Iraq and roll in "Three Kings"
By Peter Keough
OCTOBER 4, 1999: One of the most original and least heralded of young, independent filmmakers, David O. Russell might finally have drawn a winning hand with Three Kings. From the absurdist dynamics of suicide and masturbation in Spanking the Monkey and the anarchic consequences of an Oedipal search for the truth in Flirting with Disaster, he's raised his sights to less introspective topics -- greed, chaos, and responsibility. He's also upped the ante stylistically. Three Kings could easily have been a straightforward genre exercise with an exotic and controversial setting. Instead it is a layered, witty, enlightening assault on conventions and preconceptions, a crackling palimpsest that challenges as it entertains.
Eight years later, does anyone really know who won the Gulf War or why it was fought? President Bush (the elder) is long gone, Saddam Hussein seems there to stay, the Iraqis are still miserable, and Americans have channel-surfed their way through nearly a decade of other scandals and atrocities. Perhaps the war's greatest legacy is the detachment it promoted -- those looking for a scapegoat for current outbreaks of mindless violence might start with the nightly images of smart-bombing with which the Defense Department seduced America.
The violence that opens Three Kings is a lot more ambiguous. The initial image is of endless, flattened desert, with the sound of footsteps and labored breathing. Far away, a man on a mound holds a white flag in one hand, an AK-47 in the other. "Are we shooting?" a voice shouts off screen. Indeed they are. One round from an M-16 later and the bedraggled squad of Americans behold their first Iraqi, coughing blood and still very human.
The marksman is Army sergeant Troy Barlow (Mark Wahlberg, demonstrating he did not shoot his thespian wad in Boogie Nights), and along with the other principal characters he's introduced with a wise-ass subtitle in the film's mostly wise-ass opening. A cease-fire has been declared, they're still alive, and dancing and drinking off-limits hootch with Barlow are redneck naïf private Conrad Vig (Spike Jonze as a '90s version of Don Knotts) and born-again-Christian-but-still-street-smart sergeant Chief Elgin (Ice Cube, cool and solid as usual). Pursuing his own brand of R&R is Special Forces captain Archie Gates (George Clooney, triumphantly following up his breakthrough role in Out of Sight), who's debriefing a nubile network correspondent in an uncomfortable-looking compromising position.
The next morning, though, they confront hangovers and the fog of peace. Barlow, Vig, and Elgin, stuck strip-searching some of the thousands of Iraqi POWs, come across a map secreted in an officer's butt. Word gets back to the war-weary Vietnam vet Gates, and in no time the four are careering through the desert to an Iraqi bunker behind enemy lines.
Up to this point, Russell's style has been more insouciant than insightful, kind of a soundbite version of M*A*S*H without much of Robert Altman's vitriol or irony, but distinctive in its jagged, jump-cut parallel editing and an etiolated cinematography with a texture like the dust-covered, gray-blotched camouflaged khakis of the troops. Once the adventurers penetrate into the depths of the Iraqi bunker, however, the film deepens as well. Within is a stockpile of consumerism gone mad -- piles of VCRs, coffeemakers, and designer jeans, racks of CD players and TVs spewing pop music and media images ranging from Rodney King to news footage from the war they just participated in. The gold turns up too, but so do scores of civilians imprisoned for rising up against Saddam and doomed to torture and death.
The tense standoff that follows could be compared to the pre-Dance-of-Death moment in The Wild Bunch, but even with the three decades of violent imagery that have intervened since that classic movie, Russell's shootout possesses its own shock, beauty, and gravity. And the film as a whole bears similarities to many others, from Treasure of the Sierra Madre to It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World and most of all the old Clint Eastwood chestnut Kelly's Heroes. But Russell transcends derivativeness and genre with inspirations of his own. His images -- Sergeant Barlow frantically searching through piles of stolen cell phones to find one with which he can reach his wife; a strangely sympathetic Iraqi torturer interrogating a GI about Michael Jackson; dozens of Iraqis bearing Tourister luggage laden with gold trudging across the dunes -- reveal a lot about the long-ago media event known as the Gulf War, and more about the gulf in sensibility that has followed.
Kings makerThe Gulf War? Which one was that? With world crises lasting as long as MTV videos, it's hard enough to stir any recognition with Kosovo, let alone Desert Storm. David O. Russell, director of Spanking the Monkey and Flirting with Disaster, does not feel that a familiarity with the 1991 conflict is prerequisite for appreciating his new Three Kings. A tale about US soldiers searching for stolen gold in the Iraqi desert shortly after the allies routed the forces of Saddam Hussein, it's being marketed as an action adventure with comic overtones.
"I don't think it matters if people are concerned about it anymore," he says. "I don't think that's why people go to movies. They go because they hear it's a good movie. It's funny, it's gripping, it's intense."
Which may be what a lot of the troops sent to battle Iraq expected. What they got, though, was more like what the heroes in Russell's movie first experience -- confusion, tedium, cynicism. Idle after the shooting war stops and unclear about what happened, George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Spike Jonze, and Ice Cube come across a map showing where stolen Kuwaiti bullion is hidden. While in the process of "liberating" the loot, they witness the brutal suppression of anti-Saddam Iraqi rebels. Greed vies with conscience -- not unlike the actual event.
"The point of view of the movie is from the soldiers who were there," says Russell. "At first, they're just partying, they're bored, and then they get in the middle of this. Initially the Iraqis seem like a bunch of mosquitoes, but then they end up heeding these people at a human level.
"I remember when the war started I was at Sundance, and I thought it was surreal, more surreal than any movie that was at the festival. You'd see these fireworks going off and I'd get a sick feeling in my stomach. When I researched it, though, I sympathized with the cause to some degree, even if we were motivated by oil. I think it was right to not let Saddam Hussein do this. But I also felt the way it was finished was not quite right. To let the democratic uprising just happen and let it be crushed. I think George Bush actually agrees with me, according to recent papers."
But, as they say, that's all history. More appealing to Russell and audiences is the surreality of the event, which is reflected in Three Kings' kinetic, layered, inventive style.
"There is a lot of texture, and that is why I jumped at this. I wanted to try something unusual with more layers. Like when they go into that bunker where they get the gold. Rodney King is on TV, an Eddie Murphy CD is playing, there's a giant painting of Saddam grinning and wearing a mortarboard on the wall, and an Iraqi soldier is offering George [Clooney] a Cuisinart. I love this idea of American consumer culture coming back through the lens of another country. Meanwhile, upstairs Spike Jonze is being ignored and a riot is starting. All these things are simultaneous, and that's what makes it funny and emotional. I thought, this is an amazing opportunity for me to depict the strange contemporaneity of this kind of environment."
Unlike the TV coverage of the real Gulf War, however, Russell doesn't spare the messier details. When the shooting starts, every bullet counts -- the trajectory is followed in slow motion to the target and into the body itself, the film clinically depicting ruptured organs, shattered bone, snuffed lives. "I just want to do it in a different way. I didn't want to have a kazillion bullets going off like they did in Private Ryan. I wanted every bullet to be felt."
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