When soldiers kill, how do you tell if it's murder or military action? Should a country stand behind its officers even if they make the wrong decisions in the heat of battle? Which is more important, one man's life and reputation, or peace in the Middle East? These are the provocative questions that the latest film from director William Friedkin (The French Connection, The Exorcist) could have tackled.
Instead, after a heart-pounding hour of expertly crafted battle scenes in Vietnam and the Middle East, interspersed with character building and exposition, the movie descends into a predictable courtroom drama. Rather than explore the complex motivations of war hero Col. Terry Childers (Samuel L. Jackson, Pulp Fiction) for ordering a massacre of demonstrators outside the U.S. embassy in Yemen, the filmmakers merely dust off his halo and put it back atop his head.
The whole second half of the movie must have been shot in the late afternoon, given the slatted shadows the window blinds cast over the courtroom. Orson Welles did it much better. The characters, initially complicated and dark, end up being easily classified good guys and bad guys. Even the attorney Major Mark Biggs (Guy Pearce, L.A. Confidential) prosecuting our hero turns out to be intent on nailing him for old infractions, despite early protestations of fair-mindedness.
The production is world-class, with touches like the U.S. ambassador to Yemen (Ben Kingsley) under heavy fire, stopping for his suit jacket before crawling across his office floor to escape the embassy. The cinematography offers breathtaking views of a walled North African town and surrounding landscapes. (Though set in Yemen, the movie was shot in Morocco.)
Sound is used to chilling effect, with eloquent contrast between the chaos and noise of battle and the utter silence of death. Buzzing flies signal death whether in Vietnam or Yemen. Interesting camera angles shine a new perspective on otherwise mundane scenes.
The acting is also superb, from Pearce and Jackson and especially Tommy Lee Jones as Col. Hays Hodges, a mediocre lawyer who defends Childers because the man saved his life three decades earlier in Vietnam. Jones conveys a damaged psyche with just his stance. Pearce is somewhat miscast as the straight-arrow U.S. military lawyer, with his perpetual shadowy mustache and his accent morphing from Aussie to New York to Southern.
By the end of the film, you long for the return of subtlety. You are given laughably obtuse messages, such as Childers telling Hodges "You never measured up to your old man'' about 45 minutes after the audience figured out that same fact. Screenwriter Stephen Gaghan should have stuck to his guns and given a fully fleshed, complex portrait of the decisions officers make in the heat of battle. Instead, we get pabulum.