George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Ice Cube
Directed by David O. Russell
It is March, 1991; the Gulf War has just ended. While prepping captured Iraqi combatants for transfer, an American soldier (Mark Wahlberg) comes upon a prisoner with an unusual item in his rectum: a map that shows the location of a king's ransom in stolen Kuwaiti gold bullion. Captain Archie Gates (George Clooney), an intelligent but cynical Special Forces veteran, would like to relieve Saddam Hussein of the gold, but sees no reason why it should simply go back to the jaded Kuwaiti playboys from whom it was stolen; he rounds up three enlisted men to travel with him across the conquered nation to pick up the gold for themselves. Along the way, however, the four encounter a different side of the high-tech, media-managed war they've just fought: Iraqi dissidents are being slaughtered by Saddam's forces, with Allied forces forbidden by the terms of the cease-fire to render aid. Bewildered, disillusioned, and increasingly angry, the four Americans who came for a few suitcases of stolen gold instead find themselves in the middle of a complex geopolitical situation with life-and-death implications.
Three Kings isn't a "classic" picture in the vein of All About Eve, which was to be my selection for this week's film, but with bombs dropping in Baghdad as I write this, it feels like a more appropriate selection. There have been a handful of films about the Gulf War over the past decade--1996's Courage Under Fire is perhaps the most well-known example--but Three Kings is perhaps the best picture to convey how different this modern, high-tech war was from anything else in the American experience. We see, through the eyes of the victorious combatants, the aftermath of a war that was peculiarly media-saturated, antiseptic ("I didn't think I'd get to see anybody get shot in this war," says an impressed soldier to Mark Wahlberg's character, who is appalled at having just shot an Iraqi who may have been attempting to surrender), and conspicuously about wealth and the division thereof (among the stolen Kuwaiti loot uncovered in Saddam's bunkers are piles of consumer-electronics detritus like CDs and cellular phones). The result is a keen, believable look at what until today has been the most unreal war in world history, complete with soldiers making their getaway in air-conditioned limousines and a Shiite refugee with a business degree from Bowling Green State University in Ohio.
Director David O. Russell employs a number of novel cinematographic techniques to capture the experience of the desert; many of the scenes intentionally appear washed-out and grainy, as if the film itself has been weathered by the climate. Though Russell obviously has a number of political points to make with this film, it is by no means cookie-cutter left-wing agitprop; scenes showcasing the brutality of Saddam's troops towards the dissidents and their families are not soft-pedaled. Three Kings starts out like a classic heist caper and becomes a sharp indictment of U.S. policy in the Middle East, all the while staying largely within the confines of an action comedy. Anyone interested in how we got to where we are today would do well to watch.
Points to ponder:
- The "fourth king," PFC Conrad Vig, is played by offbeat film director Spike Jonze, who made 1999's Being John Malkovich and last year's Adaptation.
- The zealous reporter played by Nora Dunn is said to be based on CNN correspondent Christiane Amanpour.
- In casual conversation, the characters refer to the treasure map extracted from the Iraqi POW as "the ass map." One of the features of the DVD release of the film is an "Enhanced Assmap," which links different scenes to locations on the map.
- Look for former Seattle Seahawk and direct-to-video sensation Brian Bosworth as the action movie star at the end of the film.
- New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman's landmark book The Lexus and the Olive Tree, published the same year Three Kings was released, attempts to explain the phenomenon of globalization and understand why poorer and more tradition-minded cultures around the world are becoming increasingly violent in their resistance to a world made much smaller by advances in communication, cultural imperialism, and the liberalization of social mores caused by both. As globalism has spread and become inexorable, Friedman says, so has the perception in some quarters that it represents an assault on tradition and culture. This debate is in some ways neatly summed up by the now-famous scene in which a captured Mark Wahlberg is berated by a young Iraqi soldier using broken American street slang ("You are the blind bullshit, my main man!"). What is the deal with Michael Jackson, the Iraqi wants to know; why did the government make him mutilate his face, make him turn himself into a white man? When Wahlberg protests that Jackson did it to himself, the Iraqi strikes him. "Michael Jackson is pop king of sick fucking country," he says; a country that hates the black man so much it turns him white, just like it hates the Arab children it bombs and kills. Satellites, fast-food franchises, and Disneyland spread American culture all over the world, but people everywhere view it through the lens of their own experience, through their own cultural assumptions, religious beliefs, and the passive ignorance of partial but incomplete information. It is no coincidence that when people in far-flung parts of the world lash out against the actions of the American government, the local McDonald's is often one of the first targets. In what ways are this movie's observations about culture and globalism relevant to the United States' current war in Iraq?