Tuesday, January 28, 2014

2014 Unreasonable Movie Project (Vol. 4): The Act of Killing It, Which I'm Not

You are an idiot. That's what the 'current me' would tell the 'past me,' the me of a week ago, if I had the chance. I'd tell the 'past me' that if you are going to motivate yourself to see and write about 25+ movies in the next six weeks, don't make it harder than it needs to be. Be smarter than that.

The 'past me' thought he was being clever by seeing a movie he wanted to see (Lone Survivor) that was nominated for a few technical awards at the Oscars, and pair it with a well-regarded documentary about what he thought was a past war in Indonesia (The Act Of Killing). With similar themes, it would be an easy post to write...right?

Fictional war (based on real war) could be compared to nonfiction accounts of real war. Then I'd make some jokes about uncreative studio marketing managers, and uncreative critics, and their inevitable mentions of the holy trinity of modern war cinema (Saving Private Ryan, Full Metal Jacket, Platoon), and it would be over. Clean and simple. Out and done.

But it never happens that way, especially in war movies. The routine op always goes bad somehow. The guy on watch always falls asleep. The young private always does something stupid. In this case, the stupid private is me. War is hell.

Lone Survivor is a fine movie, and not at all difficult to analyze. It's about a team of four Navy SEALS that goes on a mission to find a Taliban leader in the mountains of Afghanistan and finds more than they bargained for. The scenes of warfare are extraordinarily realistic, and it is hard to watch because (minor spoiler alert!), the SEALs are forced to jump off more than one cliff.

Based on a book by former SEAL Marcus Luttrell, the movie sticks closely to the experiences of these soldiers at this moment in time. There isn't much else to chew on. Given how political the operations in Afghanistan and Iraq have been over the last dozen or more years, it's actually quite a feat that none of that context seems to exist in this film. Lone Survivor could be billed as "War in a Vacuum."

The problem with movies that don't make their own strong statement about why they exist is that others will make the statement. The conservatives say its a statement of American exceptionalism that justifies our involvement in Afghanistan. The liberals will say its jingoistic war-porn in yet another attempt to use violence to make money. It somehow justifies everyone's worldview, simultaneously.

The truth is it's probably none of those things. It's just a story about some very brave guys in a bad situation, and sadly it's not that memorable. But we all kinda knew this ahead of time, didn't we? If you're going to hire an actor to bring some gravitas, and elevate the project into a heavyweight, it's not going to be Mark Wahlberg. Ben Foster is in it, who I think is an unbelievable actor, but he can't carry it in a supporting role.

The big mistake I made, the thing I didn't see ahead of time, is thinking that The Act Of Killing would be just as straightforward. BIG MISTAKE.

The Act Of Killing is bizarre. It's a total heavyweight, already having won more than 25 awards internationally, but it's wacko. If David Lynch and Wes Anderson and Terry Gilliam had co-directed it, it would not have been weirder. And it may very well win the Oscar for Best Documentary.

The historical background: Indonesia's military took control of its government in the 1960's, and oversaw the killing of millions of people who were communists or were suspected of being communists. It's clear that the para-military gangs that did some of this killing were often full of young men who killed for power, for money, for sport. This government is still in power in Indonesia today.

The premise of the documentary: The filmmakers found a few of these para-military men who killed "communists" in the 1960's and asked them to talk about it. They agreed, happily. These men, some of whom are now essentially government-sanctioned criminal bosses, were then coaxed to make a movie about their exploits in whatever style or genre they wished. They would write it, shoot it, act in it, everything. They agreed, happily. And it was all captured on film.

[...allowing all that to sink in...]

[...still waiting...]

I'll say this: even if a man can completely and consciously justify the evil things he has done, and even if the world tells him he is right, that evil lives in his heart and he will suffer.

And lastly: Lone Survivor and The Act Of Killing are nothing alike.

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