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Courage under fire 

Contemporary events are the unavoidable subjects of two historical movies

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. recently generated some online buzz by characterizing Americans as "the best-entertained and least-informed people on the face of the planet." As regrettably accurate as that complaint may be, it ignores the extent to which entertainment today is information, for better and worse.

In the week following 9/11, The New York Times summed up entertainment-biz wisdom that movies after the disaster would be more escapism-oriented than ever. To a large extent, that proved to be true. But, in entertainment as in many other areas, the second G.W. Bush administration is looking a lot different than the first.

Just lately, there's growing evidence that moviemakers of various sorts are looking to re-engage with the troubled landscape of contemporary reality rather than ignore it. The signs range from Steven Spielberg's upcoming Munich (about Israeli assassinations of Palestinians) to the films that Oliver Stone and Spike Lee are reportedly making about 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, respectively.

Of course, focusing directly on topical events isn't the only way of tackling the zeitgeist. Two films opening this week approach certain very immediate concerns obliquely, via metaphor and implication. Sam Mendes' Jarhead, in telling of a group of Marines caught up in the 1991 Gulf War, can't help but call to mind America's latest, far less compact and successful invasion of the Middle East. And George Clooney's Good Night, and Good Luck, which depicts the 1950s collision between witch-hunting Sen. Joseph McCarthy and crusading broadcaster Edward R. Murrow, very deliberately means to provide a lesson in journalistic courage for a press corps and a country lately unaccustomed to same.

Of the two, Jarhead is by the far less politically pointed, and that's hardly surprising. It issues from a major studio, Universal Pictures, and was set in motion in the spring of 2003. You remember the spring of 2003, don't you? That was when the United States invaded Iraq, a country that had neither attacked nor threatened it, on the basis of phony, manufactured evidence, and the country's corporate media rolled over and played cheerleader for the demented crusade. In the hyper-patriotic frenzy of the moment, any entertainer who dared whisper a discouraging word (bless thee, O Dixie Chicks) was threatened pillorying, crucifixion-by-Fox-News, or worse.

For Hollywood to launch an Americans-in-a-desert-war movie in that climate, it would almost have to be so far removed from the current moment's hot-button debates as to remain inoffensive no matter what political changes lay ahead. Jarhead fills that bill impeccably. Based on the bestselling memoir by former Marine Anthony Swofford, the film profiles a group of young soldiers in a gritty, realistic way that outwardly is very specific to the Gulf War, yet essentially speaks of hardships and trials common to the U.S. military of the last several generations. It would've played equally well whether the United States had triumphed conclusively in Iraq, or, as happened, became mired in a bloody, protracted insurgency.

When I say Jarhead plays well, I mean as an involving, sharply crafted entertainment, not as the more incisive, challenging--and yes, political--film that might have been made on the same subject. While I haven't read Swofford's account of his youthful exploits in the Marines (he was 18 when he joined the corps in 1988), I gather it owes its popularity to the author's punchy, pungent descriptions of the rigors, raunchiness, terrors and tedium faced by new recruits. The book was praised by many for its lacerating candor, although some veterans charged Swofford with self-serving exaggeration in various particulars. In adapting the book, screenwriter William Broyles Jr. (Apollo 13) reportedly distilled from its impressionistic chronology a more straightforward, A-to-Z narrative centered on the Marine's experiences prior to and during the Gulf War.

As Broyles shapes it, the story has a three-part structure. In the first section, Swofford (Jake Gyllenhaal) and other recruits endure the punishing ordeal of basic training under the demanding eyes of Sgt. Siek (the brilliant Jamie Foxx), a tough but consummately professional drill master. These aren't just ordinary grunts, as it turns out; they're trained as snipers, which gives them an elite edge when they're sent to Saudi Arabia in 1990 as part of Operation Desert Shield.

In the film's second section, the expected war turns into months of waiting in the desert, and the soldiers, starting to go a little stir-crazy, expend their pent-up energies in such self-defeating activities as arguing over the infidelities of wives and girlfriends back home. While the story's first part is as propulsive, gripping and blackly humorous as cinematic initiations into military life often are, the second proves the adage that it's hard to make a movie about boredom that's not itself a bit boring.

Momentum returns, though, when Desert Shield abruptly segues into Desert Storm and the troops finally get their taste of war's sound and fury. At least since Catch-22, surrealism has been a key element in the movies' way of conveying combat, and so it is here: As the Kuwaiti oil fields go up in flames, every landscape blurs into a weird orange haze, strange figures like an oil-covered horse stagger through the gloom, and the charred corpses of formerly fleeing Kuwaitis look like the doomed denizens of Pompeii, frozen in death along highways that go nowhere.

In this section of the film, we get hints of a reality that's obviously relevant to the current Iraqi quagmire: The young Americans we're watching are trained only to obey and to kill, nothing more flexible or subtle. Thus when the troops encounter a small Bedouin tribe in the desert, we inevitably fear that their incomprehension and fear will trigger a slaughter. (Here, though, we surprisingly learn that Swofford speaks Arabic: one of the ragged edges that mar Broyles' otherwise workmanlike script.) In another scene, an unhinged Marine gleefully mutilates the bodies of dead Iraqis, and we see how little prepared his fellows and commanders are to deal with war's grisly excesses. Yet such moments don't amount to a statement--much less an indictment--in part because they don't have time to. Four days flash by and boom, the war is over.

Appropriately, the main virtues of Jarhead are its cinematic spit and polish. Blessed with the collaboration of such master craftsmen as cinematographer Roger Deakins and editor Walter Murch (who long ago cut Apocalypse Now), Mendes mounts a production that's faultlessly controlled and elegantly realistic, with a visual plan that eschews master shots for grunt's-eye views of the action. He also has assembled an exemplary cast that, besides rising-star Gyllenhaal, who's both formidably bulked-up and impressively vulnerable as Swofford, includes the terrific young actors Peter Sarsgaard and Lucas Black as well older stalwarts such as Foxx and Chris Cooper.

The film's strengths, though, are notably confined to its streamlined surface, and there are a couple of reasons that viewers might end up feeling at once entertained and unsatisfied. One is that, like a lot of reality-based entertainment, Jarhead is all about sensation and superficial authenticity; art's job of probing experience to plumb its meaning is one that it doesn't even attempt. Perhaps an even more crucial reason is that Mendes, having made American Beauty and Road to Perdition, increasingly looks like a supreme technician whose very slight claims on an actual point of view (aka, artistic vision) lies in a kind of glib cynicism regarding the hidden motives in American life (he's a Brit). Which is hardly enough. While it self-consciously cites previous war movies like Full Metal Jacket and Apocalypse Now, Jarhead simply isn't in the same league.

Although, as noted, George Clooney's Good Night, and Good Luck has a sharper political edge than Jarhead, that doesn't mean it's a better movie. In fact, it falls just as shy of genuine achievement, and for reasons that, if anything, are even more frustrating.

Let's say you were Clooney and you wanted to make a film about McCarthy-vs.-Murrow that had real artistic depth rather than mere polemical flash. What would you do? Given the subject, you might start by trying to flesh out both men, looking at the newsman's foibles as well as his courage, say, while also finding some hidden strengths behind the blustery façade of the commie-hunting senator. You might also look at the complexities of the geopolitical context, noting for instance the mounting worldwide threat posed by communism and the damaging espionage committed by various Americans like the Rosenbergs (the extent of such activities has only been known since the opening of Soviet archives in the '90s) as well as the excesses of zealots like McCarthy.

But Clooney's not out for art, obviously. As if running for chairman of the Hollywood Limousine Liberals Club, he mounts a simple-minded, 2-D morality play that, derived from liberal mythology of yore, gives us a valiant TV reporter on one side and a demonic demagogue on the other. In reality, of course, Murrow (played by David Strathairn) was smoking himself to death just as surely as McCarthy was doing the same with drink, and such parallels between the two haunted men might've given a real dramatist material for a tale rich in irony, paradox and the tragic complexity that transcends political slogans.

Clooney (a charming actor who appears here as Fred Friendly, Murrow's producer) has no truck with irony or complexity, alas. Yet his chief sin, in preaching solely to the converted, lies in failing to dramatize history in a way that's comprehensible and compelling to viewers who didn't witness it or have a prior emotional stake in it. While Clooney imagines he's providing a reminder of TV journalism's highest purposes (speaking truth to power), he mainly succeeds in demonstrating how solipsistic, marginal and frozen in the past American liberalism remains.

  • Contemporary events are the unavoidable subjects of two historical movies

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