Wednesday, May 17, 2006

87. An Imperative Raid

The return of the "old-fashioned" war movie is not as straightforward a proposition as I thought. Or is it? Of course, Saving Private Ryan (1998) began the trend--a kind of "greatest generation" memorializing that sidesteps Vietnam and looks backward to the Good War--and it was an auspicious (re-)start. Although Ryan seemed brand-new, an up-close, digitized nose-rub into everything terrifying and transformative and pitiable about combat, the more I thought about it the more it felt exactly like the great G.I. pictures of the 1940s and early '50s, in that it brings us not only close to the action but next to the soldiers, whether via the clunky roll call of American types or the more psychological approach--both equally open to parody--in which ethnicities, geography and personality-type signify the soldiers. Of course, any number of war films play with these categories, mixing and matching, and the end result can creak a bit, as "Brooklyn" or "Schwartz"--or "Texas" or "Martini"--or the buttoned-down clueless Second Looey or the shell-shocked shrieker/freezer or the Old Campaigner or the over-eager quasi-psycho trot through their various paces.

And as I watch war films post-Ryan, I notice how easy it is to fall into those conventions. After all, even the earlier "anti-war" war films--Apocalypse Now (1979), Platoon (1986), Full Metal Jacket (1987)--indulged in such character-typing. It's difficult to resist. Occasionally, though, what's happening is more important than to whom, and so the broad character strokes subside to make room for what is essentially a military procedural. John Dahl's The Great Raid (2005) falls into this category, with satisfying results. I was intrigued to see that his credits include Red Rock West (1992), The Last Seduction (1994), Rounders (1998) and Joy Ride (2001), and while each has its own memorable characters, they remain genre pictures of a particularly garish--and often nasty--sort, again, featuring performances that stick with you--by Nicholas Cage, Linda Fiorentino, Edward Norton, Steve Zahn--but also an attention to details, small things, inside information, the otherwise decorative elements of a set or a shot or the film's world, that allow even the most delirious moments--such as Joy Ride's finale--make their own sense.

Dahl brings that attention to detail to The Great Raid, and aside from perfunctory but serviceable character-sketches for the principles, focuses on the events that unfold, and the precise moments that matter. It is an almost literally synchronized-watch film, especially in its masterful last half-hour--a precise recreation of an "inspired-by-actual-events" 1945 mission to rescue P.O.W. survivors of the Bataan Death March, ticked off for us with clarity and expository clarity. You know, aspirations to art, attention to mood, and a lingering gaze upon the glow of the human soul is all well and good, but the question is, can you film a battle sequence so that it is more than smoke and fire and noise? The Great Raid becomes a display of craft, but also affirms its commitment to narrative, while not entirely forgetting the people who, after all, made the narrative happen.

This focus on action lies at the heart of movies I may not revisit, but admire as I'm watching. I was struck by how easy it was for me to suspend judgment and enter the movie's spirit, whole-heartedly wishing someone would drive a bayonet into the camp commander's guts,* feeling my heart swell with admiration for the Philippine commandos who held the bridge, mourning the soldier whose malaria claimed him just as he had been liberated. Working changes on my soft--read: malleable--heart may not be such a great achievement--I'm a sucker for such sharp and compelling demands--but Dahl never proselytizes; he merely ticks off the events, one after another, allowing me with natural ease to side with the tortured and neglected, and rail against the oppressor. He wisely chose a rescue mission rather than a battle per se to wring these emotions from me until, despite the moral qualms that lead me away from the battlefield, I can surge toward The Great Raid, fingers crossed that all I'm doing is siding with the innocent.

That is the great trick the war movie--or the crime film, or the Western--needs to play: Distract me from my pacifism long enough to answer my moral imperatives. And as long as at the end I can leave the picture and be myself again, I forgive such films their sleight-of-hand. So far, so good.

*I will credit George Orwell for this image. In his remarkable essay, "Shooting an Elephant," he discusses with his unflagging honesty his youthful confusion: "With one part of my mind I thought of the British Raj as an unbreakable tyranny ... clamped down ... upon the will of prostrate peoples; with another part I thought that the greatest joy in the world would be to drive a bayonet into a Buddhist priest's guts." (He had earlier written of these priests as the worst irritation, young men who "seemed to have [nothing] to do except stand on street corners and jeer at Europeans.") While I should be well beyond Orwell's conflicted youth, I must remind you that I have spent most of my thinking life watching movies. This has a tendency to retard the ability to make a fine discernment between "is" and "should." Unlike Hamlet, sometimes it seems I know nothing but "seems."

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