Saturday, January 26, 2013

Courage Under Fire

              “Courage Under Fire” is a film by Edward Zwick (“Glory”) that uses a “Rashoman” structure to explore the fog of war, friendly fire, and post-traumatic stress disorder.  The movie reteams Zwick with his “Glory” star, Denzel Washington.  The script is by Patrick Sheane Duncan (“84 Charlie Mopic”).  It was released in 1996 and is one of two major motion pictures that are set in the Persian Gulf War.  The other being “Three Kings”.  Both films are what I simply call “modern war movies”.
Serling:  "Get some!"
                Washington plays Lt. Col. Nathan Serling.  Serling is suffering from PTSD due to a friendly fire incident during the Persian Gulf War.  While leading a tank assault on the opening night of the ground war (with burning oil wells in the background), he fires on a tank commanded by his friend Capt. Boylar.  The Army awards him a Silver Star for that night and covers up the incident.  He is put in a desk job, but he is haunted by the accident.  He is drinking and is separated from his family.   His commanding officer Brigadier General Hershberg (Michael Moriarity)  gives him an assignment to help him recover.  He is to investigate the possible awarding of the Medal of Honor to a female soldier.  The Army expects him to give the green light to this publicity bonanza, but Capt. Karen Walden’s (Meg Ryan) story is complicated.
"Don't shoot till you see the men"
                The official story is Walden flew her medevac Huey to rescue a downed Black Hawk crew.  Taking fire from an Iraqi tank, Walden’s crew dropped a fuel cell on the tank and set it afire with a flare gun.  They still went down, however.  One of the crew (Rady) was badly wounded.  They held out under fire through the night.  The next day they were rescued, but Walden was killed and left behind.  She’s a heroine, right?  Or was she actually a typically cowardly female?
the brave version of Ilario
               Walden interviews the surviving crew members and a “Rashoman” theme develops as there are two distinctly different versions of what happened.  Specialist Ilario (Matt Damon in his first big role) confirms Walden’s heroism, but his account is suspicious.  The film reenacts Ilario’s version.  The opposing view is offered by Staff Sergeant Monfriez (Lou Diamond Phillips).  He is a card carrying member of the “He Man Woman Haters” Club.  In his reenacted version he is Rambo and Walden is Olive Oil.  Who is telling the truth?  Is the Army trying to give a medal to Sally Piss Panties?

Cobras versus Iraqis.  Spoiler alert: we kick ass!
                Herschberg pressures Serling to issue a rubber-stamped report.  When he refuses, he is taken off the case.  Would you believe he decides to pursue the truth on his own?  (You’ve seen movies before, haven’t you?)  He is aided by, you guessed it, an investigative reporter named Gardner (Scott Glenn) who is actually investigating the friendly fire incident.  The subplots intersect.
                I won’t give away the rest.  There are some interesting twists.  We get to see what actually happened in reenactments of both the Walden scenario and the Serling friendly fire incident.  Everything is tied up in a nice, tearjerking ball.
                This is a multi-layered movie.  It juggles several themes and two major plots.  The themes include:  shit happens in war (friendly fire), the military likes to cover up shit that happened, the authorities want heroes (or heroines) for the masses, PTSD can effect even the strongest personalities.  The plots of Serling dealing with his trauma and investigating the Walden case weave together effectively.  Duncan’s script is strong.  There are some cool twists.  The “Rashoman” elements are well done and entertaining.  It is not obvious which recreations are the truth  It gets a bit hammy in the end, but remember this film was made for a mass audience, not for hard core war movie nuts.  It is not a cynical movie.  This is part of what I mean by a “modern war movie”.
Monfriez:  "Say you hate women soldiers"
                The movie is technically sound.  The cinematography is outstanding.  The combat scenes are visceral, if a little too pristine.  The soundtrack is restrained and does not push emotional buttons too much.  The acting is top notch.  No surprise that Washington is amazing.  He does tormented like no other.  His scenes with his wife (Regina Taylor) are powerful.  She holds her own, by the way.  If you want to see a master at work, watch his visit to Boylar’s parents to tell them the truth about their son’s death.  The rest of the cast is excellent.  You can see Damon’s promise as he portrays the drug-addled Ilario.  He lost forty pounds for the later scenes.  An example of method acting that damaged his health for a while.  Phillips is surprisingly good as the macho Monfriez.  He gets a great death.  Moriarity portrays the general as compassionate, but part of the establishment.  Glenn is appropriately rumpled as the news hound.  Kudos must go to Ryan.  She has to play too totally different characters in the flashbacks.  She pulls it off without looking silly.  No small feat.
a Centurion playing an Abrams
                As far as accuracy, the movie is not based on a true story.  You can see a seed of inspiration from the incident in the Battle of Mogadishu ("Black Hawk Down") involving the snipers (Shughart and Gordon) that rescued Durant.  But, intentionally or not, I found the tale of Jessica Lynch to be another possible inspiration.  Lynch was captured during the war and the early press reports had her as a female warrior.  The truth turned out to be a lot tamer and less heroine-worthy.  The movie is a bit unrealistic on two accounts.  The tank tactics in the friendly fire incident has the M1A1 Abrams (actually disguised British Centurions due to DOD withdrawal of support for the film) virtually hub-to-hub in formation.  This isn’t the Napoleonic Wars, Zwick.  The medevac Huey is too well-armed for a chopper with a red cross on it.  These dudes were hardly noncombatants, but the movie does not make the case that the tank should not have fired on them and I can see where medevac crews might arm themselves beyond the Geneva Convention rules.  The dropping of the fuel cell is clearly ridiculous, but Hollywood has to have its explosions.
                “Courage Under Fire” got some love from the critics and did acceptable box office, but I am obviously a bigger fan than most.  I have read criticism of the conclusion, in particular.  However, if a movie can draw a tear from me, I’ll man up to it and say kudos.  Any other criticism of the plot is perplexing.  Some of it may be critics being critics and not reacting well to anyone attempting to copy “Rashoman”.  Boy, are they protective of those classics!  But since most people don’t have a clue about “Rashoman”, chill out.
              Sadly (and shamefully) I read a review by a war movie expert who I respect and he disliked the movie partly because he could not see a female soldier behaving bravely in combat.  That is bull shit!  Let’s face it, it may be against the law, but we have had females in combat since the Gulf War.  It’s just the nature of the “war with no front lines” that we have faced in Iraq and Afghanistan (and future locales).  I have read nothing to indicate that our female soldiers have become sniveling cowards when the bullets are flying around.  The Walden character is believeable and in the not too distant future we will have our first female Medal of Honor awardee for combat action.  You go, girls!  

grade =  A
Since I wrote this review, the Pentagon has announced plans to allow females to become combatants beyond fighter pilots.  Looks like we will see that female Medal of Honor winner sooner than I expected. 

Saturday, January 19, 2013

LIVE: Warbirds

               “Warbirds” is a made for Sci Fi Channel movie.  It is the true story of a B-29 carrying a secret weapon for the OSS that is piloted by an all-female crew that crashes on an island that is occupied by the Japanese, but home to dinosaurs.  Surely you learned about this in American History class.  Unless you have one of those lameoids who teaches only what’s in the text book. Here is my stream of consciousness (oh, that I had been unconscious!) review.

                A plane flown by women!  This must be science fiction.  I guess they are ferrying it somewhere.  They are WASPS after all.  Very cheesy special effects.  This must be Sci Fi.  If brass come by:  chests out, ladies.  (They said this, not me.) They are on Hawaii and tasked to fly a secret cargo to Tinian.  There’s a storm, but the OSS Colonel orders no course change.  Wait, was that a pterodactyl?  Let’s land on that island.  Pilot (West):   “I promised I’d die happy in Clark Gable’s bed and I ain’t breaking that promise.”  Who the Hell is Clark Gable, says 90% of the audience.   How about landing on that huge flat space?  “We’re out of the frying pan, now let’s see if we’ve landed in the fire.”  Searching the island.  A skeleton falls from a tree.  Deserted Jap camp.  Egads, huge claw marks.   That can’t be good.  Suddenly the Japs have one of the girls.  It’s a standoff until a monster swoops down and takes one of the Japs.  So far the hairdos are holding up.  They take the Japs captive.  They can talk English part of the time.  There are some Zeros on the island (and they also have some Japanese fighter planes).  Please let us have a dog fight between them and some pterodactyls.  The OSS Colonel and the pilot (West) don’t get along, naturally.  Here’s the plan:  the kewpie doll girl (Hoodsy)  will fly a stripped down Zero to Australia to get help.  Piece of cake!  She knows how to fly a Japanese fighter.  West:  “You better make it or mama’s gonna kick your ass!”  There’s no ass to kick because kewpie gets “shot down” by a dino.  Damn, she was kind of cute.  West and the Colonel are still arguing.  They’ll soon be in love.  Hair and lipstick still holding up.  A small fire keeps the dinos away instead of attracting them.  Got to remember that.  They need fuel which is inconveniently  located in the middle of the monsters.  Drat!  The dinos are protective of their fuel dump.  They hit one with a flare and it drops on the fuel and sets off an explosion.  A soldier cocks his M-1.  He gets eaten by a dino that looks like Dale Dye.  Only three chicks left.  The Japanese have snooped around in the bomber and they know it contains a secret weapon.  The Japanese captain spent some time in America where he must have been friends with Oppenheimer.  The Colonel shoots him.  West has qualms about killing thousands of Japanese.  She’s not Truman.  They decide to take off at night.  Betsy and Vicky will fly escort.  They’re escorts, get it?  Hair and lipstick still okay.  Briefly dirty uniforms, clean again.  Cheesy chatter – just like “Red Tails”!  Two dinos land on Vicky’s plane and take her down.  West turns the bomber around to help Betsy.  A monster pokes its head through the bomb bay door.  It bites off the Colonels arm, but he drops the bomb on its head.  The Colonel follows the bomb down, but not coolly like on “Dr. Strangelove”.  Nuclear explosion!  Betsy shows up.  “That was one hell of a fire cracker you dropped”.  They fly into the horizon.

                This movie was not as bad as I expected.  The acting was not terrible.  The dialogue was not abominable.  The CGI was not ridiculous.  The chicks were okay looking but not hot.  Plus, I have a feeling it took liberties with history.  The bomb looked a little small.  By the way, I know you’re wondering where those dinosaurs came from.  I turns out the Japanese were digging around and exposed their eggs.  This doesn’t explain their metal claws.

                All things considered, not as bad as
 “Braveheart”.  And more historically accurate.
grade =  D 

Saturday, January 12, 2013

NOW SHOWING: Zero Dark Thirty

               I rushed to see a movie today that I have been waiting more than eleven years for.  Ever since 9/11/2001.  For a few years, I had almost lost hope that the subject would ever arise.  Thank God it finally came to pass.  Then I had to worry about how Hollywood would handle the inevitable film treatment(s).  You know screenwriters immediately got to work on a rush take on it.  I really wanted to “see” the death of the most evil man of my lifetime, but I know that if inferior film comes out first, it poisons the waters for later takes.  When I heard that Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal (both of “The Hurt Locker”) were preparing a version, I felt a little more confident.  I need not have worried.  The other productions can shut down.  We now have the definitive retelling of the greatest manhunt in history.  It turns out that manhunt was led by a woman.
                The movie is amazing and is built around one of the outstanding real-life heroines in cinema history.  Jessica Chastain should win the Oscar for her performance as Maya.  She portrays the CIA operative as obsessive and persevering (to the point of being a pain in the ass for her superiors).  Her evolution from naïve to hard as nails in the world of black sites is a theme.  How ironic that the actual role model will not be able to reap the fame (at least not for a while, hopefully).  Bigelow and Boal made a great decision to concentrate on this woman and build up to the mission by showing the frustrating quest to locate UBL (the movie does not dumb it down for the current events-challenged masses).  Chastain is well-supported by a strong cast.  It’s not all-star, but you’ll recognize many solid performers.  The biggest surprise is Chris Pratt (from the wonderful “Parks and Recreation”) as a Navy SEAL.  Informed choice, considering elite military types often have good senses of humor.  By the way, there is also a major part for one of my favorite actresses- Jennifer Ehle (the miniseries “Pride and Prejudice”).
                I won’t give away the plot.  The movie works on two levels.  If you are like me and have a working knowledge of the war on terrorism, it is exciting to see some key events reenacted masterfully.  It does help to know the basics.  The dialogue assumes that.  There are numerous references to KSM (google his ugly ass).  I almost envy the majority of Americans who will find the entire movie suspenseful because they do not know what will happen next.
                The movie opens chillingly with a blank screen (no opening credits) and audio from phone calls from victims of 9/11.  Just in case you needed to be reminded about the stakes.  It closes with the mission.  In between is a fascinating quest to locate the most wanted man on Earth.  Bigelow throws in some shocking acts of terrorism to juice the narrative.  The reenactment of mission is mesmerizing even for those who know what will happen.  The flight into Abbottabad  has the best use of music that I can recall in a scene like this.  Not bombastic.  I would best describe it as SEALish.  The “assault” is a blend of POV and fly on the wall cinematography.  It is not frenetic like in “Act of Valor” (a movie I love).  You won’t feel like you are playing a first person shooter.   You will be on the edge of your seat.
                Interestingly, the movie does not do the cliché of describing the mission plan.  After all those days of waiting (angrily tallied on her bosses window by Maya), we are suddenly thrust into the big night.  This was a good decision for both the informed and the historical illiterates.  It also does not flesh out the SEAL characters.  However, small touches make it clear they are not only heroes, but professionals.  There is an understated scene where Maya watches them play horse shoes and is stunned to learn that they know they are going on the mission that very night.  Subtle, but brilliant.  The movie also avoids the cliché of the corrupt or clueless authorities.  No Americans are villains.  It does take to task the risk-averse, but they are portrayed as simply too careful.   Then again, Maya is portrayed as an obsessed bitch.  Thank God she was!  CIA Director Leon Panetta comes off well, but there is little reference to Obama and none of George W. Bush.  The movie does not lionize Obama for giving the green light.  It does not demonize Muslims.  In fact, a CIA official is tellingly depicted on his prayer mat.
                As far as accuracy, I could detect nothing egregious.  I have read extensively on the subject.  I read “SEAL Target Geronimo” and the mission is basically as chronicled in that book.  The movie does not add any explosions.  It also does not sugar coat what happened in that compound.  Spoiler alert:  there is no attempt to take UBL alive.  As to the controversial depiction of torture and the actionable results from inhumane interrogation, I would be surprised if those types of things did not happen.  You may want to believe otherwise, but get your head out of the sand.   It is a crying shame that the ostriches will prevent this movie from a deserved Best Picture Oscar.  It is a travesty that they have already deprived Bigelow of a director nomination.
                In conclusion, “Zero Dark Thirty” tells the story many have been waiting to see.  It does it in a well-crafted way that does justice to history.  It is better than “The Hurt Locker” and “Lincoln”.  It will have its detractors and where you stand on this is telling.  I’m not sure if it is a war movie, but whatever genre it falls into- it is outstanding.

grade = A 

Wednesday, January 9, 2013


         I have decided to lead my first watchalong in the year 2013.  I have chosen the topic of war movies that have something to say about leadership.  There are many good war movies that deal with this topic.  We will do one (sometimes two) per month.  I will pose a few general questions to focus on when you view and then we will discuss at the end of the month.  Everyone is welcome.  Thanks to the gang at Armchair General Forums for some excellent suggestions.

January -  The Crossing
February -  Master and Commander
March -  12 O’Clock High
April -  Waterloo
May -  Platoon
June -  Patton and The Desert Fox
July -  Pork Chop Hill and Zulu
August -  Lawrence of Arabia
September -  Letters from Iwo Jima
October -  Glory
November -  Operation Petticoat
December -  The Cockleshell Heroes
          First up – “The Crossing”.  The true story of Washington’s crossing of the Delaware and the Battle of Trenton.

1.  What leadership traits does Washington display?
2.  How does Washington handle his subordinates?
3.  How does he deal with adversity?
           Below is the full movie!

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Fail Safe

               “Fail Safe” is a nuclear war movie released in 1964.  It was directed by Sidney Lumet (“The Hill”).  It is based on the novel by Eugene Burdrick and Harvey Wheeler.  Amazingly, it came out a few months after “Dr. Strangelove” and looks like the serious older brother to that film.  Because of this dynamic, “Fail Safe” was a box office failure as the public did not take it seriously.  Talk about bad timing for a good movie.  It did garner positive reviews.
                The title refers to the geographic point that nuclear bombers would be sent to await a “go code” to proceed to their targets in Russia.  An off-course air liner appearing on radar screens as a UFO triggers the order to go to the fail safe point.  Then a computer glitch sends a group of bombers on to Moscow.  Russian jamming prevents reception of abort orders.  Technology is out to kill us!  (By the way, the Soviets did not have this technology.)
                The rest of the movie jumps between claustrophobic locales. The White House underground bunker, the Pentagon war conference room, the SAC war room and a single bomber cockpit.  Fascinatingly scary decisions have to be made as the situation escalates.  Mad scientist Prof. Groeteschele (Walter Matthau) argues that we should seize this “opportunity” to win the Cold War.  60 million American deaths would be a fair price to pay.  His Dr. Strangelove imitation is not as funny as Seller’s.  He is voted down and the National Security Council advises the President (Henry Fonda) to order fighter jets to chase the bombers and shoot them down.  It’s a suicide mission and unlikely to succeed.  It sucks to be the President sometimes.  The buck stops here.
                As the last fighter radar blip disappears from the radar screen, the President calls the Russian Premier on the “hot line’ and has an awkward conversation.  The President’s translator (Larry Hagman) is the everyman thrust into the middle of nuclear insanity.  The President, being a bleeding heart liberal, sympathizes with the Communist leader and offers to help him shoot the American bombers down.  The Russians lift the jamming, but the well-trained American bomber pilots obediently disregard verbal orders to return.  In a very poignant exchange, even the last pilot’s wife cannot sway her husband.
                The bombers are followed on a big screen like an early video game (think “Missile Command”).  One by one they are splashed.  The tension builds.  You can tell by the close-ups of the characters’ faces.  The President tells the Premier that if Moscow is hit, the U.S. will sacrifice New York City.  Surprisingly, the First Lady is visiting.
                “Fail Safe” is a chilling depiction of hazards of reliance on technology in the nuclear age.  It is excellent in portraying how a crisis can escalate beyond imagination.  The movie is good for people who did not live through the Cold War to watch to get a perspective on what could have happened.  It will make you appreciate the less tense world we now live in now.  The movie should be viewed as a companion to "Dr. Strangelove”, but unlike moviegoers in 1964, it would be better to see this one first.
                The film is very good.  The acting is stellar.  Fonda is excellent as the President you would want to have in a crisis.  He is calm and weighs his decisions after input from his advisors.  He is a reasonable man and thank God the Soviet Premier is too.  Try to picture future Presidential candidates in his situation and vote accordingly. The rest of the cast is outstanding with Matthau and Hagman standing out. 
                Sidney Lumet’s direction is riveting.  The film was shot in stark black and white.  The interiors are confining and the close-ups add to the tension.  One weakness is the reliance on stock footage of the aircraft due to the Air Force’s refusal to cooperate with the production.  The USAF was offended by the suggestion that a mistake could lead to nuclear disaster.  It could not have been offended by the portrayal of the fighter and bomber pilots.  They basically committed suicide doing their duty.  An interesting feature of the film is there is no music which makes the pregnant pauses in the conversations even more compelling. Also, we do not hear the voice of the Soviet leader, making Hagman’s interpretation spellbinding.
                In conclusion, this is a must see movie.  If you prefer different actors, George Clooney did a word for word remake in 2000.  It was a live TV production!  Kudos, but the original is better.  Will it crack the 100 Best?  Possibly.

Grade =  A
                              the trailer

the full movie