Monday, March 2, 2009

From Three Kings to Generation Kill

Having recently watched the Generation Kill mini-series a second time (after recently finishing the excellent book by Evan Wright), the time seemed right to revisit the only American film about the first Gulf War of any interest: David O. Russell's still-astonishing Three Kings. Both the similarities and the differences between these two pop-culture comments on American policy in Iraq are telling.

Ten years ago, when Three Kings was first released, it was already remarkable for a major studio to have somehow produced and distributed a high-profile picture starring heartthrobs George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg that served as a scathing critique of America's abandonment of the Iraqi people after the 'liberation' of Kuwait. And although the film ultimately loses its way and descends into rank sentimentality, it remains truly remarkable for at least two things: fist, its depiction of American soldiers as clueless, uneducated trash shooting video footage of themselves in front of American flags and freaking out to loud hiphop music; and second, a scene in which an Iraqi torturer (Saïd Taghmagoui) manages to make clear to his victim (Mark Wahlberg) what this was has meant to him. Both elements seem to point both to how much has changed, and to how much has stayed the same in just a little over a decade.

When comparing Three Kings to the semi-nonfictional Generation Kill, what may be most striking about Russell's depiction of the military in Iraq is that this is clearly a world where independent spirits like Clooney and cohorts have retained some degree of latitude within which they can undertake action and ultimately realign their own moral compass. This postwar landscape is still one where the American independent spirit, which may be initially inspired to seek out a profit by going after Saddam's stash of gold bullion, but which is ultimately redeemed by its own (reluctant) altruistic instinct, has the freedom to go out adventuring. And not only are the three surviving heroes' better impulses ultimately rewarded by a traditional Hollywood happy ending, but the mass media (represented in the film by reporter Nora Dunn) even prove instrumental in getting them their final just rewards.

In Generation Kill, all our desires to see goodness and nobility rewarded seem to be thwarted by endless levels of stifling bureaucracy and rampant incompetence. As in Three Kings, we easily recognize and appreciate charismatic, instantly sympathetic characters like Brad Colbert and Lt. Nate Fick: both are presented as good, professional soldiers who recognize injustice when they see it. Due to its serial nature and longer running time, Generation Kill is able to present a wide and diverse range of characters within its cast of soldiers, running the gamut from 'Whiskey Tango' ('white trash') Trombley to noble warriors like Eric Kocher. As such, its depiction of the American army is -unsurprisingly- far more nuanced than the cavorting rabble pictured briefly in Three Kings's opening scenes, from whom only a select foursome are singled out for enlightenment.

Generation Kill present numerous moments where opportunities are raised for these soldiers to 'do the right thing' and help the population rather than antagonizing it, or even killing indiscriminately. But at every turn, the combined forces of stupidity (in the form of commanding officers 'Captain America' and 'Encino Man') and bureaucratic, politically-minded leadership (Col. Ferrando, aka 'Godfather') seem to crush all hopes of actually doing anything about it. Unlike the deliberately fabulist Three Kings, the viewer here is left with no way out of this nightmare, and feels stuck in this eight-hour audiovisual quagmire - much like reporter Evan Wright must have felt at the time.

But of course the most striking thing about Three Kings from a post-Iraq II perspective is neither its unusual level of political involvement nor its striking imagery: it is its torture scene, which becomes almost unbearable to watch in the aftermath of Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib. The first disquieting moment comes when our heroes accidentally discover a dungeon that is being used by the Iraqi army to torture prisoners, and the three soldiers are noticeably shocked. This single moment illustrates uncannily how much has changed since 1999, when the idea that the American military would use torture was all but inconceivable. It becomes even more unsettling when Wahlberg's character is subsequently abused, and through this process comes to identify with his Iraqi torturer, imagining his own suburban home being attacked and losing his wife and child from within the supposed safety of American soil.

Contrast this sequence with any of several moments in Generation Kill where blatantly incompetent commanding officers regularly abuse prisoners, needlessly attempt to bayonet Iraqi soldiers who have already surrendered, and take degrading pictures of Iraqis as take-home mementoes, and one becomes aware of what a different kind of world this has become. Ten years ago, even the most politically involved popular American narratives maintained a belief in the innate benevolence of the American individual, and his ability to overcome adversity, temptation, and the military chain of command. Generation Kill illustrates how cynical our perception of this myth has now become, and how futile it is to even imagine an escape from it.