The Holy Trinity: Three Iraq War Films Define a New Apolitical Aesthetic

December 10, 2009 | 5 books mentioned 5 4 min read

covercovercoverFor the last five years, movies about America’s various Middle East conflicts have been, broadly speaking, polemical, didactic, and forgettable. Brian De Palma’s Redacted, which grossed all of $65,000 domestically and received stateside critical acclaim comparable to Surfer Dude, typifies, at least statistically, this first generation of contemporary American war films. Then in July came The Hurt Locker (the Father), and in November The Messenger (the Son), whose hands-off approach to desert warfare politics signaled, shall we say, an aesthetic sand-change. Neither Katheryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker) nor Oren Moverman (The Messenger) spent much time moralizing about the war; they exchanged national horrors for personal ones, and the results have been revolutionary. As I wrote in an earlier review of The Hurt Locker:

The Hurt Locker is not a sentimental portrait of brotherhood (the soldiers bond by drinking and punching each other in the stomach). And yet somewhere within the first half-hour I found myself wishing I were with them in the desert. The soldiers’ work is arduous, to say nothing of deadly, but Staff Sergeant James’ (Jeremy Renner) approach to defusing his bombs is elegantly simple. He appears at peace working, and that calm amidst one of the tensest dramas in recent film history is intoxicating. He is not so different from the poet striving to write a clear image.

Two films, though, do not make a movement any more than solid and liquid represent the states of matter. But Brothers, Jim Sheridan’s semi-masterpiece about the aftermath of war, appeared last Friday, and like the Holy Ghost—that gaseous limb of the set—completed the trinity.

The Hurt Locker and The Messenger document, with almost mutual exclusion, the poles of deployment. The Hurt Locker, save for ten minutes near the end of the film, takes place in Iraq. Conversely The Messenger, excluding a brief flashback to an army base near Baghdad, plays out in the United States, following around two soldiers who deliver the news of combat deaths to next of kin. Brothers attempts a synthesis of these two stages. It is the most ambitious of the three films, and accordingly the least successful. Captain Sam Cahill (Tobey Maguire) gets shipped off to Afghanistan, where his helicopter is promptly shot down. Back in the States, his young wife, Grace (Natalie Portman), and brother, Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal), both believe he’s dead, and in a moment of mutual need one night strike up a pseudo-chaste affair. They do nothing more than kiss, but that’s enough. Whether out of desperation or something more permanent, they fall in love. Then one afternoon Grace gets a phone call. Captain Cahill was captured, not killed. He’s alive, well(ish), and shipping home.

This scenario should be an equation for great filmmaking, and Jim Sheridan delivers no shortage of drama (cabinets are smashed, guns are waved). But Captain Cahill’s arc—specifically his imprisonment in the mountains—feels somehow gratuitous. Though the events that take place in Afghanistan are the cause of Sam’s psychological break, Brothers could have been a much more powerful film if the cameras hadn’t crossed the Atlantic with him. In The Messenger, for instance, all the violence takes place offstage, leaving us to imagine the trauma overseas, but forcing us to watch the domestic horror as family after family loses a child. Oren Moverman, whether due to budgetary constraints or simple good taste, doesn’t recreate the battlefield on screen.

The great revelation of The Messenger happens on a couch. Near the end of the film, Staff Sergeant Montgomery (Ben Foster) and Captain Stone (Woody Harrelson) sit in a living room, and Montgomery tells the story of his last firefight in Baghdad. A lesser performer than Foster might have failed to convey, through anecdote, the gravity of losing your men in war, so one could argue that Brothers didn’t have the talent to pull off such a narrative coup. But Sheridan’s movie is full of astounding, subtle acting. Tobey Maguire is as menacing silent as he is loud, and at times he gets very loud. It seems ironic, therefore, that Sheridan, who inspired some of the most extraordinary performances of the last twenty years (Daniel Day Lewis in My Left Foot is almost unbeatable, even by Lewis’ other egos), didn’t trust his cast to do the heavy psychic lifting.

Sheridan is more comfortable at the dinner table or in the kitchen than he is in a burning helicopter. Therefore the dramatic inconsistencies between his staging of his Afghani and American scenes lie in his inability, or at least lesser ability, to illustrate violence effectively. Following that logic, it might not come as a surprise that the most harrowing scene in Brothers is not when Cahill hides from a sniper under a rocky outcropping, or falls from the sky in a burning airship, but rather when he meets the young son of Private Willis, a Marine he watched die in Afghanistan. The boy crawls out of the family room, where Willis’ widow and Grace are talking. From all fours the boy stares at Cahill. This tension between man and infant is more terrifying, and more saturated with complex guilt, than anything Sheridan conjures up on the battlefield between soldier and terrorist.

No doubt the success of that scene, and for that matter all of Sheridan’s domestic scenes, has something to do with visual patience. During a meal, Sheridan’s camera isn’t dynamic. But when a scene is supposed to be hectic, like in the mountains of Afghanistan, Sheridan directs his lens hectically. Conversely, The Hurt Locker, a far superior action film to Brothers, induces anxiety through stasis. That film’s most tormenting scene—a man approaching an Army checkpoint wearing an explosive vest—does not utilize music or manipulative editing that might detract from the impending horror. Thus The Hurt Locker’s violence unfolds, instead, with the visual calm of a conversation. If Sheridan had shot his war like Bigelow shot hers, or like he did his Thanksgiving dinner, he’d deserve to stand alongside Bigelow and Moverman as one of the best directors this year.

coverBut Sheridan does succeed (though still not as well as Bigelow or Moverman) in removing most of his personal political perspective. Perhaps not since Franklin J. Schaffner made Patton has a director—or in this case three directors—abstained from commenting on the ethics of war so thoroughly. Granted, Sheridan makes a caricature of the Afghani tribesmen who kidnap Captain Cahill, but you certainly couldn’t convict him of demonstrating liberal bias. If anything, his depiction of the enemy is flat and narrow; and at least publicly, that’s the conservatives’ characterization.

War is in the end too devastating and too personal to expend much energy concocting a general morality lesson. Bigelow, Moverman, and Sheridan aren’t lionizing battle, but neither are they condemning it. Nations fight, they seem to be saying, our men and women bleed, and everything beyond that is a distraction. For that objectivity alone, all three of these films deserve to be lauded, if Brothers a bit more reservedly. Paul Greengrass’ Green Zone may arrest the trend next spring (March is historically a bad month for film releases), but for now we have a renaissance on our hands.

is the author of the novel, We're Getting On, and the co-writer of the award-winning true crime podcast, Leonard: Political Prisoner, about the wrongful conviction of Indigenous activist Leonard Peltier.  More at