The View From Here

Why We Fight -- Hollywood and the War On Terror

Michael Bonner

I went to see Atonement over the weekend -- and a very fine film it is, too -- and before the film started, the cinema showed trailers for Michael Winterbottom's A Mighty Heart and The Kingdom, produced by Michael Mann. These are Hollywood's latest attempts to engage with George Bush's misadventures in the Middle East and the fearsome War On Terror.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, 9/11 and more broadly the rest of the War On Terror have motivated Hollywood in a way that the first Gulf War never did. I can only really remember Three Kings emerging from that conflict, while movies like Fahrenheit 9/11, Control Room, United 93 and Syriana explicity deal with the War On Terror, and Munich and The Bourne Ultimatum address it by less direct means. Soon come, there's Rendition, Brian De Palma's Redacted (apparently, his best film for 20 years), Robert Redford's Lions For Lambs, which screens at the London Film Festival next month, and Imperial Life In The Emerald City, from Bourne director Paul Greengrass. There's more, too.

Sure, Hollywood's dealt with conflict before, principally World War 2 and Vietnam. But those movies had a different relationship to their respective conflicts. The WW2 movies were mostly propaganda exercises, and the Vietnam cycle of films were made long after the last chopper had flown out of Saigon. Hollywood is now having to step up and deal with -- and excuse me if this sounds a bit like The Day Today's Brian O'Hanrahanrahan -- an ongoing live war situation.

Of these latest two, Winterbottom's A Mighty Heart, which opens this Friday in the UK, is the best. It focusses on the human interest aspect of the conflict, with Angelina Jolie as the wife of American journalist Daniel Pearl, kidnapped in Pakistan. It's an emotive subject, well handled by Winterbottom and gracefully acted by Jolie. Andrew Mueller's full review of it will be on this site by the end of the week.

The Kingdom -- out at the end of October, and directed by Peter Berg -- has annoyed me incessantly since I saw it a few weeks ago.

At what point does it become permissible to reduce serious, complex issues to simple multiplex headlines? When can film-makers justify as entertainment the ghastly and barbaric concept of Jihadic decapitations? These are some questions The Kingdom raises, as it struggles to create a contemporary thriller set in the Middle East. Syriana proved it was possible to address this thorny subject with intelligence and wit; The Kingdom simply ends up making you question the moral obligations of Hollywood studios.

The Kingdom is Saudi Arabia. An FBI team, headed up by Ronald Fleury (Jamie Foxx), is sent over there to bring down a terrorist cell responsible for a suicide bombing at an American compound in Riyadh. Their investigation is hampered by the Saudi security forces, though Fleury finally finds a like-minded partner in Saudi colonel Al Ghazi. What seems to be a fairly conventional and sluggish procedural movie suddenly lurches into a PlayStation-style shoot 'em up as Fleury and his team take on the terrorists in a ferocious firefight in an apartment block.

The film's producer is Michael Mann and, admittedly, it looks fantastic. There's some striking widescreen flourishes - helicopter gunships acting as outriders for a motorcade, beautiful aerial shots of Saudi at dawn - but, worryingly, there's no psychological motivation for the Jihadists. Rather like native American Indians in countless, unreconstructed Westerns, they're simply The Enemy, wild-eyed, speaking in tongues, unfathomable and terrible.

"There are a lot of bad people out there," Fleury's son observes. True enough, but The Kingdom fails to offer any explanation why.


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