As the desert sun beats down on Medina Wasl–its stone-faced houses, its barren souk, its scrawny minaret casting a finger’s shadow–filmmakers embedded with a battalion of the First Cavalry ride through the dusty streets, capturing the bad on its way to worse. This is Full Battle Rattle, in which Tony Gerber and Jesse Moss have assembled one of the most complete pictures yet to emerge of how an Iraqi town fragments into civil war, given the well-meaning but clumsy nudges of its American occupiers. It is a work of direct cinema, which like all such documentaries demands to be valued for the intense labor that went into it: the weeks of filming, the months of editing. Paradoxically, though, Full Battle Rattle may also be the most conveniently made of all records of US military failure in Iraq–because everything you see in it happened in just three weeks, about forty miles outside Barstow, California.
Here, in the Mojave Desert, hundreds of Iraqi-American role players live in Medina Wasl and the dozen other stage-set villages of the National Training Center at Fort Irwin. Motivated by love of their adopted country, housed in a simulation of desperate poverty and equipped with scripted backstories that would be the envy of any Method actor, the performers interact on a round-the-clock basis with Army units that are about to be deployed to Iraq and that have been sent here to find out what it will be like. Full Battle Rattle takes you through one such three-week training mission as seen from both sides, with Gerber living in the stage-set Army base and filming the soldiers’ activities and Moss living in Medina Wasl and filming its residents. Which of the two producer-directors was responsible for filming the insurgents (played in these exercises by US soldiers rather than Iraqi-born civilians) I don’t know; but whoever it was caught such niceties as the whiteboard sign hanging in jihadi headquarters, marked with a helpful reminder to attack the Army base at 4 am.
Like any documentary about putting on a show, Full Battle Rattle abounds with mirth-provoking incongruities between the effect aimed for and the means used to achieve it. After a firefight in town–or, rather, a very chaotic game of laser tag–you hear an officer with a bullhorn order, “If you’re a casualty, leave your bandage on,” while medics rush to the triage station bearing ghastly, mutilated mannequins and assorted plastic body parts. An officer charged with making a jihadi video of an assassination coaches the insurgents to put a little more oomph into their Allahu akbar! and reminds the victim, with exasperation, that when he’s shot he can’t throw out his hands to break the fall. From time to time, when the players need refreshment, an ice cream truck rolls into the main street of Medina Wasl, tinkling its mechanical tune.
It’s “surreal comedy,” as more than one reviewer characterized Full Battle Rattle when it premiered last February at the Berlin Film Festival. Somehow, though, I don’t much feel like laughing. The Iraqi role players of Medina Wasl–“deputy mayor” Bassam Kalasho, “shopkeeper” Azhar Cholagh, “deputy police chief” Nagi Moshi–break my heart when they marvel that in the off hours, when they’re out of character, they get along beautifully, with no Sunni-Shiite divisions. “For real, we’re family,” one of them says, boasting of a harmony that scarcely seems possible now in the real Iraq but has been achieved in an imaginary one. For the Army role players, I can feel only respect and sorrow, starting with Lt. Col. Robert McLaughlin, commander of the 5-82 Battalion, who comes into the exercise fully determined to bring peace and prosperity to Medina Wasl. That is his job, and he takes it with the utmost seriousness–though the main lesson he can draw after three weeks’ training is that, in reality, he probably won’t be able to do it. “Am I a failure?” he asks late in the film, then answers despondently, “Actions speak louder than words.” The last we see of McLaughlin, he and his soldiers are back in Texas, at Fort Bliss, getting onto an airplane bound for the real Iraq. Their kids are in costume. It’s Halloween.
Full Battle Rattle goes into theatrical release July 9, starting with a run in New York at Film Forum.
Extensive historical analysis, conducted just the other night between Times Square and the 96th Street station, has convinced me that the model for Get Smart may be found in the original Ernst Lubitsch version of To Be or Not to Be, and more specifically in its performance by “that great, great Polish actor” Jack Benny (may his memory be for a blessing). Surely you remember the image of Benny the undercover Resistance agent, with his bland overconfidence and middle-aged mama’s-boy face, his carefully erect posture and casually dismissive wife. No man was ever cast more poorly as a hero, and none was ever more pleased to find himself playing the part.
Some twenty years later, when Mel Brooks and Buck Henry invented the character of Maxwell Smart for television, they translated Benny’s preening inadequacy from Nazi-occupied Europe to a James Bond-obsessed America. In the new era of technical sophistication and tough-guy suavity, scenes bristled with gizmos of the malfunctioning sort, and the chief protagonist, played by Don Adams, shot out syllables as if his mouth were a .38 automatic. Yet despite these changed circumstances, the leading man’s speech patterns still sounded as affected as Benny’s, his female counterpart (Barbara Feldon) still bested him without trying and his nemeses–the agents of the international bad-guy organization KAOS–still should have had him outmatched, not that he would have noticed. That great, great hero-by-default, as created by Lubitsch and Benny, had survived into the ’60s and would go on surviving when Brooks took the Benny role in his own To Be or Not to Be, which he remade in the ’80s–badly, alas, though not so dismally as half a dozen guys have now botched the movie version of Get Smart.
I could belabor the lighting (best characterized as approximate), the action sequences (assembled in an Osterizer), the sound editing (which at times obscures the dialogue, but not often enough). The ticket buyer has a right to complain; unlike spy gizmos, these mechanisms are supposed to function. But for anyone who entertained hopes for Get Smart and has not been entertained back, the film’s main fault will lie in its wobbly translation. Director Peter Segal, writers Tom Astle and Matt Ember and their fistful of producers have altered Maxwell Smart to suit the presumed taste of today’s audience but have done nothing to adapt him to today’s reality.
In terms of audience, it’s now assumed that people no longer want to laugh at the self-involved bumbler who doesn’t deserve the girl. They want to laugh with the nice but normal-looking guy, outwardly arrogant but inwardly insecure, who’s witty enough to win Anne Hathaway. That’s the lesson producers have learned from the many hit comedies of Judd Apatow; and that’s why the new Maxwell Smart had to be Steve Carell, star of Apatow’s The 40-Year-Old Virgin. He’s an effortlessly likable actor, who sometimes brings to mind a fretful, dimpled squirrel and arouses a comparable sympathy. At his best, as in Little Miss Sunshine, Carell does not just soak up kind feelings but extends them to others, drawing on an intelligence that accounts for his worried eyebrows and wary gaze. This is admirable; but it’s not Maxwell Smart–and neither is it a persona that can be nourished by Get Smart‘s pure silliness.
The TV show, though ridiculous, was not just silly. It was, rather, a gleeful assault on the absurdities that passed for seriousness in its era: the assumption that the globe had to be divided into opposing camps; the faith that superior technology would secure the West’s victory; the belief that the most important work of democracy needed to be done in secret, by coolly professional men dressed like Frank Sinatra. Through his triumphant blunderings, Don Adams demolished this monstrous order on a weekly basis, much as Jack Benny before him had shown up the Aryan superman as anything but invincible. (Not such a safe proposition when To Be or Not to Be was released, in March 1942.) But in the Get Smart movie, the most credible targets of comic aggression are a mere smattering of bullying officials: a rude Vice President, a cocksure Secret Service agent. Kind, intelligent, overeager Maxwell Smart may serve as a rebuke to these figures, but when it comes to the film’s larger vision of the world, I can’t say he makes the threat of nuclear terrorism seem all that amusing.
In fact, it’s not a tenth as funny as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That minor unpleasantness, of course, is the subject of the far superior spy comedy You Don’t Mess With the Zohan, starring Adam Sandler–the anti-Carell, who might skin and roast a winsome little squirrel and belch with satisfaction. Extensive critical analysis has revealed to me why Zohan succeeds where Smart fails. It’s not just a question of sharper direction (by Dennis Dugan, who has a Frank Tashlin-like talent for using live actors as if they were cartoon figures) or a matter of having fresher and far more plentiful jokes (written by Sandler, Robert Smigel and the inevitable Judd Apatow). The secret is hummus, hacky sack, cheap electronics stores and the descending falsetto pentatonic denial (“No, no no no no”). In short, the secret (don’t tell the spies) is specific intelligence about the characters and their world–including the verifiable information that a great many Israelis, like the expatriated Zohan, prefer to love their country from a good, safe distance.
Yes, Sandler’s heart ultimately proves to be as soft as Carell’s (if not as hard-working as other parts of his anatomy); the girl falls into his arms, and peace descends upon a troubled world. But note the precondition for peace: the film’s Israelis and Palestinians now live together in New York, where they find they can get along. As a remedy for the Mideast’s woes, American pluralism might be slightly impractical; but as a premise for a summer comedy, it’s real enough to be funny. You could even work the idea into a documentary. Look at Full Battle Rattle.
Kent Mackenzie’s The Exiles is haunted by absence. Its characters–young Native Americans in Los Angeles, filmed half a century ago–had lost their land and their ancestors’ way of life, without gaining much of anything except a taste for beer and rock ‘n’ roll. The old neighborhood where the picture was made, Bunker Hill, was already slated for demolition in 1958, when Mackenzie started the shoot; now it exists only in his images and in those of a handful of other filmmakers. The Exiles itself came close to disappearing. Though well received at festivals when it appeared in 1961, it never received a theatrical release but circulated only in the classroom market, eventually fading into a handful of fuzzy video dubs. And Mackenzie has been lost. He died in 1980, having managed to direct only one other feature.
The Exiles might have vanished entirely, like a sigh, if not for Thom Andersen and his 2003 documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself, which incorporated excerpts of Mackenzie’s film to demonstrate how the social and physical fabric of the city had been wiped away and willfully forgotten. What was memory for Andersen became a revelation for others, prompting the distributor Milestone Film and Video to collaborate with the UCLA Film and Television Archive and the USC archive in restoring The Exiles.
Now the film is going into theatrical release for the first time, opening in New York July 11 at the IFC Center. The nonprofessional performers are suddenly present again, telling their stories and acting out their daily lives. The bars, shops and tenements of Bunker Hill have once more sprung into view, in glistening, nocturnal, black-and-white cinematography. It’s as if someone had done a ghost dance and it worked, just a little–enough to turn your sigh into a gasp of amazement.