Friday, July 19, 2013

Friday Film Pick- David O. Russell's THREE KINGS (1999)

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We live in perhaps the bleakest era of American filmmaking; the bloated summer blockbuster season now nearly 5 long months of YA adaptations and third phase re-boots of franchises not even a decade old, costing an average of 150 million dollars a pop, while independent films are now a quirky crowd sourced caricature of themselves. There is virtually no trace of the subversive, biting cinema introduced in the 1970’s that simultaneously criticized and galvanized American culture.

Living through this dark age of American film, it’s sometimes hard to believe that just 15 years ago, it was a different story all together. In the late 90’s you could still convince a studio like Warner Brothers to take a chance on an indie-filmmaker who wanted to direct an art film action adventure about the aftermath of the first Gulf War, starring two hip hoppers, one first time actor, and a TV soap opera doctor.

But that’s exactly what David O. Russell did and the result is one of the finest films about contemporary warfare ever made. Three Kings, released in 1999, met with rave critical reviews but a somewhat tepid box-office reception. It was completely ignored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences who were enamored with a more domestic (and now quite dated) portrayal of millennial America, Sam Mendes’ American Beauty.

Three Kings takes place in the immediate aftermath of the first Gulf War. The ceasefire has been signed and American forces are being pulled out. Spirits are high and soldiers are partying even though Saddam Hussien is still in power (will remain so for another decade) and will soon begin a violent suppression of the resistance exposed during the short, violent, but media sanitized war. By setting the film in the precarious aftermath, with a ceasefire and backroom politics limiting the capabilities of our characters, Russell is able to expose the shallowness of nationalism and the whitewashing of the war by American media. “Because the war itself, to me, wasn’t very interesting,” Russell explained. “The war was six weeks of bombing. What was interesting to me was the moment everybody stopped paying attention.”

The plot revolves around a rag tag group of enlisted men; new father and boy next door Troy Barlow (Mark Wahlberg), high school dropout and impressionable bone head Conrad Vig (Spike Jonze), and their NCO, a devout Christian and Detroit refugee Chief Elgin (Ice Cube). While trying to reach their post-war quota of Iraqi prisoners of war, they discover a map of Hussein’s stolen Kuwaiti gold in the ass of a captured Iraqi infantryman. Enter George Clooney as disillusioned ex-Special Forces turned media liaison officer, Archie Gates, two weeks from retirement and sick of playing the weapons of mass- distraction game with the ratings rabid American journalists he’s been assigned to protect. When rumors of the “Iraqi Ass Map” spread around camp, Clooney takes control and makes a plan to steal it, making himself and the enlisted men rich.

The plan quickly goes awry when the misfit group, trying to find the gold, instead stumbles upon a group of Iraqi citizens held captive in a torture chamber of Hussein’s Imperial Guard. Faced with the victims of the unrealized revolution that American forces are now abandoning, the enlisted men and officer Gates now have to choose between their pockets and their conscience. Are they thieves or are they freedom fighters? I won’t ruin the rest of the movie for you entirely but let’s just say the ceasefire gets broken.

Three Kings is so many things at once… a fast paced comedy, a satirical look at media manipulation in modern warfare, a brutal action film, and a heartfelt glimpse at the often invisible victims of our Mid- East wars. David O. Russell based the films plot off of a one line synopsis of unproduced scripts provided to him by Warner Brothers. John Riley’s Spoils of War provided the initial inspiration but Russell never even read the script. He preferred to create his story based off of the full color newspaper images in the New York Times. The bleached out coloring of the desert coverage inspired the unique cinematography that sets Three Kings apart from almost every other film of the time period.

Another distinctive characteristic of the film is the rather slow and calculated pacing of the action sequences. Gun battles are often portrayed in slow motion, their destructiveness illustrated with intensely graphic shots of the bullet entering internal organs. In an interview with in 2000, Russell spoke about his stylistic choice, “…one of the ideas was to resensitize us to violence. A bullet is a very big deal in anybody’s life, so I wanted to slow it down to make you feel that each bullet counted in that way.” They certainly do count. There is no gratuitousness to the violence. It is deliberate, sobering, and terrifying.

There is also a constant reminder of American pop culture and rampant consumerism on each side of the war. American forces are shown partying in their pop tents with boom boxes and CD players, watching CNN coverage of the war they are fighting on battery operated televisions. Iraqi forces are shown watching bootlegged VHS copies of the Rodney King beating, hoarding Cuisineart blenders, and listening to Eddie Murphy’s “Party All The Time” in their bunkers. The saturation and appropriation of American pop culture is certainly humorous but can also take a darkly disturbing turn. In one scene, Wahlberg’s Troy Barlow is captured and tortured by the Iraqi Imperial Guard. His interrogation begins with his captor delivering a monologue about America’s betrayal of the King of Pop, Michael Jackson, and ends with Barlow being forced to drink crude oil. All these interrogation techniques were taught to them, he explains, by American forces during the Iran/Iraq War.

The film is layered, suspenseful, and hilarious. The excellent script and characterization manages to deliver hard lined critique of American foreign policy without being skewed by a particular political agenda. It’s portrayal of American military personel is the most diverse and un-romanticized since Hal Ashby’s Coming Home and like that film, manages to humanize and sympathize with characters who would otherwise be footnotes to a grander more glorified war film. Ice Cube’s Sgt. Elgin is a multidimensional character, a Christian man who looks at the military as his way of escaping poverty and violence in Detroit. Spike Jonez’ Conrad Vig is a redneck who spouts racist epithets and adores violence, but only because he is undereducated. The economic necessity of their enlistment should bind them closer together but the racially reductive politics of America has driven them apart. Not until they’re faced with a tragedy larger than themselves are they brothers in arms.

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Three Kings is a film that would never be made in today’s cinematic climate. It would be too controversial for a large studio and too ambitious and humorous for an independent production. It was made in that magnificent pre-9/11 period when criticism of our country was looked at as patriotic. When a film with political substance wasn’t exclusively looked at as having a conservative or liberal bias. When it was understood that art and entertainment was pointless if constricted by ideology. When the best plot point was instead, humanity.

1 comment:

  1. i watched this after i left texas because i remembered you told me to. no offense, but wasn't impressed. i remember about half way through it took a turn and changed tone, which made the movie feel incongruent to me. and i got bored with the humor pretty early on too. hah sorry i woke up feeling feisty!!! love your take on it though!