Film: Black Mischief

In Iraq, coalition troops were sprinting toward Baghdad, facing sporadic but fierce resistance along the way. Meanwhile, Al-Jazeera, the Arab news channel, was showing video of leering Iraqi soldiers prodding the bodies of dead American soldiers, some of whom had been shot in the back of the head, execution-style. It was, all in all, a deadly serious Sunday—except in Hollywood, where the Oscar ceremonies took place right on schedule. Rumors of a postponement proved to be just that, thus allowing. Michael Moore, the Canadian director of pseudo-humorous pseudo-documentaries about the horrors of life in America, to collect his Oscar for Bowling for Columbine and inform the world that George W. Bush is “a fictitious president…who is sending us to war for fictitious reasons. We are against this war, Mr. Bush. Shame on you, Mr. Bush.”

Some cheered, some booed, some sat on their hands, but few could have doubted that Moore was right to use the first-person-plural pronoun. Most of Hollywood is against Gulf War II, Republicans in general, and George W. Bush in particular, and the only reason we didn’t hear more about it at the Oscars is that most film-going Americans think otherwise.

In Hollywood, nothing is more important than the making of money, so you can bet that formidable behind-the-scenes pressure was wielded in order to keep the Oscar-night protests down to one preening speech, a couple of careful references to “peace,” and dozens of jeweled dove-of-peace pins affixed to the bosoms of the rich and self-righteous.

Far more telling was the dog that didn’t bark. Nobody on the stage of the Kodak Theatre said a single word in support of the war, much less called for victory over Saddam Hussein and his savages. In a reluctant concession to good taste, Steve Martin, the host, wrapped up the proceedings by informing “our young men and women who are watching overseas” that “we are thinking of you, we hope you enjoy the show. It’s for you.” I shudder to think what our young men and women in uniform (funny that Martin didn’t even bother to mention that part, isn’t it?) would have thought of “their” show if they’d had time to watch it, though it isn’t hard to imagine.

On the other hand, Moore did get booed (albeit from the cheap seats), thereby reminding us that Hollywood is no more monolithic in its views than any other totalitarian state. If you look hard enough, you can even find a certain number of movie people who vote Republican, and a few of them, believe it or not, are famous. Bruce Willis is among their ranks, and it so happens that his latest film, released just a couple of weeks before the war started, is unabashedly, even fervently pro-American, pro-military, and—hold on to your hat—anti-African.

I exaggerate, slightly. Tears of the Sun is opposed to African dictators, not Africans in general. But that doesn’t make it any more politically correct, which doubtless explains in part why so many critics gave it a thumbs-down. (Eighty-three of the 130 reviews posted on rottentomatoes.com were unequivcally negative, while most of the 47 “positive” reviews were mixed.) It’s bad enough to make a movie in which American soldiers come off looking good, worse still to suggest that the use of force can have desirable results. But when you show blacks slaughtering blacks—and in Africa, no less—you’re just begging for trouble.

To be sure, there are plenty of other things wrong with Tears of the Sun, starting with the fact that it is an obvious knockoff of Black Hawk Down, the best war movie of the past quarter-century. Here, we have Lieutenant A. K. Waters (Willis), leader of a platoon of fighting men who are helicoptered into Nigeria in order to save the beauteous Dr. Lena Hendricks (Monica Bellucci), a bush doctor with friends in Washington who is about to be captured and killed by murderous rebels who preach the gospel of ethnic cleansing. When the good doctor refuses to leave without her staff and patients, Waters disobeys orders and marches the lot of them out of the camp, through the jungle, over the mountains, and across the border to Cameroon and safety. Plenty of blood is shed along the way, but the good guys win.

Needless to say, this plot could have been filmed in several different ways, and that’s the trouble with Tears of the Sun: Antoine Fuqua, the director, and Patrick Cirillo and Alex Lasker, the screenwriters, weren’t sure what kind of movie they wanted to make. The terrifying battle scenes are straight out of Black Hawk Down, but the race for the border is more like a John Wayne war movie, with the air force galloping in at the last possible moment to save the day. Willis, a first-rate film actor who is underappreciated because he spends most of his time making shoot-’em-up movies, is at his best here—tough, stoic, utterly believable—but Bellucci is far too glamorous to be plausible, and the lingering shots of her cleavage to which we are treated at regular intervals don’t help matters one bit.

This uncertainty of tone is, I think, a reflection of America’s postmodern loss of moral certainty about the military virtues. The premise of the film is unequivocal: Evil men are doing evil things in Nigeria, and the only way to stop them is to kill them. Yet we have been told time and again that war is itself evil, that it solves nothing. How, then, to balance these categorical imperatives? The answer is that they cannot be balanced, one being true and the other false. Hence the wavering tone of Tears of the Sun, which longs to portray Waters and his fellow soldiers as heroes but cannot quite follow them all the way. Their derring-do must first be sanitized for consumption by the sensitive. Thus Waters’s decision to save the patients is presented as a violation of direct orders from his superior officers (a wildly implausible plot twist whose sole purpose is to make the top brass look bad). Thus, too, Hans Zimmer’s score, in which battle scenes are accompanied by the mournfully elegiac sounds of Adagio for Strings–type music, thus reassuring us that War Is Always Wrong, even when it’s right.

Yet in spite of all temptations to play both sides of the street, Tears of the Sun pulls no punches in its portrayal of black-on-black violence in Africa. The bad guys are very, very bad indeed, and the good guys have no doubts whatsoever about the necessity of doing away with them. Such moral clarity is astonishing to see in a big-budget movie—even one starring a card-carrying Republican—and even more astonishing at the present moment, given the virulent anti-Americanism with which Hollywood is currently infested. It’s a safe bet that movies will be made about Gulf War II and that Willis will star in one or more of them; it will be interesting to see how the Iraqi army is portrayed in those films. I hate to sound cynical, but somehow I doubt they will look much like the rampaging brutes of Tears of the Sun.

Terry Teachout

By

Terry Teachout is the drama critic of The Wall Street Journal, culture critic of Commentary, and the author of books on Louis Armstrong, H.L. Mencken, and George Banchine.

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