Sunday, July 26, 2009

It IS a drug

For the many things The Hurt Locker got wrong from a technical standpoint, they nailed the epitaph 'War is a drug':

"In the first years after returning from deployment, veterans of the two wars are 75 percent more likely to die in motor vehicle accidents than civilians of comparable age, race, and sex, according to a 2008 VA study. The rate for motorcycle deaths is an astounding 148 percent higher."

I never had a speeding ticket until I came home from Iraq. Now I have five. The hefty fines have taught me a lesson, but the guys and gals who can flash their military IDs and get off with a warning are at great risk. It's a tragedy to have someone come home from combat only to get splattered across the highway. I'm glad the VA is taking steps to mitigate the problem, but this is an issue of readjustment and mortality. Asking soldiers to slow down on their crotch rockets is akin to rewiring their brain out of combat mode. It isn't that easy, and sadly, these accidents will continue.

Friday, July 24, 2009

War movies and the public

If you live in the greater Milwaukee area, be sure to pick up a copy of the Journal Sentinel today. There is a great discussion about the public perception of war movies in the entertainment section. It's an interesting read, regardless of the small detail of my name (Alex Norton?).

Pick up a copy today and do your part to save journalism from its last throes.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Review: The Hurt Locker

Warning: There are minor spoilers below. Read at your own risk.

Enjoying a good war movie after you've been there, done that requires a bit of finesse. The casual moviegoer doesn't watch closely for errors in rank, patches, vernacular or procedure. They simply want to be entertained for a couple of hours. A veteran, conversely, is tortured with an onslaught of technical blunders that the average viewer will miss. Filmmakers must walk a tightrope to appease both sides; technical and accurate enough for the discriminating military crowd but still accessible to viewers who don't know the difference between CAS and SAF. So far, no Iraq-themed movies have walked that fine line. The bar has been set ridiculously low; Redacted, the reigning champ of tasteless war movies, makes Stop Loss look like A Bridge Too Far. But don't let the sad state of Iraq movies keep you away from the cineplex this week. Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker is not without its narrative problems, but it's a solid and dramatic entry that can satisfy both sides of the fence.

The story follows a three man team of EOD (explosive ordnance disposal) techs in the final month of their deployment in Baghdad in 2004. The team is headed by SSG James (Jeremy Renner), a reckless cowboy that routinely puts his life and the lives of his men in constant danger. The movie's epitaph lingers on the screen long after the words fade. War is a drug. It is clear from James' first mission that he feeds off the adrenaline rush of bomb defusing at any cost. When he should be wearing his suit or utilizing a remote-driven robot, James goes right for his clippers, wearing nothing more than his uniform. His two subordinates, Sgt. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Eldridge (Brian Geraghy), quickly grow weary of James' vigilante ways. As James becomes more cavalier with his work, the calendar slowly crawls toward the date they are supposed to redeploy. Sanborn and Eldridge briefly discuss fragging James to save their own skins. With James in charge, they figure, it's only a matter of time before they get killed.

The way the team goes about their missions is completely absurd. The three men drive alone, all over Baghdad and its periphery, in a single Humvee. No escorts, no convoy, just a gun truck and three soldiers. To leave a FOB in the real world, you need a minimum of three trucks, and even that is stretching it. In one scene, the solitary truck arrives on an empty street where soldiers should be setting a cordon. James, puzzled by an empty Humvee in the road, finds an infantry platoon hunkered down in a courtyard like a box full of helpless puppies. One of them manages to point him in the direction of a suspected VBIED. Only then do soldiers beyond the EOD trio emerge to cordon off the area and evacuate local Iraqis.

In a later scene, James leaves the base by himself to confront an Iraqi man about a local boy that peddles DVDs on the base. I had to bite my tongue from erupting in laughter when James, left by his hostage taxi driver, had to run all the way back to base dressed in fatigues and a sweatshirt. He couldn't have been more obvious if he had shot his pistol into the air and shouted, "COME AND GET ME!" His life expectancy would have been measured in seconds by that point.

I understand why Bigelow kept scenes mostly free of extras. The audience can only take so many characters in combat gear before they all start looking the same. Directing EOD to a possible bomb is tricky and cumbersome in combat. Striving for complete accuracy by showing each step of the way would bog down a movie that relies on suspenseful and a fluid narrative. The time between finding an IED and its eventual destruction can flow into hours of tedium that climax into a few moments of spectacular explosions. The script is taut and disciplined, willing to trim away the superfluous moments and get to the core of what EOD techs do. The rest of the war drops away in the margins and the audience is left with the essence of three men doing incredibly dangerous work. There is no war, or even earth, beyond the cordon. Just three soldiers left to tinker with homemade destruction.

My chief complaint about the film is that it goes too far with this view. Besides a scene with a team of mercenaries, the team is alone outside the wire constantly. Civilians can overlook that, but those with field experience might be rolling their eyes at yet another scene involving James cutting the right wire just in time. I've seen dozens of controlled detonations, and I can't think of any that had an EOD tech waltzing up to the bomb to clip wires. That's what the robot is for. It does happen, but not as frequently as the writer has you believe.

In one of the final scenes, the team is called out to assess the damage of a VBIED detonation. James spots a possible escape route for the triggerman, and in a wildly implausible decision, takes his team into three separate alleys in the dead of night. Shockingly, one of the men is nearly carted off by militants. Instead of a close call changing the way James thinks about his leadership, he keeps on with his reckless self. In the end he learns nothing. Of course, who knows what happens when he comes back to the FOB to find a stack of Article 15s.

I don't think it was out of neglect that such unrealistic moments crept into a generally realistic movie. I applaud the efforts of the technical advisers that worked on this film. The movement of the soldiers, particularly inside an IED factory, was textbook perfect. They operated in concert, double clearing hallways and moving with an air of urgency and flow. Combat scenes from Home of the Brave and Redacted looked like they were filmed in Brian de Palma's backyard. The Hurt Locker, filmed in Jordan, has an authentic feeling that is light years ahead of any Iraq movie released. They nailed the environment, the crushing paranoia of watching Iraqi bystanders eyeballing you, everything.

Toward the end of the film, James is back home, crippled with Sudden Civilian Syndrome. He gazes at a wall of breakfast cereals in a grocery store, confounded about the sheer amount of choice. It is here where we see James suffering from combat withdrawal. In Iraq he was on his game, disarming bombs with a few snips. The EOD suit he wears is his real skin. When it comes off, he's an alien on a planet he doesn't understand. As he explains to his infant son, there is only one thing he loves in the world. His body is home safe, but his heart and mind are still in the desert.

The (few) criticisms I've read are largely without merit. From Breitbart's Big Hollywood, dueling bozos of bromance Alexander Marlow and John Nolte both decry the characterization of Iraqis in the movie. This is a part of the narrative that should follow reality as close as possible, and it succeeds for the most part. Outside the wire, you shake kid's hands, you kick around a soccer ball and you act like a decent human being. But not for one second should your guard come down when it comes to the locals. Nolte feigns outrage about a scene involving a taxi driver running a roadblock. After a tense standoff, a soldier takes down the driver and violently handcuffs him. With what I imagine is a straight face, Nolte takes umbrage with the quote, "If he wasn't an insurgent, he sure as hell is now." Man, that was a favorite joke of mine! I said that about a man who owned a courtyard where I found two Molotov cocktails. Moments before he opened his trunk for us. It was full of whiskey, a rarity to see in a Muslim country. We laughed and pretended to stumble around drunk, but after I found those cocktails and the IP shoved his face into a brick wall, we weren't laughing anymore. I joked that next time, there would be a spring loaded boxing glove that came out.

Nolte doesn't realize that most people weren't too happy to see us, or consider the possibility that combat operations are a societal irritant. No, that is too complex a notion. He just decides to phone it in as a liberal slight and call it a day. There must be a shortage of veterans in West Hollywood (tip: if someone describes their residence with a cardinal direction, they probably have a gargantuan chip on their shoulder). Nolte could have passed his hissy fit about Iraqis to someone who knew what they were talking about. Quoth the Noltmeister: "The [Iraqi] men are alternately terrorists, a menacing presence, victims, the butt of jokes or utterly clueless." The movie is about guys who go find bombs buried in the road. What kind of person lingers around that environment John? You guessed it. Terrorists, menacing civilians, victims and clueless people.

I can agree with Marlow and Nolte that the order from a full bird to let an insurgent bleed to death is out of place, poorly staged and irrelevant to the plot. I could see what they were going for, but it translated horribly to the screen. Things like that do happen, as some of you might remember (long story short: we watched some insurgents bleed to death, and we watched a blindfolded guy die in slow agony after his house exploded and fell on top of him). A field grade officer ordering his men to let an insurgent bleed out is over the line though, and should have been left on the cutting room floor.

It's a shame some people can't look past their narrow view to enjoy the best Iraq movie to date. Though flawed with a serious case of the WTFs, The Hurt Locker more than makes up for it with technical prowess and unbelievably tense moments. In the only theater in Austin currently playing the movie, I heard a steady stream of gasps and "Oh shit!" moments in a nearly packed house. That kind of audience involvement is a testament to how well crafted the story is, regardless of the basic absurdity of the plot. General moviegoers will have plenty to rave about, and seasoned vets can walk away satisfied if they willfully suspend their disbelief for a couple of hours. I'm sure your wife or girlfriend won't mind that you stop whispering "That totally wouldn't happen" every five minutes.

Final Verdict: 3 1/2 Burning Cars out of 5

Update: West Hollywood is a town apart from Hollywood? Holy crap. I guess H-Town reached critical mass of people like John Nolte. A Manifest Douchery, westward to the sea!

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

High Crimes

There aren't many things that instantly burn me up, but Ralph Peters just bested his personal low with remarks so outrageously ballsy it's difficult not to admire his brazen viciousness. The skinny-chested, former lieutenant colonel REMF spewed his bile all over the Fox newsroom yesterday, calling for the Taliban to execute captured American soldier Bowe Berghdal:

In his mad rush to condemn Berghdal, Peters disregards those pesky laws about jury by trial and gets down to the nitty gritty of the situation. Instead of the current rescue operations to bring Berghdal back alive, he cooly suggests the Taliban could save us "a lot of legal hassle and a lot of legal bills." A cursory search of his work will yield a lot about killing. Killing prisoners, killing journalists. His Wikipedia entry reveals the softer side of his military career. He enlisted in 1976, a year after the Vietnam War ended. What the hell was he up to before that? Must have been a writing a sequel to Dave Grossman's book - On Killing (Except In War, and Except By Me).

The story of Berghdal's disappearance and subsequent capture has been shrouded in mystery since the story broke. Berghdal himself says he was captured after lagging behind on a patrol, but some have suggested he simply deserted, citing unverifiable sources. Berghdal's story of his capture sounds ridiculously fishy. But it's not up to anyone, certainly not a coward like Peters, to condemn this soldier. The true story doesn't matter right now, Berghdal's safe recovery does. If he deserted his unit in the middle of the night, especially in the midst of the huge offensive in Afghanistan, he belongs in the brig until the walls crumble into dust. In the end though, no one gets left behind, especially in the hands of fanatics. Peters would have learned that if he didn't spend his career licking boots in Germany. He has handed the Taliban a golden goose eggs of propaganda. Such division and apathy are exactly what the Taliban and al-Qaeda hope to achieve in the US. It's like that old joke about an American soldier messing up so bad he was awarded an Iron Cross. Peters is meeting the Taliban retention quota with gusto.

We don't know if Berghdal is guilty of desertion and defection, but I have seen with my own eyes a citizen calling for an American soldier to be killed by militants. Peters qualifies for an involuntary inversion from a lightpole a tad bit more than a soldier captured under nebulous circumstances.

Get the man back safely. The hows and whys come later.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Informative, Corny Post 9/11 GI Bill video

For those still on the fence about which GI Bill to partake in:

Keep in mind this new bill is not a silver bullet. You might be better off sticking with the old GI Bill. Do some research and see which one suits you better. If you are close to exhuasting the old one, stick with it. You can get a 12 month extension with the Post 9/11 Bill only if you completely use Chapter 30. And if you live in California, move somewhere else.


Saturday, July 11, 2009

Haiku Review: Redacted

Redacted (2007):

Modern snuff disgusts

De Palma disposes talent

For outlandish farce

(I'll be seeing The Hurt Locker later tonight. Expect to see an unabridged review sometime soon.)

Friday, July 10, 2009

Haiku Review: Home of the Brave

Home of the Brave (2006):

War drama derails

Despite genuine intentions

50 Cent sucks at acting too

(Tomorrow, the final haiku review of the reprehensible Redacted.)

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Haiku Review: Stop Loss

Stop Loss (2008):

Requisite drawl here

Back door draft is plot device

Phillipe runs from script

(Tommorow: Home of The Brave.)

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Haiku Review: In The Valley of Elah

In The Valley of Elah (2007):

Soldiers behave badly

Dubious characters aplenty

Audience cruelly suffers

(Tomorrow: Stop Loss.)

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

All Quiet on the Celluloid Front

I always liked movies as much as the next kid growing up. I remember watching Batman Returns every Saturday morning until the tape nearly gave out. But I never moved beyond a general interest of film until I watched The Usual Suspects and The Godfather back to back one unforgettable afternoon. From them on I couldn't get enough of movies. Old or classic, color or black & white, foreign or domestic - I overtook my parent's Netflix account and drowned the queue in every film I researched. Pretty soon I was renting 25 to 30 movies a month. My high school grades were inversely related to the amount of movies I watched - Fellini and Kurosawa soon replaced Algebra and English. I didn't mind; I was still getting a good education.

Digging through my film library, you will find war movies sprinkled liberally among French New Wave and Quentin Tarantino movies. From Paths of Glory to Black Hawk Down, I cannot resist a good war yarn, which brings me to the question of the day: Why do the few Iraq-based movies suck worse than an asthmatic prostitute? Can a war movie be good without waiting for an honest historical perspective? It took three years after Vietnam for The Deer Hunter to come out. Based on what I've seen, it might take the end of the war in Iraq to produce a good movie about Iraq.

My grades have improved since high school, but unfortunately the time dedicated to watching (and reviewing) movies has been greatly diminished. But in anticipation for the release of The Hurt Locker on Friday, I will take one for the team and review a few of the currently released Iraq war movies in the form of haiku. It turns out the Japanese are good for things beyond tentacle porn.

Please come back tomorrow for the haiku review of In The Valley of Elah. As for The Hurt Locker, I intend to review it in more than seventeen syllables when I see it this weekend.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Pink, White and Blue

Zachary Boyd, the E-4 who took on the Taliban in pink boxers, had a safe Independence Day at home. I had a feeling he was from Texas. Welcome back to his unit.

I remember getting bitched at by our brigade commander for not wearing gloves during a three mile hike under an Iraqi summer sun. I'm glad to see he didn't get in trouble for being a bad ass.

(H/T Sheri.)