Reviewing William Friedkin’s Rules of Engagement here two weeks ago, I forgot to note one thing: what Friedkin’s rancid, godawful war movie is really about. Ostensibly, it’s about the military and a Marine commander (played by Samuel L. Jackson) who’s excused for murdering his prisoners or innocent civilians whenever he feels like it. But let’s tear that flimsy mask off. Rules of Engagement has nothing to do with the military; it’s about Hollywood. Its unapologetically homicidal commander is an exercise in projection and self-exculpation on the part of lunatic, irresponsible egomaniacs like Friedkin and the other big shots who made Rules.
If you have any doubt of that, don’t miss the terrific World War II submarine movie U-571, which is about the actual military and the world beyond the Hollywood jungle. In Rules of Engagement, a U.S. commander guns down the helpless and doesn’t blink. In U-571, the Nazis do that. (It’s one way you can tell they’re Nazis.) Americans are the ones who retain a sense of honor, decency and clear moral boundaries. You remember real war movies, don’t you?
Jonathan Mostow’s film fictionalizes a critical passage in the Allies’ campaign against Hitler’s Germany, the effort to crack the Enigma codes that gave the Nazis an early advantage in the war. The tale opens in 1942, aboard the title’s eponymous U-Boat, which, after a fierce undersea battle that inevitably recalls Wolfgang Petersen’s high-adrenaline masterpiece Das Boot, finds itself partly disabled, limping along in the Atlantic awaiting rescue by German ships or subs scattered in the direction of Europe.
Cut to a U.S. submarine base where the men are celebrating the marriage of one of their number, and strife between two top officers is brewing. The problem: Lt. Commander Mike Dahlgren (Bill Paxton) has denied his executive officer, Lt. Andrew Tyler (Matthew McConaughey), a promotion that would have given him his own submarine, for the simple reason that Dahlgren doesn’t think Tyler is yet seasoned or mature enough for command. Thus, when the order comes to put to sea in search of U-571–the big prize isn’t the craft itself but the crucial Nazi code machine it contains–Tyler chafes at returning to a subordinate position under a man who, though decent and skilled, has held him back.
The film’s opening section has the tautness and drive of the best combat movies. There’s a pulsing, spine-tingling excitement to the mounting of the mission to find and snare the U-571, which takes place in an American sub from the World War I era. (As an officer played by Harvey Keitel remarks, it’s older than most of the men manning it.) Once the antiquated American craft reaches its object, the building tension literally explodes: Although Tyler and some of his men successfully pose as German rescuers and board the U-571, unexpected disaster leaves the sea full of carnage and fire, with Tyler and his crew trapped onboard a sub they meant to capture and scuttle. And they barely have time to begin puzzling out the German instructions on its instruments before they become the quarry in a deadly undersea hunt.
Watching U-571, you can’t help but realize how much advances in movie technology like lightweight, mobile cameras and high-speed color film have added to the potential for visceral realism in submarine movies. Certainly, the film’s non-stop excitements are of an intrinsically more gripping order than those of its predecessors back in the ’50s and ’60s. Digital sound supplies even greater punch; exploding depth charges can now literally shake the walls of the theater. But lots of this impact has to do with skill, too. Mostow has a superb sense of how to place and move his camera for maximum expressive effect. And he gets strong, flavorful performances not only from Paxton and McConaughey, who’s much better here than in other recent roles, but also from a supporting cast that includes Keitel, David Keith, Jon Bon Jovi (a long way from Slippery When Wet), Jake Weber, Jack Noseworthy and Matthew Settle.
Although the movie’s main objective may be thrills of the seat-gripping, undersea sort, it also enfolds a meditation on the difficulties of command that sets it decisively apart from its one war-movie competitor of the last month. In Rules of Engagement, Samuel L. Jackson’s Marine commander murders a captive and a slew of civilians, supposedly to save his own men. In U-571, Dahlgren tells Tyler, in effect, that he is destined to lose men no matter what, and that his greatest challenge will be to send his own subordinates to their deaths without flinching or hesitation. The difference between the two films couldn’t be more clear-cut. Friedkin’s drama gives its commander permission to lose control on the somewhat delusional premise that in doing so he’ll able to save all his men. Mostow’s more stoic tale recognizes the grimmer reality of inevitable loss, and insists that commanding soldiers means, first and foremost, the ability to control oneself.
Its thoughtful core aside, U-571 rivals the precedent-setting Das Boot as one of the most electrifying submarine movies ever mounted. Brilliantly kinetic and hugely exciting from the time it puts to sea till it fires its last torpedo, the film is something you almost never see from the majors anymore: a straightforward, old-fashioned genre picture done to perfection, abounding in stylistic bravado and unblinking conviction. (Hey, it can’t be an allegory of Hollywood: It’s about guts, honor and competence.)
Much of the credit here must go to Mostow, who also wrote the film’s screen story and co-authored the screenplay. Mostow’s last movie, the Kurt Russell road-thriller Breakdown, showed him to be an absolute ace at directing highly charged genre material. U-571 confirms that distinction in spades. No, the film doesn’t go beyond the limits of genre. (That last torpedo is a foregone conclusion.) But it acquits itself so beautifully in serving up the action and military spine you expect of a classic war movie that its adherence to expectation ends up being as satisfying as it is unusual.
Taos Talking Pictures is the colorful name of a film festival held in an exquisitely colorful corner of northern New Mexico. Despite the otherworldly setting, my first visit to the festival, which took place April 13-16, had aspects that were more familiar than exotic.
For filmmakers, festivals are a circuit. The fact that Taos took place a week after Durham’s DoubleTake Documentary Film Festival meant that certain filmmakers convening in New Mexico had just seen each other in North Carolina, and I was able sample opinion about the latter event. The word on DoubleTake’s year 2000 edition was generally quite strong (apart from the projection at the Carolina Theatre, which needs some serious upgrading if the critical comments I heard were accurate), and there was a consensus that the competing AnotherTake festival added to the overall excitement rather than taking anything away from DoubleTake.
One Taos entry, Stranger with a Camera by Kentucky filmmaker Elizabeth Barret, has become a favorite all over the place this season. I caught its premiere at Sundance in January, and it has subsequently appeared at Duke’s Documentary Happening as well as DoubleTake. (The hourlong documentary will play on PBS’ “P.O.V.” series in the coming weeks.) At Taos, it was particularly popular with the 140 high-school age participants of the festival’s Teen Media Conference, an initiative that other festivals might emulate.
Among the strongest films I saw at Taos, Kevin McKiernan’s Good Kurds, Bad Kurds, showed at AnotherTake. McKiernan’s opinionated coverage of the Turkish oppression of its Kurdish minority may have various rhetorical blind spots, but it’s the kind of tough, passionate filmmaking that draws attention to a subject too long ignored by the U.S. media. The same subject was also treated powerfully, in a dramatic rather than documentary fashion, by the moving, sharply crafted feature Journey to the Sun, which was courageously mounted by a Turkish woman director, Yesim Ustaoglu.
Good Kurds, Bad Kurds and Journey to the Sun were only two of the dozens of films screened at Taos, a remarkably capacious and sophisticated festival for a town with a population of only a few thousand. But precisely because they’re not likely to show up on commercial screens, these titles exemplify the kinds of cinema best served by the special venue of a festival–even one which takes place in a landscape that provides stiff competition for any movie.