautifully.