Three Kings

USA, 1999, 110 min
wri./dir. david o. russell
st. george clooney, mark wahlberg, ice cube, spike jonze
australian theatrical release january 13th 1999

If you think that no-one can put a new spin on tired plotting devices, observe the twisted conventionality of Three Kings, a sensitive, politicised action-adventure that plays an ill-defined squabble for oil for a three way skirmish that just happened one day before anyone could quite figure out what was happening. Three Kings saves the Gulf War from theoretical posturing and returns it to the realm of modern day action and consequence, a present both comic and painful.

Anti-war films are pretty run of the mill these days. While adopting a stance contrary to the faceless war machine was once a dangerous and rebellious move, now most filmmakers will lecture us on the horrors of war in one way or the other, whether predictably gung-ho (Saving Private Ryan) or pretentiously "metaphysical"(The Thin Red Line). One thing the war film lacks in large doses is human beings, real people, those honest salt of the earth types that the Spielbergs of the world supposedly exalt with every new frame yet ultimately deny in the rush to centre all drama with one man, the hero, the myth, the star, the Hanks. Unfortunately, most characters in war films are either born-to-die meat, ciphers or stars who only die in very-slow motion. There are never any normal people, average folk who have no clue what's going on around them. A wide-eyed country boy who speaks in his aw-shucks manner at every turn and supposedly represents innocent tainted by pure evil does not count. Neither does a school teacher or accountant who turns into the saviour of the human race by the time the film has expired. I'm talking the banal and the everyday, the astonishingly mundane rising to the crucial cinema moment, the moment of choice. The moment of choice arrives without fanfare or the chance to promote the selfless soldier. The moment of choice exists only when there is something to lose.

War films attack their subject in two ways. Either they hype up the absurdity of the situation and turn a usually serious subject into a chance for comedy (How I Won The War) or for lyrical visions greatly removed from the reality of the everyday (Apocalypse Now). In these types of films the choices and compromises of war are dealt with in a matter that exacerbate their symbolic nature. This isn't war, but merely a punchline or the final corruption of western man's soul. The other type of war film emphasises the moral choices and needless sacrifice of the situation. The film is usually stony-faced and overtly poetic, ending with a fearless damnation of hypocrisy, cowardice, the futility of life, the irony of it all...etc. etc. Kubrick was a master of this type of film, and people took his films so seriously that when he made a dud people took it for a flawed masterpiece. There are of course exceptions to this rule (i.e. smaller character dramas) but in general war films fit pretty neatly into one of these two categories, either farce or tragedy, ridicule or severity. The beauty of Three Kings is that uses both forms to express the moral confusion raised by the Gulf War.

If the Vietnam war was one of the key moments in America s disenchantment, a moment where sheer insanity was propagated at great expense and much loss of life, the Gulf War is the true sequel to Vietnam, yet in place of protests and a widespread source of outrage there was an odd silence, a disquieting anomie that found its way into the heart of all combat. The proof of the horror of Vietnam was the mangled bodies of young men; the only testimony to the Gulf War was the point-of-view of descending missiles, our perspective cut short at the moment of impact. It's a tired Baudrillard proposition from here on in The Gulf War Did Not Take Place. The problem is that this cute theoretical proposition was glibly taken as truth, so much so that the "event" now seems like an amnesiac's conversational ramble, confined to the dustbin of history. At one level this seems justified; after all, the entire exercise resembled nothing more than an attempt to flex military muscle on a global stage. But what about the actual facts after all the conferencing and smug dismissals? What about the unavoidable mess the Kurds were left with after treaties were signed? A war can be waged with the press of a button, but a solution after the media have dropped the story remains harder to come by. Three Kings examines what happens when reality is injected into a proposition, supposedly neat words made messy by the job of soldiers, hired hands with wives and children.

To quote Francois Truffaut "It's impossible to make an anti-war movie, because all war movies, with their energy and sense of adventure, end up making combat look like fun". This is perhaps the central dilemma of all war cinema, and one that Three Kings handles with much skill and intelligence. Early in the film, Russell's camera takes us inside a human body as a bullet pierces it, showing us the terrible damage done by a single round of ammunition. Compared to the standard action hero, who needs at least an entire clip to bring him down, these are people who can die from a single shot. This violent realism is pushed even further in a showdown at a Kuwaiti town a little further into the story, where Iraqi soldiers are torturing local villagers. It's the standard action movie situation, four American soldiers against a small army of Iraqis, and no-one wants to fire the first shot. The Americans can take the gold and run, or they can stay and help out Kurds who are fair game now that war is over. An Iraqi soldier kills a struggling mother. The Americans fire back with a single shot, and in slow motion it hits its target, the murderer. We hear a dull thud, and the man falls. An echo. Another Iraqi fires back, hitting Clooney in his side. One more bullet. The Americans take in the situation. They fire back cautiously, taking one more man down. Once more a single bullet does its job. It zips momentarily through the air and then pierces the body.

What Russell gives us in this scene is a mathematical account of violence, responsibility and the damage done by a single shot fired. When action scenes usually start up in films, the drama is announced by a volley of gunfire or an explosion to get things off with a crudely literal bang. All of a sudden everyone is shooting madly, and we lose our bearings, our sense of who matters to who. We also lose sense of space and time, and the only thing that we can measure are the bullets as they bring down their faceless recipients. In Three Kings each bullet is a horrible act, the taking of a life. No-one really wants to enter into this situation, and they're not going to start shooting gleefully for our entertainment. For a film all about unexpected responsibility, it's the perfect style. Later in the film another violent battle erupts, this time with helicopters and all the standard action movie trappings. and for a second the film seemed to be catering to an audience it had previously denied, but Russell stayed true to his vision. The Americans take down the helicopter with a missile launcher, but as it explodes in a horrible ball of flames we see the helicopter pilot in that now useless collection of twisted metal. We see the figure in medium-long shot, and it's obviously a dummy, but the idea alone is supremely effective. When explosions occur in action movies, we get the pyrotechnics in long shot, usually from a safe distance, to emphasise the size of the explosion (also due to the fact that the explosion is completely out of proportion with the object being destroyed). It's the idea that human lives, whether Iraqi, Kuwaiti or American, are at risk here that informs all of Russell's decisions in the movie.

This sensitivity to all sides of the story is best expressed in perhaps the key scene of the film, a torture scene between Mark Wahlberg and a Iraqi soldier whose wife and child have been killed by American bombing. Rage is what drives the Iraqi, a confusion shared by Wahlberg. He tells the soldier he didn't specifically bomb his family, hey man, I'm just another man trying to get through the day, I've got a family too, but the Iraqi can't really muster much sympathy for Wahlberg. To torture Wahlberg he forces him to drink crude oil, an ironic joke that perhaps best sums up the relentless inversion of stereotypes and expectations in the film. Both of the men act out the standard war-time drama, but they seem oddly removed from the struggle. Wahlberg just wants to get home; he doesn't care about revenge, about his divine mission to bring violence on those who do him ill. The Iraqi jokes with Wahlberg about Michael Jackson's "blackness". Both people exist as real creations, not mere tools for plot advancement of moralising. There is no showdown between the two, or a surprise return for the Iraqi near the end of the film. The only reason these characters exist is to get out of here. They live to escape, characters who cannot even understand what they are doing, what they are part of. Everything here is out of time, slightly alien and hard to comprehend. When the American soldiers raid the bunker they come across some Iraqis watching television with the Rodney King tape playing, and it seems like just another random dot of abstract violence. As a scene begins to edge towards a confrontation we catch a news report we ve seen being filmed a few minutes ago, but it now seems like the reporter is talking about a whole other country.

I've always liked David O. Russell s films, and with Three Kings he will no doubt get the recognition as a filmmaker he deserves (his previous films were the fantastic Spanking The Monkey and the flawed yet intriguing Flirting With Disaster). He's one of the best character writers the American cinema has at the moment, one who lets the plots of his film develop around his characters, and not vice versa. The film also has another assured performance from George Clooney, who after Out of Sight is staging one of the great comebacks of the nineties after starting out in horrible David Caruso style with Batman and Robin.

That Three Kings can end on a arguably patriotic note doesn't seem like mindless flag-waving for once. The film is addressing a subject that no other American film has dealt with yet (I'm not counting Courage Under Fire, with good reason), a message a lot harder to take than the two-minute morals hammered home by the ambiguity free war film fans. There s no challenge in making a World War II film anymore. We all know who the bad guys were, and we ve seen those internal conflicts play themselves in many a movie. The politics of these movies are unlikely to offend anyone. All that seems to change at times are the actors. In comparison, Three Kings condemns a recent chapter of American history that had already begun to feel like a foggy television memory, stored somewhere from decades ago. In Three Kings we are suddenly dragged back into a strange reality, into a drama that has yet to resolve itself.

adam rivett
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