Sunday, 11 September 2011

The Warring 00's

The Best War and Terrorism Films of the 2000s - Part 14 in our ongoing series

 The media is filled with rememberance of the anniversary of that one fateful day 10 years ago. I'm guessing a lot of you are as tired of it as me, but one can't claim it didn't have a huge effect on everything around us. Movies, for example. The war movies of the last decade were much less stories of the unity of a squad in war, and more stories of individuals surviving through devastating ordeals. It makes sense, because the subsequent wars have not had a simple righteous vs. evil setting for any point of view. More and more innocent civilians have been caught in the middle of violent conflicts. Both sides are accustomed to incredible cruelty. In American war movies, the need for war was questioned less, altough the question rose a lot in films of other genres. Also movies from all over the country took different approaches into conflicts.

One major thing that 9/11 did was it blurred the line of having a war and an act of terrorism. Thus, the same applied to films as well, and films about terrorism became almost more common than traditional war films. Here, I take a look at 11 best portrayals of violent conflicts on cinema, based on actual events.

Black Book (Zvartboek 2006)
Director: Paul Verhoeven

The old master of mainstream exploitation,  Paul Verhoeven, returned with a bang with this wartime espionage drama about the Dutch resistance movement in WWII. Of course, even with such a serious subject matter, the tiger couldn't shake off its stripes. The story (of a love story between a jewish woman and a nazi officer) is like from a cheap romance novel, mixed with Uncle Paul's basic pulp material, like full frontal (female) nudity, raw violence and plenty of bad taste.

Rachel Stein (Clarice van Houten) lives in a kibbutz in Israel and reminsces the wartime. When she was young she had to be in hiding when the German troops took over Netherlands. She survives a massacre of a group of jews trying to escape to the south, and subsequently joins the Dutch resistance to fight the Nazis. There she is set to seduce the SS-hauptsturmführer Ludwig Müntze (Sebastian Koch) as a cabaret singer named Ellis de Vries. But as Rachel goes deeper undercover, she starts to find also symphatetic sides in her sworn enemy. It dawns to her that not all nazis think alike. But there are dangers lurking in becoming too attached to either side.

It's credit to Verhoeven's skills how well he can pull the banal strings of the story to create a suspenseful and an entertaining film. However, this should be seen as an entertaining thriller rather than an accurate description of wartime espionage. Well, I might buy the coloring of pubic hairs, but the dumping of a container filled with liquid shit on someone if one step too far. Much like Tarantino, Verhoeven also spices his story up with absolutely horrifying violence that has its roots in the horrid treatment of Jews all over Europe. It is questionable whether the holocaust should be used as a backgroud to entertainment, but at least it connects the violence to real world issues so that we viewers are not allowed to take it with merely a shrug.

Bloody Sunday (2002)
Director: Paul Greengrass 

Paul Greengrass may be more well-known for directing both of the Bourne sequels, but his real talent is in realistic docu-dramas. The British director won Best Picture at the Berlin Film Festival with this gripping film about one day in 1972 that is one of the most important dates in the conflict of Northern Ireland.

January 30, 1972 in the Northern Ireland town of Derry a group of Catholic civil rights activists organize a protest march against the British occupation. The events are seen unfolded through the eyes of activist Ivan Cooper (James Nesbitt). The British Army recieved orders to stop the march at any cost. Thus the march came to an abrupt end when paratroopers opened fire on the participants. Among the British soldiers there are a lot that don't want to shoot innocent people, but they can't overpower the instructions from higher-ups and can't overpower a few psychos massacring people out of pure hatred. In the end, 13 people are killed instantly and many more are wounded.

Greengrass's film is aligned clearly to give sympathy for the Irish. The carnage, where even children and old people are fired upon, is hard to watch. The knowledge provided by the film gives a lot of background to the forming of the IRA and the terrorism against the Brits since. Greengrass shoots everything naturally, unfolding the events in real time and utilizing hand-held cameras. His skills include getting the viewer to feel as if he's there himself, which just adds to the devastatingness of the resulting film.
Downfall (Der Untergang, 2004)
Director: Oliver Hirschbiegel

The film that launched a thousand memes. Based on that one clip everyone has seen a billion times already, it's easy to forget how gripping and devastating this film is. It is based on the deathbed memoirs of Hitler's secretary Traudl Junge. As the Soviet Army approaches Berlin at the end of WWII, and the Nazi armies start to be defeated all over, we follow the reaction at Hitler's command bunker. When cold, calculating human monsters who have nothing but disregard for life are themselves driven to a corner, the result does get messy.

The film was very controversial in Germany at the time, because it portrayed Hitler as not just a caricature of all that is evil, but a broken human being whose had his dreams crushed and is facing death. That actually makes this a very necessary film as if we don't realize that even the worst psychopaths the world has ever seen are just frail human beings, it will be harder to fight for such beasts to never get to a position of power ever again. Everyone on internet is called a Hitler nowadays as a basic insult, so it's necessary to see that this was too a real human, albeit twisted, and not a pure monster.

Thus, at the film's core is veteran German actor Bruno Ganz's portrayal as The Führer. His work is nothing sort of mesmerizing, with the man's mood swinging up and down. Hitler is seen having hissy fits, falling into gloominess, maintaining his last threads of hope, and finally settling to suicidal depression. The film doesn't work nearly as well after his demise, the final third depicting the final Battle of Berlin. Junge herself (Alexandra Maria Lara) is a blank slate as a character. She is mostly just where anything is happening, watching. But in the end, the film doesn't forget the fact that all the pain that the masterminds of the war felt, was felt tenfold by the innocent civilians of Berlin, who had to endure hunger, living in squalor, flying bullets, bombings, and the society collapsing on them.

Basically this is a film about Germany, and the crumbling of the delusion of the Aryan one and the nightmarish Nazi version which it actually was. While the so-called superiors are revealed to be just feeble old men incapable of taking the consequences of their actions, all the previously planned grandieur is reduced to rubble. When the war has ceased to rage, the first building blocks of modern Germany can be made on the ruins. Yet the film's ending isn't too hopeful, as we all know, Germany still had pretty tough times ahead because of the communists.

The Hurt Locker (2008)
Director: Kathryn Bigelow

For whatever reason, this is one of the most controversial Best Picture Oscar winners of the past decade. For one, it takes a completely different approach to war than the teary-eyed pathos most war movies that win a lot of awards do. But as Bigelow demonstartes, you can tell a gripping story about what war does to one's mind without bludgeoning you to the head with its "war is hell" message. She is more interested in how soldiers get hooked from the thrill of war than pondering the reasons of going to war.

A highly trained bomb disposal team in Iraq is sent a new Sargeant as the one before has gotten blown up. Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner) however doesn't have the usual methods of "easy does it", but rather he likes to go defuse his bombs recklessly and head first. The tensions between the squal begin to build as everyone starts to slowly understand that James enjoys the rush he gets from his life being on the edge.

The war in Iraq is particularly good at creating an uncertain athmosphere as enemies can attack at any time and look like any civilians. Bombs are hidden and scattered all over the place and defusing them is not that simple. As a result, the whole film is a huge adrenaline rush like only Bigelow can create. She also has her usual studies of the nature of masculinity, not forgetting a hilariously homoerotic wrestling scene. When the movie moves back home from Iraq, it seems like Bigelow is loosing the touch at final minutes, but then she whams an unforgettable final image on screen that sums the whole film up perfectly.

“There’s enough bang in there to blow us all to Jesus. If I’m gonna die, I want to die comfortable.”

Inglourious Basterds (2009)
Director: Quentin Tarantino

For me, this is the hardest Tarantino film to like. It can seems more like a collection of good scenes than a good movie. Here, the director tries a similar fractured approach than he used in Pulp Fiction in a film that fakes out to be an old boy's own adventure movie. But there are no scenes depicting the banter and comradeship of the soldiers or from a battlefield. One shouldn't take Tarantino as just a cabon-copier of the films of yesteryear. He also weighs in his complicated thoughts on the screen violence, characterizations of various nationalities in war films, and the importance of language in film. It is first and foremost a film about the importance of cinema. In fact, this is also more akin to a terrorist film than a traditional war film. For all his love of the films of yesteryears, Tarantino can also recognize modern trends and build films upon them too.

Like most of Tarantino's films, this is also a film about resolving a need for vengeance. In France under the Nazi occupation, the intelligent German colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) arrives to a small French village looking for jews in hiding. His interrogation technique reveals the hiding place of the family Dreyfus, who are all killed, save for the young Shosanna (Mélanie Laurent). Years later, Shosanna owns a cinema in Paris, and unwillingly captures the heart of a war hero Frederick Zoller (Daniel Brühl). He asks high-ranking Nazis to held a premiere of a propaganda film based on Zoller in Shosanna's theatre. This allows her to execute her revenge on the Nazis. But unknown to her, also an American guerrilla unit called The Bastards is planning of doing a hit on the same theatre.
Most of the revenge-plot also feels ultimately futile. It is merely a device of getting a dialogue between different characters going. Tarantino has turned the stereotypical war film characters upside down: Americans are dumb and cruel killing-machines with one-track minds. The French are cold and driven, with no interest to flirting. At least the British are still as snooty and posh as can be, altough they are played by a Canadian (Mike Myers) and an Irishman (Michael Fassbender). But the most interesting characters are the Germans who show true characteristics. While Hitler and Goebbels are the screaming madmen they most usually are represented as, the German soldier characters vary from Zoller's tired and lovelorn lacklustre hero to a group of small pawns at a bar, who are murdered on the most joyful day of their lives. Subsequently these characters feel more heartbreaking.

The film is of course owned by Christoph Waltz, who is nothing short of spectacular as Landa. His villain is so good, that one can't help but think that he's actually the anti-hero of the story. His moral choices in the end of the film certainly reinforce this idea, altough he does get his comeuppance. While the Germans start off pretty cheerfully, they grow anxious because of a small team of cruel guerrillas attacking where they least expect it. The enemy even recruits some of their own countrymen to fight against Germans. Now, hinting at real-world war situations may very well be the last thing on Tarantino's mind. Still, if one takes a Slavoj Zizek -like look at the whole thing, it resembles a lot of USA's situation with Afghanistan and Iraq. After all, the Americans are actually also enjoying their war effort at cinemas while their war still rages on. The main culprits may die but the violence never does.

Munich (2005)
Director: Steven Spielberg

I've said it before, but the only time Spielberg really has knocked his film out of the park this decade was with the most un-Spielberg movie he’s ever done. And this actually may be his best film yet. Gone are the warmness found within peoples' souls, small-time Americana and the nuclear family. In the horrifying film based on the aftermath of the terrorist strike at the Munich Olympics in 1972 the world is a cold place and the people in it almost all evil. Yet this cruel story of the circle of vengeance is hard to look away from.

The radical islamist Black September movement organize a strike at the Munich Olympic village, murdering a number of Israeli athletes. The government of Israel instructs a team of Mossad agents, led by Avner (Eric Bana) to hunt down and murder a number of muslims associated with the strike. The secretive mission is not done by their biggest and best, but by a bunch of unknown people so as not to arise any unwanted notice. Avner used to be a pencil-pusher, but is now sent to kill people in cold blood. At the same time his wife is pregnant for their first baby. But the mission surely won't make Avner a better father as kill after kill make him just colder and colder toward all of humanity.

Spielberg keeps the tone dark, almost pitch black. One notable scene sees a double-crossing woman agent plead for her life by offering to have sex with the Mossad agents. She's shot cruelly in the head. The film is also filled with paranoia, and the Mossad agents are driven to feel that the whole world is after the Jews. But it all raises very good questions of whether it is justified to take arms to protect one's religion and culture, and how much violence can one evil act create. It is very easy to see this as a parallel to the American overreaction to 9/11 and the subsequent murder and torture of countless innocent people. This message isn't exactly subtle, but isn't bludgeoned to our heads either. It's clear that any condoling of violence only serves to wreck lives in various ways.

I feel the film is still severely underrated. It had a few Oscar nominations, but was of course too dark for the voters. Currently it hasn't even a Blu-Ray release, and the R2 DVD is vanilla.

Paradise Now (2005)
Director: Hany Abu-Assad

It is of course useful to look at any given conflict from both sides. If Munich gives a Jewish viewpoint of the foreign politics of Israel, Paradise Now takes a look at Palestinian muslim activists. The film doesn't dwell on the squalor or injustice muslims have to suffer in the Israeli colonies, but goes into the mind of individuals who decide to become suicide bombers.

Said (Kais Nasif) and Khalef (Ali Suliman) spend time with their friends and families in the Palestinian colonies in a seemingly normal way. In reality, both have been recruited by a radical islamist group to do suicide bombings on the Israeli side. They masquerade as Jews, but get seperated when carrying out their assignment. While Said tries to find Khalef to execute the plan to massacre as many Israelis as possible, the anti-violent Suha (Lubna Azabal) tries to persuade him to change his mind. The film follows Said as he struggles with his conscience but still seems determined to carry out the terrorist strike.

The film has perhaps some heavy-handed symbolism, but mostly director Abu-Assad can create scenes where small visual clues hint at large stories behind them. The result is a poignant portrait of a mind driven to a corner from which a suicide strike is the ultimate escape solution. The film avoids political issues and offers a humane look on the tragedy that goes on in the Middle East. The film doesn't contain big bangs or dead martyrs as such, but rather it is left to the viewer to decide whether a radical islamist can be persuaded to change his mind.

Sophie Scholl (Sophie Scholl - Die letzten Tage, 2005)
Director: Marc Rothemund

Films about war don't need huge, epic battle scenes. In fact, those usually just make war look exciting rather than a travesty towards human rights on all fronts. This film mostly consists of only two people arguing over whether war is justified in an interrogation room. Like the name tells, the film follows the last days of the student democracy activist Sophie Scholl (Julia Jentsch), who was caught spreading anti-Nazi pamphlets wth her husband Hans in Munich during WWII. In those six days, Sophie was interrogated, convicted and executed.

The film aims for historic accuracy, and has thus attempted to re-create everything based on historical records. Scholl is of course a heroine so the film idolizes her, but doesn't over-emphasize her righteousness. She's a strong-willed, idealistic and intelligent woman corageous enough to stand up to her beliefs. The Gestapo has a hard time trying to break her to gain more information or to get her to renounce her ways. As evil as the Nazis are, they have their own twisted logic over which they really can't look. It's the same with any war-mongerers on this planet. The so-called justice the Nazis attempt to serve in the film is only a banal caricature of actual justice, and approaches farce in many ways.

We know that the Nazis are evil, but they are usually presented as caricatures or a mythical enemy, not as an actual threat we should fight even today. Thus, this is an important film about the need to maintain democracy whatever the conditions.

The Sun (Solntse, 2005)
Director: Aleksandr Sokurov

Another very minimalistic war film, the film follows the Japanese Emperor Hirohito (Issei Ogata) during the final days of WWII. Much like Hitler in Downfall, Hirohito has grown delusional of his own grandieur and Japan's success in the war. Hirohito's servants keep him in isolation and thinking he's the Sun, a god, around which everything else revolves. Hirohito lives a quiet, organized life to which actual battlefields play little to no importance. Eventually the American General MacArthur (Robert Dawson) arrives to his palace to negotiate the Japanese surrender, which forces Hirohito to face reality. Hirohito still bonds with his adversary and gains wisdom from his situation.

The film is oddly peaceful for a film dealing with the war, creating an ominous feeling. But really it is more of a character study of the affects of isolation from world events than a history lesson. The mood of the film is silently melancholic, but unlike Downfall, also sees light at the end of the tunnel. Hirohito goes on to believe he will be a fine leader to rebuild Japan. While this may be a fine ending for the historical character, it is a bit uneasy toward the actual Japanese history. But Sokurov certainly isn't a director that seeks easy answers, and just wants to present the one point of view as if a part of a dialogue with actual history.

Taxi To The Dark Side (2007)
Director: Alex Gibney

The finest of the documentaries depicting the unjust war in Iraq and Afghanistan is this one. It has a proper anchor from which to start peeling off the layers and consequences of the war. The film begins with the story of the afghani taxi driver Dilawar. He was captured while practicing his profession for questioning. Yet he wound up waiting for a trial at the Bagram Air Base, tortured. He wound up beaten to death by American soldiers.

From this one real-life tragedy, Gibney movs on to question the American policies on interrogation in the War Against Terrorism, and the use of torture therein. From the interview of the soldiers we move on to hear the varying opinions from American political leaders, attorneys, agents and experts. The results are harrowing: much evil as these harsh methods do, there are people who defend them with clear eyes for being "for the greater good". It is revealed that in addition to waterboarding, the US military has used sleep deprivation, sexual assault, sensory deprivation, threatening with dogs, blasting heavy metal at full sound, and many other torture methods. And all of this merely mentions Abu Ghraib at one point – this is no isolated incident, it's been the basic policy! The resulting work is harrowing and eye-opening. The fim has been made as a part of Why Democracy? -series, and makes the viewer wonder Why indeed was this allowed in a Democratic country, with none of the higher-ups being put to justice for their evil politics.

United 93 (2006)
Director: Paul Greengrass

Finally, without a doubt the best film made from that one day ten years ago. Greengrass gives this important day as thorough and realistic documentary-style depiction as he did with Bloody Sunday. The film tells the story of the one plane that didn't reach it's hijacked position, and crashed on a field in Pennsylvania. Greengrass doesn't need to build up the heroism of the plane's passengers who stood up against the hijackers, by delving into their backgrounds or building the tension up. He shows what happened, naturally, in real time and as much veracity as possible, and that itself is powerful enough.

We see the hijacking terrorists at their final moments together, praying and preparing to do their deed at a hotel room in Newark. The very ordinary-seeming boarding of the plane takes on whole new, threatening meanings. We follow the occurences at the Flight Control tower when they realize something is wrong, but can't do too much to change it. And finally, we follow the passengers realize that they must fight for their lives against the armed hijackers, even if it means sacrificing their lives. When the screen cuts to black at the very end, it is a very powerful and emotional moment, which makes the viewer consider how rotten things in the world have gotten, and why won't more people take a stand and fight for the good of many.

Bubbling Under:

The Pianist (2002, dir. Roman Polanski) - Polanski famously refused to do Schindler's List, but agreed to this story of an individual Jew struggling to survive in the ghettos of Warsaw during WWII. It covers the pretty standard holocaust subject matter, but the direction is fine and the central humane story gripping.

The Road to Guantanamo (2006, dir. Michael Winterbottom, Mat Whitecross) - This docu-drama follows the  story of theree innocents that went to Iraq to go to a wedding and ended up in the notorious Cuban prison complex. The story is told with fictionalized parts and interviews, which have later been proven to be lies. Still, it is a gripping story of how the Iraqi war draws innocents and how horridly USA's POWs are treated.

Standard Operating Procedure (2008, dir. Errol Morris) - Master documentarist Morris interviews US soldiers and prison guards over the humiliating torture scandal in Abu Ghraib and gets incredible insights over the subject matter. Taxi is more heart-breaking, but this works as a fine companion piece.

Waltz with Bashir (Vals im Bashir, 2008, dir. Ari Folman) - Actually there's very little wrong with this genre-blender dealing with the subconscious, but as it happens, I'm tired of writing about it.

The Wind that Shakes the Barley (2006, dir. Ken Loach) - This Cannes winner takes a look at the Northen Ireland's independence struggles through the story of two brothers who come to differ in views. Loach's film is uneven and too long, (seeing as Greengrass managed to tell the story more effectively) but still very good.

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