Were I to tell you that Rules of Engagement features a protracted fistfight between Samuel L. Jackson and Tommy Lee Jones, undertaken with broken glass and thunderous sound effects, you might assume the picture to be one of those old-tough-guy hoke-a-thons, like El Dorado. If I went on to say that Jackson and Jones portray Marine Corps colonels–the former facing court martial and the latter serving as his attorney, with both given the opportunity to bellow in close-up–you would change your reference to A Few Good Men. And if I were to add that the film pauses to depict an open-air hospital in Yemen filled with children who were shot to pieces by Jackson’s Marines, you might give up on classification and think of the exceptional Three Kings.
Yes, Rules of Engagement transcends the usual movie categories; but it does so in order to drop into a more influential genre of fiction, that of the military press briefing. I commend the film to your attention because its story-writer, who was also an executive producer, is James Webb: Marine commander in Vietnam, Secretary of the Navy in 1987-88, popular novelist, freelance explainer on TV programs. In him we see united three functions of the national security state: implementing policy, making policy, justifying policy through the media. Given his authorship, Rules of Engagement is more than an entertainment and more than a statement of official thinking. It ought to be considered a continuation of war by other means.
The pretext for Webb’s present maneuver is a story of good men sent to do a tough job, as Tommy Lee Jones puts it more than twice. When an angry crowd gathers before the US Embassy in Yemen, Jackson and his Marines fly to the scene with orders to protect the building and evacuate it if necessary. As the helicopters descend, Jackson sees that the situation is more serious than he’d been told; he’ll be dealing with snipers, Molotov cocktails and battering rams. Fortunately, there’s a back door. (It took the joint efforts of Webb and a professional screenwriter, Stephen Gaghan, to make that one up.) Having sneaked into the embassy, Jackson evacuates the personnel (all three of them) but comes under a barrage of bullets. In the heat of combat, he orders his men to return fire, shooting into the crowd.
The following day, newspapers around the world publish the outcome: eighty-three dead and a hundred wounded, many of them women and children. Someone must answer for the massacre, and the National Security Adviser decides it won’t be the US government. Jackson will take the blame, by himself.
By the way: Why were the Yemenis rioting? The US ambassador’s young son asks that question during the siege, while cowering in a corridor. From his mother comes as much of an answer as Webb cares to give: “The people are mad about something, darling,” an explanation addressed not only to the boy but to the audience, whose mental age Webb must calculate as no more than 9. Why, for that matter, do Jackson and Jones tromp through Vietnam in the film’s prologue, set in 1968? Again, Webb would prefer not to ask, or rather not to have you ask. All he wants you to know (say it with me, please) is that these are good men sent to do a tough job–the standard operational lie at the rotten heart of the movie.
Like any effective falsehood, this one has a core of truth. The US military is indeed a tool of civilian policy-makers and (by extension) of the citizens themselves, who bear ultimate responsibility for its actions. It would therefore be logical to conclude that citizens have not only the right but the responsibility to judge the military. But members of the national security state such as Webb despise the bonds of logic. They want nothing less than perfect freedom, and so they place off-limits both reason and reasons alike. We must never ask why the military has gone to blow up a territory (though we ostensibly made the decision); and we are never to judge how the military conducts the blowing-up, since we were not the people under fire.
Rules of Engagement is an illogic machine, constructed to remove the inconvenience of thought from anyone who might question a half-century of America’s war-making. First, with more brutality than cunning, the movie entices you to condemn Samuel Jackson, who leaves behind not only piles of corpses but also those children in the hospital, including a cute little one-legged girl who hops around with a crutch. Then, with more highhandedness than legerdemain, the movie exonerates Jackson, showing that the Yemenis deserved to become corpses. Those women and children were armed, and even the cute amputee popped away at Marines. Imagine Spielberg’s girl-in-a-red-coat in Schindler’s List as a guerrilla, attacking soldiers who’d been sent on a tough job.
Although William Friedkin is credited with directing the brutal highhandedness–was a filmmaker ever more qualified?–the film’s worldview and purpose clearly issue from a higher command. (And make no mistake, high command is the film’s sole concern. Though the well-being of “the men” excuses any sin, the ranks in this movie go by in a blur. Only officers matter.) By the time the mission is accomplished, Webb even has a former North Vietnamese colonel saluting Jackson–as if to sweep away piles of real corpses along with the fictional stiffs.
Rules of Engagement would like you to forget how our national security state behaved in Vietnam, in pursuit of its perfect freedom. (Were the women and children at My Lai armed and dangerous?) More important, the movie would like you to stay the hell out of the way of the national security state today. Those good men still have their job to do, especially in the Middle East–and it’s too damn bad if some ragheads get in the way. For example: In July 1988 we blew to bits no fewer than 290 unarmed civilians in the Persian Gulf in an incident that rather undermines the movie’s premise, since we outdid the body count by 207, and yet scarcely bothered to grunt “Sorry.” To the official mind, the victims deserved to die. They’d had the effrontery to pass over the USS Vincennes in a regularly scheduled commercial flight from Iran.
In fairness to Webb, I note that by then he was no longer Secretary of the Navy. Unable to continue serving in good conscience, he had resigned in February–complaining of the budget.
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But enough of bad politics and bad movies. It’s the weekend, and you want to see something. Will anything out there hit the spot?
The best of the recent American releases is certainly High Fidelity, an amiably unambitious stroll through the love life of a Chicago guy who owns a vintage-record store. John Cusack plays the mope, still dressed as a college student though in his mid-30s, still living in a dim apartment with bamboo shades over the windows, who drags on cigarettes and grumbles his dissatisfactions straight into the camera, explaining how a life devoted to the angst expressed in pop music has gone along with a history of romantic misery. His past girlfriends (all girlfriends are by definition past) range in height from Catherine Zeta-Jones to Lili Taylor, with mid-size Iben Hjelje as the most recently departed. Perhaps you’ve seen Hjelje in Mifune. She’s Denmark’s answer to Sandra Bullock, and she’s quite good in High Fidelity, despite the strain of playing a woman who unaccountably returns to the chronically gloomy Cusack. I guess he’s like the hole in the middle of the vinyl, inexorably drawing the needle to himself. With him as the central character, the movie might collapse into itself, grow infinitely dense and implode, were it not for the presence of Jack Black in a supporting role as one of the record-store clerks. Black is a short, chubby lord of misrule, whose repertoire of dirty grins and hand-jives is made complete at the end of the picture, at a moment that is both predictable and fully satisfying, when he proves he can sing like Marvin Fucking Gaye. Stephen Frears directed, from a screenplay based on the novel by Nick Hornby.
I had my hopes for American Psycho, based on a novel by you-know-who, since it’s directed by Mary Harron. Perhaps she could do for an eighties subculture of bankers and stockbrokers what she did for a sixties subculture in I Shot Andy Warhol. And, in the event, the film has a few things to recommend it. In the title role, Christian Bale is buffed, tanned, exfoliated and moussed to within an inch of his life and yet still manages to act his ass off. It’s a big performance, set within a giggle-inducing world of exquisitely bad taste. (Harron gets the most out of a waiter’s presentation of squid ravioli with lemongrass sauce.) For a while, it seemed as if this satirical chop-’em-up would have the appeal of an old Dr. Phibes picture. But then: The pointlessness of the story turns out to be the point, and the figure of the serial-killer yuppie turns out to be a metaphor only for himself. From such drivel, there can be no rescue.
So I will instead recommend a foreign film: Set Me Free, written and directed by Léa Pool. It’s the ideal film-festival movie: a story of teenage lesbian infatuation, incestuous longings and movie worship, set in French-speaking Canada and involving a mother who goes mad and a father who is a poet, a Jew, a Holocaust survivor and a Communist. Has anything been left out? No–but neither is anything overstated or forced, in one of the brightest coming-of-age films I’ve seen in a while.