Sunday, April 08, 2007

TEARS OF THE SUN


TEARS OF THE SUN (2003, USA)
I can't look at them like packages any more.

An elite squadron of U.S. troops sets out to deliver a group of idealistic Nigerian refugees to safety in Cameroon. The movie about them tries to deliver a message of compassion and human involvement in the camouflage of a war movie. Neither mission is accomplished with complete success.

There is a lot going on in this ambitious, well-crafted film. We see the transformation of soldiers from mechanisms in a fiercely efficient machine into human beings who feel. We meet another set of characters who are trying to live out Christian compassion in a situation so dark its seems God himself must have abandoned them. We get all the expected story developments required of this particular strain of the heroic action-movie genre. And, most unshakeable, we encounter the horrors of the civil wars that ravage Africa – and we're asked not only to care, but to do something besides sit idly by.

The humanization process of the soldiers is accomplished brilliantly. Initially they are a machine for following orders, impressive in their single-minded efficiency. Lt. Waters, their commander barely speaks: he says only what is needed to clarify and carry out his mission. Personal feelings are cloaked with the mask of the professional soldier, dismissed as irrelevant to his function. It is a fine performance: Bruce Willis allows only the smallest hints of feeling and humanity to penetrate the hard, relentless set of his face, but they are enough to convince us there is a man inside the machine.

The Africans' first encounter with the soldiers is traumatic – they emerge from the water, faces camouflaged: they appear silently from the forest, irresistable – as menacing as whatever enemy may threaten.

Over the course of the story the men humanize. They are forced to make their own decisions that may not fulfill the letter of their mission. They find themselves with "front row seats to an ethnic cleansing – and must choose whether to break with the rules of engagement, get out of those seats and intervene. The camouflage make-up wears away, their faces and words and choices reveal more of what is inside. "I broke my own rule. I started to give a fuck."

Christian faith is everywhere present in this film, to a degree I found surprising. Not among the soldiers: there is a clear division between those who confront this situation with force, and those who choose other means. And it's not just a matter of a lot of unconvincing God-talk: there is real weight given to these people – nuns, a priest, a doctor and several of the African characters – and the life-and-death sacrifices they make from motives of compassion and conviction. When the priest stands in the doorway of the church, makes the sign of the cross and says "Go with God," and Waters replies "God already left Africa," it is difficult to discount either man or his perspective – especially as events continue to unfold.

The film's greatest accomplishment, though – and it is an important one – is to bring us face to face with the terrible atrocities of African civil war, and to do what it can to urge us not to sit idly by. Our inevitable identification with the characters takes us on a vicarious journey from disengagement to horror and, hopefully, beyond that to some sort of action. The film ends with the words of Edmund Burke: "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing."

And the film definitely confronts us with evil: by carefully orchestrated increments we move deeper and deeper into a truly horrifying vision of this present day heart of darkness. First we glimpse the missing limbs, the wounds, the terror or broken-spiritedness in the eyes of the people at the mission hospital. Later, the revolutionary troops arrive at the compound: the camera pulls away as the carnage begins. Eventually we fly over the devastation in an evacuation helicopter, and at this remove the camera is allowed to linger: what we see are the sights that prompt the first major reversal in the central character. And ultimately, when we find ourselves at another village where a full-scale massacre is underway, the camera is relentless, unveiling one horror after another as we move from building to building with the American troops.

It is a sustained, fifteen minute sequence that moves from horror to horror with an unsparing eye that many will find unwatchable. Those who choose to stay with it will find these images unshakeable. Rape, torture, mutilation, terror, and endless killing, rendered in a disturbingly personal way. Surely some will protest that this sort of material is a sort of pornography of violence: these images are too terrible for us to have to see. The reaction is legitimate: whether you think the argument is correct may ultimately depend on what type of film you decide you are watching.

If TEARS OF THE SUN is just an action movie, and these human atrocities only exist to heighten the stakes for the heroes and justify further violence, then these images are inexcusable, another contribution to the brutalizing tendencies of media in our western culture. But if the film makers are fundamentally setting out to bring home the realities that are ravaging much of the rest of the world, perhaps they have earned the right to expose us to these things. Because make no mistake, these images on screen are in no way exaggerated for dramatic effect.

I personally am convinced that these film makers are very much trying to make the second kind of film. The music that concludes the village sequence, the images of the soldiers standing in the middle of the devastated village seeing the traumatized survivors cling to grave markers, bodies – these convey an awareness, I think, that these unthinkable events are more than just plot device. The director takes time to stand in the aftermath of all the atrocities, all the avenging action, and to let us reckon with what we have seen, and to weep if we are able.

But the great problem of the film is whether it can possibly succeed in doing what it seems to want to do: humanize us by showing us these realities, and urge us to action as a consequence. The very strategy of encoding its message in this particular genre may ultimately defeat its best intentions.

The beginnings of the problem occur in the very sequence I have just described. Already the film presents what would appear to be the only reasonable response to such violence: bloody, cold-minded retribution. The unveiling of the ongoing atrocities is framed in what is an extended action sequence, with the American Good Guys making their way through the village taking out the Bad Guys with relentless, impervious efficiency. Now, I don't expect the film to share my pacifism – rare indeed is the war movie that does! – but there is still something disquieting about the all-but-inescapable logic that the only real response to such events is military action.

If the film went only as far as the "cleansing" of the village, I would find such a scene deeply troubling but also deeply ambivalent. When Waters is told "You did a good thing today," he is himself unconvinced: "I don't know if it was a good thing or not. It's so long since I've done a good thing, the right thing..." He shakes his head, and we are left with the question hanging. It seemed right, necessary, heroic, inevitable: and yet....

But from that point on, the movie began to lose me. I found myself distanced from the story as it lost credibility in its final half hour, as the grinding plot machineries of the conventional war movie lumbered into action like so many tanks. Pure melodramatic hokum kicks in: one of the refugees is a traitor, another just happens to be the fleeing prince of Nigeria, the one hope for the country's peaceful future. Outside help is refused: no evacuation will be possible. Even requests for air support are denied – though we know as soon as it is requested that the cavalry will in fact ride over the hills in the nick of time to firebomb all the baddies and save the day. The pursuing soldiers number in the hundreds, and truckloads more arrive: still, the five or six American soldiers will manage to fight them off indefinitely. All the Good Guys shoot straight and lob their grenades at just the right moment (almost as Untouchable as they were in their scourge of the village): the hundreds of Bad Guys can't seem to get a bomb or a rocket into their midsts no matter how hard they try. True enough, the refugees are hit, and the soldiers themselves begin to fall – the film doesn't become complete G.I. Joe caricature – but even so, however many Secondary Good Guys get killed, however badly a Main Character may seem to be injured, you just know the Big Name Stars will all come out okay in the end.

Darn.

The great strengths of the film – the transformation of the soldiers, the portrayal of authentically Christian characters, the unflinching presentation of the horrors of civil war and the inherent challenge to the viewer not only to care, but also to perhaps respond – are largely undermined by the film's final, melodramatic act. The questionable narrative inevitabilities of the adventure genre – we assume from the outset that these guys pretty much have to save the day – do much to distance us from the troubling personal impact of the torture, rape and genocide we have witnessed. The best intentions of the movie are, to some degree, subverted, and in the final analysis it seems most likely that the "good men" who view the film will ultimately "do nothing" – after all, the movie demonstrates, the military will take care of it.

Peter Chattaway has pointed out that the film, coming into release at a time when America was building its case for the invasion of Iraq, can be read as an argument in favour of a policy of military intervention. He makes his point well, and it is a troubling one for me, a pacifist. Surely this is exactly how the film will be received by many – as a justification for war. (Those tempted to take TEARS OF THE SUN as a literal call to arms would be well advised to check out CASUALTIES OF WAR before sending in the troops. They don't always save the day. Dogs of war aren't easily leashed in once they've been let slip.)

But I don't think the film is simple propaganda: there are enough layers here, there is enough ambition in the storytelling, that it ends up doing more than one thing. I think the film also speaks to its audience on a personal, human level. Certainly it did to me.

As the film came to a close, I sat in front of the screen deeply affected by the horrors I had witnessed. And as I read the words of Edmund Burke quoted above, I could only think, Yes, surely, I must do something. But what? What are we to do? I thought of the words of the crowds whose consciences stirred by the words of John the Baptist: "What, then, should we do?" I thought of those words echoing in the life of Leo Tolstoy, I heard them in the voice of Billy Kwan: "What shall we do then?"

I went to bed with that as my prayer. And in the morning I checked my email to clear the way for a day of writing, and there it was: the first email of the day, top of the pile of junk mail and business letters and all the rest. A friend's note urging me to sign an Amnesty International petition. And I had the eeriest sensation that God had sent me this Himself.

That conviction only deepened when I went to the Amnesty website, and read this;
In recent weeks, killings have spiralled in Ituri and Kivu provinces, where renewed fighting has exacerbated an already terrible humanitarian situation. In Ituri, thousands of civilians have been killed and tens of thousands more forced to flee conflict between ethnic militia.
The war in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is a human rights and humanitarian crisis of vast proportions. Since August 1998, at least 3.3 million people are estimated to have died because of the conflict, most from disease and starvation. More than 2.25 million people have been driven from their homes, many of them beyond the reach of humanitarian agencies.
Armed groups have aimed ruthless violence directly at civilian communities, especially in rural areas. Villages throughout the east have been attacked, their inhabitants killed, raped, beaten or driven into the countryside. In many areas, homes, fields, health centres, food stores, everything that survival depends on, have been looted or laid waste.
And so it continues.

I signed the petition, of course: it isn't every day God sends a guy an email. And I continue my prayer, changed slightly: What shall I do next. My name on that petition weighs no more in the balance of things than does Warren Schmidt's name at the bottom of those tiny cheques he writes, from deep ignorance and motives as mixed as my own. Our easy signatures won't save a nation, or a soul. But they are something – if you don't think so, ask someone who works for Amnesty International or Food For The Hungry. And if the reminders in my datebook bear fruit, these baby steps may lead to something more.

You see, I support Billy Kwan's view: "You do whatever you can about the misery that's in front of you. Add your light to the sum of light." We're as helpless, I suppose, as the aid workers caught in the cross-fire of these demonic wars. But we must do what we can: "We must give love to whomever God has placed in our path."

THE YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY, ABOUT SCHMIDT

Available at Videomatica

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