Well, I did it; I watched it. I bought it in a sale, several months ago, and then stuck it on my shelf thinking “You’re going to have to watch this sooner or later, now you’ve paid a fiver for it” until in the end my innate meanness pushed me into sticking it in the dvd player last night. Because I’d paid for it. If someone had given it to me it’s quite likely I would have passed it to a charity shop, unwatched.
I’ve been a bit of an idiot, because of course it was nothing like what I had expected. I had stated pretty firmly in public, a few months ago, that I had no intention of watching this film as my nerves wouldn’t take it. Ahem; just before I bought it. Yes, I’m not always logical. But I knew what the subject matter was, and I told myself that my imagination could conjure plenty to alarm and horrify me without my needing to see a realistic depiction in technicolour. Ding dong, wrong wrong. It is a brilliant film and I can understand entirely why it won so many awards.
I do feel that there was a bit of a whoops on the part of the marketing team, though. By splashing quotes on the cover of the dvd that emphasise that this is a war movie and an action movie, and putting images of explosions and screaming faces on the sleeve, they make it look like something it is not - a full-on violent action piece in the “boys-will-be-men” genre; something like a modern-day “Dirty Dozen”. They gave me expectations which the film itself then completely overturned. I’m delighted about that; but anyone who had wanted “The Dirty Dozen” would have been bitterly disappointed.
What I had expected was something very violent, with a seriously high level of blowings-up, shootouts and general death and mayhem. I was expecting explicit gore and horror, and to be scared stiff a lot of the time. I was also expecting the film to be pretty gung-ho, and I was certain it would be political. I didn’t know whether it would be pro-war political, or pro-this-war political, or anti-war political, or anti-this-war political; and I didn’t much care which one it was, to be honest, since in a war movie, having a political stance generally turns the characters and the story into ciphers whose sole purpose is to illustrate the film-makers’ point, and whether I agree with their point or not that still makes for a less interesting film.
So, anyway, I was anticipating being hit over the head with one of the following: A) Our glorious, noble boys are fighting for freedom, rah! B) Our glorious, noble boys are fighting for freedom this time even if they weren’t in ‘Nam, slightly-less-rah! C) Our poor boys always end up getting into fights because they are men and men always get in fights because they don’t know any better, boo! or D) Our poor boys are being misled into laying down their lives by corrupt politicians, but they’re still glorious and noble even if misguided, slightly-less-boo!
With lashings of blood and guts, and graphically-highlighted corpses mounded to left and right till the set looks like Cuchulainn’s defence of the ford.
Well, there is a bit of gore, indeed quite a lot in places. There are deaths. There are explosions (there would have to be explosions, really). There is a fair amount of shooting at times. But none of this is handled in the way I expected. The violence is there because it’s essential – perhaps a better term would be unavoidable - since the setting of this story is a war zone; but the way it’s treated is as low-key as is feasible. It’s never gratuitous, it’s not lingered over, and as much as possible it’s kept painfully human. One is not allowed to forget for one moment that each wound, each death, each moment of fear or grief or shock, happens to a human being and not a plot device.
Then there’s the fact that it’s startlingly apolitical; war is the context, but it’s kept right in the background. No-one ever talks about it in terms of politics, beliefs, right or wrong, etc. It’s just the situation these men are in – the same as a building site is the situation builders are in, the same as the office I’m sitting in now, writing this while I eat my lunch, is the situation I’m in. There’s no preaching, from any side, and no nationalistic claptrap, and neither glorification nor liberal breast-beating and wailing of woe. That’s not to say there isn’t a message (more on this anon), but the message is again kept resolutely on a human level.
Overall, what one gets is a series of almost random vignettes that build up into a powerful exploration of the effects of unremitting stress and the shifting balance of instinctive dislike and growing comradeship between three mismatched men enduring said stress while working together in appallingly difficult conditions. God, that’s a clumsy sentence; sorry about that. We see these men argue, hit one another, yell at one another, struggle to understand one another; we see them bond and un-bond and then re-bond... But an action piece it’s not. It’s a psychological study in human character and human tension, and far more than it is violent it is deeply moving.
About the only expectation I had that was not thoroughly confounded was the one of being frightened. I was genuinely terrified for the three principal characters, most of the time; the creation and sustaining of tension is brilliantly done.
This is achieved, as far as I can see, by a combination of several very simple things having all been got right. The director knows exactly what she is doing; the script is excellent, clear and brilliantly economical; and the cast is superb. I could leave it there – that does kind of say it all, after all. But I was so impressed that I found myself analysing what I had been watching; trying to work out why it works so very, very well.
Take the opening. The first scene lasts, what, eight or ten minutes? I didn’t count the lines of dialogue, but there aren’t that many – maybe fifty lines altogether. It’s just some men in a street, talking about their work, then executing it. The scene is set; not just the immediate scene – this street, this day – but the whole scene – this city, this country, this conflict. We’re shown what these men’s work is and their individual roles within the team. We see how they interrelate, and how at ease they are with one another. It’s clear that they have worked together over a period of time, in dangerous conditions. We learn a surprising amount about how roadside bombs work, too; by the time the explosion occurs, we know precisely what has happened to the man who falls and does not get up, and why. All this is done without a single bit of overt exposition. Then in the next sequences we see how the survivors feel about his death, and we meet the man who will replace him; and see, immediately but through very subtle ways, how totally different this guy is to the man who died. At no point does anyone say “You need to know that...” or “Let me tell you about...” At no point is there any voiceover, and the very brief use of subtitles is relevant and adds pertinent information economically. The whole thing is an absolute master class of “show, don’t tell”.
The casting is another masterstroke. Yes, I confess that this is why I ended up buying the dvd. Yes, I-am-a-creature-of-crushes. Etc, etc. And, if you’re wondering, no, I’m not actually ashamed of it. I’ve come to feel the only shameful crush is the one one is ashamed of. I realise that, written down, that looks like a logical impossibility of some kind. What I mean is that it’s the person saying “I don’t have a crush! How dare you – this is true love!” who is most likely to turn into a stalker. Having the experience, a few years ago, of living just down the road from someone I admired hugely - seeing him in the greengrocer’s buying beans, or putting out his recycling bin on a Monday evening - cured me of any inclination ever to stalk anyone. It was alternately boring and terribly embarrassing.
Anyway, to go back to my subject, this was the film that shot The Crush of the Moment from hard-working character actor into star-in-the-making. It must have come as a shock; he was in his late thirties, after all, with at least fifteen years hard graft under his belt. And he’s not remotely the regular identikit chiselled Hollywood Hero, gorgeous though he be. He has a rough-edged, lived-in, everyman-ish gorgeousness; he’s none too tall and he’s got nice eyes, a round face and no cheekbones to speak of. Not the usual movie star type at all, though to my mind far more interesting. The possession of a truly lovely physique does wonders for the overall Hunk Score, but once again it’s an everyman’s great bod, not the gym-sculpted Artificial Perfection of a body builder. He looks splendid, and very fit, with his shirt off, but like a fit human being, not something that was produced in a workshop using a hammer and chisel.
Okay, I’ll stop drooling now, having bored anyone reading this rigid with that little side-disquisition on male beauty. Ahem. When he was offered this part, Mr R was not yet a star; he was a bloody good actor who got a lucky break in the form of a great (though clearly pretty stressful) role in which he could burn up the screen by just standing still, and finally get to show everybody just how much he could do with the most inward and minimal of means. He is absolutely electrifying; it really restores one’s faith in the movie industry to see that a performance of this calibre can get someone noticed to this degree. Quite what the assembled casting directors of Hollywood had been failing to notice up until then, I don’t know. Maybe they’re all prejudiced against any chap who’s less than six foot in his socks.
The other two leads are also excellent, and I’m very pleased to see that one of them, Anthony Mackie, has also begun to make a bit of a mark for himself now. Talent and hard work can still be what it takes. Hurrah for that. But because all three of them look like everyman, and at the time of filming effectively were everyman, one stops seeing them as anything but everyman, within minutes of the film starting. So that it feels like a story about ordinary men, and not a fiction; and the visual style is messy enough to keep this documentary quality. On the occasions when a known face appears he generally gets wiped out soon after. It’s one of the best uses of a Brechtian distancing device I’ve seen for a while – the Movie Star appears, smiles, speaks a few lines and promptly gets killed, bang! One is thrown back each time to these three perfectly ordinary blokes who are brave and desperate and real, carrying on with their terrifying work, doing their human best, and coping with their frayed nerves, damaged souls, and breaking hearts.
The end is utterly heartbreaking, too. I actually sat and cried at the sight of someone shopping in a supermarket and clearing leaves out of a blocked drain. It reminded me of one of the most potently subtle sad film endings I know, the closing scene of “Walkabout”. I have no idea if the echoes I saw were intentional, mind you. But I ended up glad for Sgt James; because he can go back, where the girl in “Walkabout” cannot. And this brings me to the one place where I feel this otherwise superb film came crashing down. It has a firmly stated message, which appears right at the beginning as an epigraph, in lieu of a title sequence. But what follows is far deeper and more subtle than that epigraph can ever be. So if one watches trying to relate everything to the epigraph, one ends up losing some of the laminations of meaning, of emotion, of human depth.
If this had been a story about medics, then the thesis that war is a drug would have been demonstrated very clearly and without any contradictions. A doctor can practice anywhere, after all. Most of the places a doctor can practice are reasonably safe; certainly as safe as this office. So a doctor who chooses voluntarily to keep returning to the battlefield can quite reasonably be suspected of an addiction to the danger and thrill of a war situation. But really, what is a bomb-disposal expert supposed to do in civvy street? It’s hardly a regular skill set to take to the local jobcentre. The film makes it very clear that, troubled and difficult man though he is, Sgt James is also highly skilled and has a real aptitude for his job; he’s a natural. Is there anywhere a really good, naturally gifted bomb-disposal man can do his right work, other than in the military, in a war zone? I can’t think of any other option for him. No-one likes to feel useless, after all. One of the most touching elements of the “back home” sequences is the way James is always shown busy with something – something, anything - to be useful and keep himself occupied.
The epigraph made me feel I was meant to have been thinking “Shitterbricks, how tragic, he’s going back, the poor addicted bastard” – but I didn’t. I am pretty thoroughly anti-war; and I didn’t. I just felt cross at having been told what to think. Especially in the context of a film that was in every other way so very thought-provoking, so very moving, and so very unprescriptive.