Set This World Ablaze: A Veteran’s Day Film Retrospective

This year was so bountiful that one entry just wouldn’t do, so please return to Lewton Bus tomorrow for part 2 of this year’s Veteran’s Day retrospective and check out the Veteran’s Day retrospectives from 2017 and 2018

I really thought I could escape. The further I am from my time at war, the louder its consequences seem to reverberate. I am far removed from the battlefield as I could ever hope to be, yet this world is still consumed by the ravages of war. For some, it is a daily struggle against death. For others, the conflict burns at the fringes of their comfortable lives, molding their existence as they remain oblivious. Through it all, there is no choice but to persist. As I recalibrate and reorient my journey towards a new future, the art of film helps me to maintain my bearings and process the chaos of my thoughts and the world around me. This year, there is a wide array of war films that reflect our tumultuous times, while also offering new insight into the persistent issues of our generation. As always, it is my hope that diving into this year’s selection of war films will be as valuable for you as it is for me.


I. International Incident


We begin this endeavor with a look at some of the most recent expressions of modern warfare from around the world. The totality of human civilization has never known an age without armed conflict, but the advent of the information age and the Global War on Terrorism means that we are connected through conflict in ways like never before.

URI: THE SURGICAL STRIKE

Last year, China showcased the might of its military with the spectacular propaganda war film Operation Red Sea. This year, India has thrown down the gauntlet for modern warfare action with the action blockbuster Uri: The Surgical Strike. Simply put, it is one of the most well crafted and evocative pieces of military propaganda made in the 21st century thus far. On September 18, 2016, four heavily armed militants infiltrated and assaulted an Indian Army Base in Uri, Baramulla district, Jammu and Kashmir, India. The attack resulted in 19 Indian Army personnel dead with as many as 80 to 100 personnel wounded. In the early hours of September 29, 2016, the Indian government responded to this terrorist attack by conducting a surgical strike against militant base camps along the Kashmir Line of Control, where Indian and Pakistani forces delineate control over the region. Uri: The Surgical Strike is a heavily embellished dramatization of the two attacks.

Addressing the longstanding animus between the governments of India and Pakistan in an action blockbuster makes for a highly politically-charged undertaking, where the contested Kashmir region lies at the heart of the conflict. I go into a deeper discussion about the full weight of this situation in my review from earlier in the year. Suffice to say, having to use my Military Intelligence Analyst skills for a movie review is indicative of the sensitive nature of the film and its real world implications. This is saying quite a lot for a film where an Indian commando shoves a wad of C4 explosives up a terrorist’s ass and heroically walks away from the explosion as it detonates. All in the name of a secure Hindustan. The implications go further with recent news about the Muslim-majority Kashmir region being broken up into two federal territories under the control of India. These are critically complex matters beyond the scope of a film journalist, but if nothing else, I must recognize the breadth of what’s involved and what’s at stake as I enjoy phenomenally executed tactical action on screen. This goes for every nation and every film production that chooses to grapple with real world issues, and something we all as consumers and participants in the global economy must be mindful of.

PASKAL

At the convergence of the democratization of film through digital techniques and the desire for nations to showcase their burgeoning presence as a global power, there is the explosive Malaysian military action film PASKAL. As India and China have done with the aforementioned Operation Red Sea and Uri, Malaysia has thrown its hat into the ring of bombastic military cinema with a story extolling the might of the Royal Malaysian Naval Special Warfare Forces/Pasukan Khas Laut (PASKAL). And like those movies, it also uses real world events to shape its narrative. Some plot points are derived from Malaysian UN peacekeeping operations in Angola in 1998, while others are drawn from Operation Dawn 8 in the Gulf of Aden wherein PASKAL units successfully retook a freight ship captured by Somali pirates. The rest of the story… well, when not showing off real world equipment and cutting edge tactics, PASKAL is very much in the same vein of ham-handed Chuck Norris movies from the 1980s.

In fact, the film draws from a wide selection of action films past and present. Melodrama and bombast like Navy Seals with Charlie Sheen, some brutal close quarter combat akin to The Raid series from Indonesia, and even some angsty pretty boy tacti-cool drama like in the film adaptation of SWAT from 2003. However, even with all those influences, PASKAL successfully carves out its own cinematic and cultural identity. One of the more striking scenes occurs in the opening sequence in which the operators invoke a Muslim prayer (as Islam is the official religion of Malaysia) as they gear up to engage Somali pirates. With so much of the global anti-terrorism effort focused on extremist Islamic fundamentalists, it is often overlooked how many victims of terrorist violence are Muslim. Moreover, we only see counter terrorism operations from the white western American/European lens, so showing Southeast Asian Muslim warriors on the front lines of the war on terror adds a level of nuance and significance lacking in most military movies.

Just as well, PASKAL provides something sorely lacking in western films in general: depictions of Asian masculinity in a modern warfare context. So often we only see Asian characters in war films as bullet fodder for white commandos, but in PASKAL they are as capable and physically imposing as their Caucasian counterparts. Martial arts actor and stuntman Hairul Azreen is lean and mean as the team captain, while the brawny co-star Ammar Alfian has the bulging muscles and chiseled good looks that would be right at home in Fast and Furious feature. Even with all its brazen nationalism, PASKAL is a great piece of action entertainment. Going forward, it is important to understand that even seemingly “disposable” action cinema of our modern age can bring with it many pertinent issues, both sub-textual and overt, that demand our attention.

THE WOLF’S CALL

The Submarine warfare sub-genre of war movie will likely never go out of style. Angry, sweaty professionals stuffed into a cramped environments where death is always one hull rupture away and where one wrong decision could put the fate of the free world at risk is a simple yet highly effective way to craft drama. The Wolf’s Call is an excellent new entry into that pantheon of films, a crisp and concise update of well worn territory. It is noteworthy that France is the focus as a central figure within a highly volatile geopolitical battlefield, as Iran, Syria, Russia and even Jihadi extremists are all thrown into the mix. Throughout the proceedings, France stands alone in the face of nuclear annihilation, as other supposed allies are encumbered by poor diplomacy and ignorance. One could argue that the contrived situation which unfolds comes off as nothing more than the consternation of a former colonial power grasping at a fading sense of relevance. Indeed, the film has more in common with a Tom Clancy novel than a serious rumination on global affairs. Even so, despite the surrealism of it all, The Wolf’s Call succeeds where it matters most for a submarine warfare movie by having an excellent cast of characters who keep you engaged through every pulse-pounding minute.

Francois Civil stars as Chanteraide, a young Sonar technician gifted with incredible sensory abilities, able to discern minute details of missile launches and vessel capabilities through sound alone. During a dangerous mission, his senses fail him as a mysterious unidentified enemy submarine ignites a high stakes race against time. This high concept setup is grounded by the additional performances of Reda Kateb as Submarine Commander Grandchamp, Omar Sy as the stalwart Executive Officer D’Orsi, and renowned French actor/filmmaker Mathieu Kassovitz as the high ranking Strategic Commander. All participants bring their A-games to this taught thriller, wringing every ounce of tension they can from smaller moments of interpersonal clashes as well as the explosive sequences of naval combat. As the plot unfolds, the brave submariners face threats from all sides, the chances of survival becoming slimmer by the second. There is one reveal that feels somewhat like a pulled punch after the bold political statements made in the first half. Even so, The Wolf’s Call keeps you fully engaged with the characters throughout, enough to forgive any narrative missteps. In the end, re-framing old Cold War staples within a 21st century modern warfare context makes for a winning formula worth your time.

THE KILL TEAM

One of the more powerful wartime dramas of this year is the intensely disturbing thriller The Kill Team, a dramatization of the 2009-2010 Maywand District murders in Afghanistan in which nearly a dozen soldiers took part in the murders of innocent Afghan civilians. An unusual factor in this film’s production is how director Dan Krauss derives many of the details from his own 2013 documentary film of the same name, where he interviewed the real soldiers directly involved in the crimes, along with family members and other military personnel involved in the legal proceedings. When speaking about The Kill Team during a Tribeca Film Festival Q&A, Krauss stated that his goal for this dramatic interpretation was to try to put the viewer into the psychological headspace of a young soldier trapped inside an impossible situation, and it certainly lives up to that promise thanks to the great work of Nat Wolff as SPC Andrew Briggman and Alexander Skaarsgard’s terrifying turn as SSG Deeks (names have been altered in this adaptation).

The character SSG Deeks embodies the kind of toxic, manipulative leadership witnessed in fraternal organizations throughout history that preys upon young men’s desire for acceptance and purpose, bending them to do evil deeds. This corruption easily overtakes the minds of Briggman’s platoon, transforming them into violent zealots. The harsh realities of combat are difficult enough on their own to process, but The Kill Team amplifies the experience by engulfing Briggman in a claustrophobic nightmare where danger encroaches on all sides from friend and foe alike. There is constantly heightened tension from beginning to end that will legitimately test the thresholds of your anxiety. It’s one thing for a war film to try and create an “immersive” representation of combat, but to successfully simulate the feeling of pure dread in a war zone is a truly incredible feat.

Thinking about the war crimes in Maiwand, I recall recent scandals such as the trial of Navy SEAL Chief Edward Gallagher and Army 1st Lt. Clint Lorance, in terms of both the criminal charges and the chaos of the legal proceedings. It almost feels like we’ve learned nothing. At the end of the day, knowing that there are still those with the moral fortitude to report serious issues will have to be enough. Tangentially, something odd happened during the Tribeca Film Festival screening of The Kill Team I attended that’s been gnawing at me for a while. Some old man was giving one of those “not really a question but a comment” statements during the Q&A, which was extremely annoying but par for course. However, he started going into a rant about how soldiers are mindless robot killers or something and that’s when I fucking lost it and cursed his ass out. There happened to be another veteran in the audience who was able to speak more eloquently about the things we faced, and I’m glad he was there to calm things down. On the one hand, the old man probably had (and still has) good reason to think we’re all a bunch of psychos, but he seemed to completely miss the point of the movie about the young people still out there in harm’s way who do choose to do the right thing despite all the forces pit against them. That’s why I do this, for the sake of those who represent the best of us when all you see is the worst, and to provide another voice to represent us in environments where we are misunderstood


II. Domestic Threat


Shifting the lens from abroad to the homefront, we have a pair of outlandish films that seem to capture the current curious state of the American psyche. As always, even the oddest film has something pertinent to say if we open our minds and pay attention.

RAMBO: LAST BLOOD

First Blood was a 1972 American action thriller novel by David Morrell, and was one of many important works of art about the Vietnam War that helped Americans understand the trauma that service members experienced upon their return. Sylvester Stallone created one of the most iconic characters in all of cinema with his 1982 film adaptation, but that iconography morphed into something else entirely as Rambo became a symbol of Reagan-American might with its sequels, Rambo: First Blood Part II and Rambo III. After a long absence, Stallone brought the character back with Rambo in 2008. And now here we are after another long hiatus with Rambo: Last Blood, supposedly the final chapter of Rambo’s story. John Rambo has finally returned home, living the quiet life of a horse rancher in Arizona with a family friend and her granddaughter Gabriela (Yvette Monreal). When Gabriela ventures into Mexico to find her estranged Father, she is captured by Cartel members, forcing Rambo into another desperate rescue mission.

Rambo: Last Blood might as well be called Taken Four: Loco, as it cribs pretty heavily off of that series and other Dad Action Movies of the past 10+ years. The film is yet another exercise in diminishing returns of long running franchises, and even author David Morrell himself has made public his dismay at how far the character has fallen. That all said, i still think that there is a recognizable strand of the original character that tries to make this movie somewhat worthwhile. Tying Rambo to a real world situation is consistent with the character, but the overlying fear mongering of stereotypical Mexicans doesn’t do the movie or the real world situation any favors. Rather than be a poignant allegory, Last Blood is nothing more than a cheap exploitation film, as if the character was simply dropped in an expansion pack of a ludicrously violent straight to video series rather than a fleshed out sequel entry. However, that violence is the one thing the movie excels in, as the final act devolves into an orgy of murder that looks something like if Friday the 13th‘s Jason Voorhees was handed the keys to Jigsaw’s malevolent house of death traps from the Saw franchise. After so many years at war and with an ignorant populace afraid of conjectural boogeymen, Rambo might actually be the perfect symbol of modern America; decrepit and psychotically violent, with no proper outlet for the anger born of deep physical and emotional trauma. The hero we deserve.

ANGEL HAS FALLEN

How strange then, that a series derided for and defined by its overtly racist jingoism now serves as a counterpoint to that pervasive fear and psychosis. Angel Has Fallen is the latest entry in the action series that stars Gerard Butler as Mike Banning, a rough and tumble former Special Forces operative turned Secret Service agent who has saved the President of the United States from disaster several times over. This time around, he must defend President Allan Trumbull (Morgan Freeman, reprising his role from the previous films where he played the Vice President) from an assassination plot while clearing his name as a fugitive on the run. Plenty of curse words, vehicle collisions, blades, and ballistics round out the affair; although it’s not as engrossing as the first movie, Olympus Has Fallen, it is an improvement over the cheaply vulgar London Has Fallen. The main villains in the latest Fallen entry have shifted from caricatures of foreign powers and stereotypical Arab terrorists to the insidious threat of private military contractors run by former military personnel. The proceedings get a bit more convoluted, involving a plan to start war with the Russia and the role of PMCs in future conflicts, but it is a notable departure nonetheless, especially in parts where they explicitly mention Russian interference in U.S. elections. These are of course highly exaggerated issues at play for the purposes of an action movie, but I was nonetheless reminded of all my former comrades who have devolved into frothing-at-the mouth racist lunatics on social media and in person, so even in all the bombast, there are kernels of truth.

The real fascinating component of Angel Has Fallen comes in the choice to hone in on the psychological and mental toll the constant combat has taken on its hero. Many critics of the film (and even fans of the previous entries) dismissed this decision, perplexed as to why a stock action figure character like Banning would require any sort of psychoanalysis. To be fair, there’s really not much at all to the character worth exploring beyond a passionate sense of duty, but I think this blank slate approach works as a way for others to transpose their feelings of war weariness. However, this conceit could not possibly work without the film’s secret weapon: a grumbling and befuddled Nick Nolte as Vietnam War veteran Clay Banning, Mike Banning’s father. Angel Has Fallen contains a scene that is simultaneously one of the best action sequences and one of the most hilarious comedy bits of the year, all thanks to Nolte’s indecipherable growling and a metric fuck-ton of explosives, but this ribald bit of entertainment is anchored by the genuine pathos Nolte imbues within Clay, a traumatized and frightened old man unable to deal with society and the modern world. Vietnam veterans returning home faced terrible treatment and undue scrutiny for horrors that they were forced into by a government that failed to support them. This is a far cry from what OIF/OEF Veterans like myself encountered upon our return home, with adoring civilians waving flags and thanking us for our service. Nonetheless, so many of us remain abandoned by government systems, unable to find adequate medical care, housing, or employment. The reconciliation and kinship of Mike and Clay represent this shared acknowledgment of veteran hardship, indicating a way forward from our collective pasts.


III. Infinite Warfare


From the harshest mirrors of our modern reality, let us now take a step into the realm of the fantastical. Science fiction has always been an incredibly effective device for exploring the problems of modernity through engaging metaphor. This year, there were several sci-fi films that effectively spoke to the issues of modern warfare, a trend that I hope will continue.

TAKE POINT

One of my favorite releases of this year is the Korean action thriller Take Point aka PMC:The Bunker, taking place in a near future setting with an international cast. Hwa Jung-Woo stars as “Ahab,” the leader of a back ops mercenary squad hired by the CIA to infiltrate a top secret bunker hidden underneath the North Korean/South Korean DMZ. What starts out as an assassination mission quickly changes when the squad discovers the presence of a high ranking North Korean defector, and a series of double crosses ignites increasingly perilous high-tech firefights and the potential involvement of high level strategic strikes in a last ditch effort to prevent the breakout of World War III. The easiest way to describe Take Point would be to think of it as a Call of Duty: Black Ops movie spin-off. Some film purists may cringe at that suggestion, but that would belie their ignorance about a game series in which the narrative has surprisingly relevant things to say about the causes and effects of global conflict. The Black Ops series has covered everything from the sins of CIA activities in Latin America coming back to haunt us, the tenuous America/China/Russia superpower relationship and the effects of those caught in the power struggle, and even the role global warming and climate change has as a direct impetus of current and future armed conflict around the world.

Take Point doesn’t quite have the ability to balance all those topics, yet it dutifully acquits itself to maintaining a thrilling pace and constant sense of escalating danger as secrets between characters are exposed. I also appreciate how the film is unafraid to show the disastrous results of incompetent American military meddling (something that Koreans have intimate knowledge of as the result of several incidents involving the death of Korean citizens at the hands of American service members, as well as the large scale political consequences of the current administration’s foreign policy). At the same time, it is also unafraid to blatantly paint the Chinese government and military as an outright hostile state actor, something that current American blockbusters and American businesses as a whole are deathly afraid to even comment on.

I make it a point to see as many international films as I can in theaters, and one of the more fascinating aspects of seeing Take Point during its theatrical run was that because most of the film’s dialogue is in English, the subtitles were written in Korean. However, during key points where the two main Korean characters speak to each other in Hangul, there was no English subtitle translation. This became an unexpected but welcome challenge in discerning story through context alone, and served as a good reminder about the how the future will only be more dependent on the interoperability of information systems and the necessity to communicate effectively, for the sake of maintaining peace and prosperity as much as possible.

AD ASTRA

Ad Astra is a wondrous, thought-provoking, and handsomely made space adventure starring Brad Pitt on a mission to save humanity from a deadly outer space anomaly that may or may not have something to do with his legendary astronaut father (Tommy Lee Jones), who had been thought long dead. Directed by James Gray, it contains a mix of slow, poetic imagery along with a handful of exciting kinetics, all of which put emphasis on the mortal danger and nearly incomprehensible mental strain associated with space travel. For all the film accomplishes, however, I left the movie with a nagging sense of frustration about all the incidental subjects it brings up yet never really comments on. Ad Astra has some of the strongest sci-fi world building in recent memory, yet it seems to constantly pull away from all the fascinating ethical, philosophical, and socio-political narrative points in order to drag us onward to the substantially less compelling hero’s journey. I don’t think it’s fair to blithely dismiss the proceedings as “Daddy Issues In Space,” but after seeing the inkling of what could have been in the deleted scenes observed in the trailers, I cant help but feel underwhelmed by the denouement, as heartfelt and moving as it is.

In many regards, Ad Astra follows the template of the legendary Vietnam war film Apocalypse Now, with a soldier embarking on a perilous journey to face a potential mad man of the military’s own design. Beyond the structure though, Ad Astra has quite a bit to say (or at least imply) about how consumerism corrupts our lives and society. There is also a direct correlation made between obscene capitalism and large scale conflicts over territory and resources. In a scene taking place on the Moon space station, now a U.S. territory, several businesses such as the Subway sandwich chain are seen in the background. I couldn’t help but think of all the fast food places like Burger King, Pizza Hut, KFC, and the countless Starbucks coffee shops I saw during my time on military bases in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait, and Qatar. It’s not like I need to see Brad Pitt drink a can of Pepsi in front of the camera to get the point, but as I said, I think there was a lot more to be mined from this background information that could have really made the movie pop. I also think it is no small thing to have Ad Astra exhibit what the proposed Space Force might look like in action. The military has been present in science fiction nearly since its inception, but things like space marines ostensibly don’t exist, whereas the Space Force is the closest thing yet to becoming reality. Will we really be fighting Space Taliban on the moon with dune buggies and tactical missile strikes? Time will tell.

TERMINATOR: DARK FATE

Speaking of time, I decided to include the latest Terminator entry in this list of this year’s war films, an my ongoing attempt to expand that definition of what a war film can be. Anyone familiar with the Terminator franchise knows that it involves the oncoming nuclear apocalypse launched by sentient machines in the future, humanity’s efforts to stop it, and the killing machines sent back in time to stop any future resistance from ever taking fruition. Dark Fate wipes away the last three entries, and it is now in continuity directly after the events of Terminator 2: Judgment Day. This time, a young Mexican factory worker (Natalia Reyes) holds the key to the future of the human race. The machines send their latest Terminator upgrade (Gabriel Luna) to hunt her down, while the human resistance sends a cyborg enhanced super soldier (Mackenzie Davis) to protect her. In the ensuing melee comes the glorious return of Linda Hamilton as battle hardened, middle-aged veteran Sarah Connor, along with Arnold Schwarzenegger returning as a machine with a unique spin on the continuity.

There’s the usual car chases, explosions, and CGI spectacle in this entry, done with moderate to terrific effect under the direction of Tim Miller. Beyond the action, what’s really captivating about Dark Fate is the parallels between the oncoming machine Armageddon and our present day police-military government enforcement agencies. In the broadest of brush strokes, the movie makes the connection between the dehumanization of immigrant prisoners held in border patrol prisons and the wanton extermination of human life by the future sentient machines. The frightening capabilities an all-encompassing surveillance apparatus become one and the same with the Terminator’s abilities and tool set meant to ensure the destruction of mankind. Pretty heavy stuff for a robot bashing shoot-em-up. Of course, Dark Fate is more concerned with thrills and interpersonal drama than making any overt political statement (despite what some mouth breathers have to say about it), but it still leaves you with some extra food for thought.


IV. Beyond Oblivion


Moving further past Science-Fiction, we enter the realm of the supernatural. For many years, I had never been a fan of horror films or supernatural thrillers; I fear the living more than the dead. However, in recent years I have realized how much the monsters as metaphors in horror movies can be such a profoundly effective way to process trauma, while also being loads of fun.

VFW

VFW stars Stephen Lang as a Vietnam veteran who runs a small town VFW post, sharing stories and drinks with his fellow Army buddies. When a young runaway hides in their bar after stealing a huge stash from the local drug kingpin, a swarm of junky/mutant fiends swarm the VFW to capture her. Under siege by cracked-out freaks and a squad of hardened thugs, the crusty old veterans, the young street punk, and a recently returned Army Ranger prepare for the fight of their lives. VFW is a wild ride less concerned with a deep narrative than it is with some hellaciously gruesome kills . However, that’s not a problem at all thanks to the seasoned cast (William Sadler, David Patrick Kelly, Fred Williamson, Martin Kove, George Wendt) who elevate the material.

Even though VFW is an unabashedly insane B-Movie slasher, it still ended up hitting on some really pertinent issues that i reeally appreciated. There is somewhat of a tension felt between some current generation Global War On Terror veterans and the older age of verterans from WWII, Korea, Vietnam. There is the old guard who faced contempt on all sides during and after the war, and the millennial generation who have only known war their whole lives. I’ve felt the cold shoulder of a VFW and other spaces occupied by older veterans before. I’ve stepped into places in Maspeth or bars in Long Island and have gotten the evil eye, but when I whip out my military ID and start talking about my deployments, suddenly I’m welcome. Its a fucked up thing to have to go through every time. Thankfully, VFW becomes a reaffirmation of camaraderie and brotherhood between different generations who share the same bond and oath of service. That it occurs soaked in gallons of fake blood and body parts just makes it all the better.

ZOMBIEPURA

The New York Asian Film Festival is my favorite film festival of the year. There is always something special that I’ve never quite seen before in each year’s roster. This time around I was treated to the sensational Zombiepura, which is being billed as the first ever big budget zombie movie from Singapore. When a mysterious virus breaks out in an isolated army camp, a lazy soldier and his tough commander must work together to survive, and learn what it means to be real soldiers. Zombiepura perfectly captures the spirit of fun zombie films, having a pitch perfect mix of laugh-out-loudcomedy, genuine horror scares, and some moving moments of sincere tragedy.

Zombiepura is also another great instance of finding the universal in the specific.  You may or may not expect a zombie film from Singapore to resonate with our experiences here, but it turns out that this movie is essentially on the same wavelength as the beloved but short lived TV series Enlisted, about a ragtag group of national guard soldiers and the hard ass NCO sent to whip them into shape. One of my first ever longform features online was my review of the series, and I loved how accurately and honestly it spoke to my experience of being a soldier; not in spite of the comedy but because of it. So it is here in Zombiepura, I was so elated by all the comedy beats based on the doldrums of barracks life and training exercises as a lower enlisted soldier. Military conscription is compulsory in Singapore, and it looks like director Jacen Tan took those experiences to heart with his film. I highly recommend Zombiepura to any zombie fan and anyone looking for a more lighthearted angle of modern military life, which is something I will always advocate for.

JACOB’S LADDER

In perhaps the most surprising turn of events, I felt compelled to talk about Jacob’s Ladder, this year’s remake of the 1990 modern classic. The original Jacob’s Ladder, starring Tim Robbins and directed by Adrian Lyne, is one of the most famous examples of using horror movie imagery to translate the experience of war. The announcement of a remake was met with so much venom, but seeing as how we’ve been at unending war for almost 20 fucking years, I was totally open to a reinterpretation of the theme, especially through the lens of Black soldiers. On the one hand, this new iteration disappoints by most standard measures. On the other hand, I had what I can only describe as a “minor episode” after my viewing, crying uncontrollably from the memories the movie dredged up. Movies are a motherfucker, man.

I don’t think I can argue against the 2019 version of Jacob’s Ladder being “objectively” bad. It has been universally panned by critics and audiences alike. I will say that there is a….”tweak” to the “twist” of the original 1990 film that I felt was actually effective here, but the movie is too bland and basic with cheap jump scares and terrible dialogue to fully capitalize on it. I am a fan of both Michael Ealy and Jesse Williams, but even though they fully commit to the material, the proceedings come off as what I can only describe as “Light-skinned Man Anxiety Energy.” Despite all this, it still hit on something powerful, intentionally or not. I am proud of my service, I feel as though i contributed to and accomplished a great many things. If given the chance, I cant imagine having done anything else. But what if I did? What if…I didnt have to get that dirt on my hands? What if I was a better Human? What if I didn’t take part in some shit that I knew -that I KNEW- I shouldn’t have been doing? Maybe. Perhaps, If I had some kind of chance, I might be able to protect  my soul from this harrowing. Everyday I try to make this right. Everyday I try to make sense of this mess. Everyday I try to make this right. Just to make you believe in me again.


V. Welcome to the Jungle


When I speak of modern warfare, it might conjure images of urban tactical movements or dusty night raids in far off villages.This section will cover films set in jungle locations during recent times, reinforcing the importance of remembeing the full breadth of global conflict and how many nations are still being affected by conflicts that began long ago.

TRIPLE FRONTIER

Netflix has been making big waves as producers of movies recently, grabbing big Hollywood names to work in front of and behind the camera (Martin Scorsese’s latest picture, The Irishman, is the ultimate manifestation of this prowess). This also means that they are becoming one of the primary platforms for the so called “mid-budget film for adults,” as opposed to the four-quadrant superhero blockbusters dominating the market share; Triple Frontier is one such endeavor. The film stars Ben Affleck, Oscar Isaac, Charlie Hunnam, Garrett Hedlund, and Pedro Pascal as a group of former U.S. Army Delta Force soldiers who reunite to plan a heist job of a South American crime lord. From the advertising, I expected a hard hitting action thriller in the vein of Sicario, but Triple Forntier plays out more like a survival drama where sinister motives and the darkness of the human condition take center stage rather than specific political issues.

Like one part Ocean’s Eleven, one part Lord of the Flies, the heist is only half the battle in Triple Frontier. The squad’s escape and journey through the jungle brings out the worst in them, shedding any pretensions of nobility or honor among theives, even if the thieves in question touted as “the best of the best” professional soldiers.

MERCY OF THE JUNGLE

The Mercy of the Jungle is a terrific war film set during the Congo Wars in the aftermath of the Rwandan Genocide. A battle hardened Rwandan Sergeant Xavier (Marc Zinga) and a raw new recruit Private Faustin (Stéphane Bak) get separated from their unit within enemy Congolese territory. The presence of enemy patrols forces them to trek deep into the jungle, attempting to avoid capture as they find their way back home. The overwhelming inhospitable begins to take its toll on the men. Fatigue and sickness set it, but even more terrifying are the ghosts of the dead that begin to to haunt Xavier. 

Americans are taught so little about the causes of strife on the African continent. We are always meant to think of Africa as a cluster of war torn nations without ever pausing to examine the causes of those conflicts in the first place, nor are we conditioned to think about the human cost of this calamity. The Mercy of the Jungle doesn’t dive into the big picture politics of the Second Congo War and the Rwandan genocide. Instead, it asks us to simply see the tragedy through the eyes of two young men forced to live through the deadly situations. The movie also takes time to ask you to consider the civilians at risk, as the soldiers stop to get aide in one segment, but must hide their true identities as Rwandan soldiers for fear of inciting violence within a small village. Although other movies may yet deal with the political landscape surrounding these terrible wars, The Mercy of the Jungle is a great exercise in fostering empathy with people stuck in a dire situation far removed from safety.

MONOS

Monos is simply one of the best films of the year; a powerful milieu of modern warfare, classic interpersonal drama, allusions to political intrigue, and raw primal conflict told through the eyes of child soldiers. Monos takes place in an unnamed Latin American country to show the universality of the plight of children in war torn nations, but it being Colombia’s official entry for this years Oscars means that there are many subtle and overt implications to the decades long conflict between the Colombian government and the FARC Insurgency. Although a peace treaty was signed a few years ago, violence still occurs and many civilians are weary of the reintegration of FARC guerrillas back into society. Some of the advisors and even cast members themselves have first hand knowledge of FARC operations.

With all that in mind, Monos works equally as well as a coming of age story, about a group of teenagers dealing with past traumas and present day anxieties cope through friendship and love. Just the same, it shows the tragedy of how those bonds are broken through jealousy and betrayal. One of the more fascinating story elements involves a white American prisoner being held by the unnamed guerilla faction. Her presence is somewhat pivotal to the plot, but she is never the center of the story, the focus always remains on the young soldiers. Monos handles so many issues expertly while avoiding the temptation to be exploitative. The result is one of the finest films in many years that speak to the younger generation and how they process war.