"We're watching, not fighting."
Partway through Behind Enemy Lines, downed Navy aviator Chris Burnett (Owen Wilson) is desperately scrambling across the rough Bosnian terrain, trying to avoid a passel of folks who want him dead. Filthy after having to hide himself beneath rotting corpses, and exhausted after running for what appears to be miles and miles across the wintry tundra, he catches a ride on a pickup truck carrying a ragtag group of armed rebels. They give him a Coke. Very refreshing.
They also give him some unexpected insight into the culture he’s not so inclined to appreciate, given his current on-the-run situation and all. One of the passengers is a young girl who looks as tough and weary as any of the guys. Another kid is wearing an Ice Cube sweatshirt, and when Chris smiles and nods to suggest that this is a good thing, the kid informs him that he likes all hiphop, East Coast, West Coast, NWA, Public Enemy: all good. Chris nods again, and the film drops the subject.
This is too bad, because the scene on the truck is one of the more intriguing in Behind Enemy Lines. Most obviously, it aspires to a worthy, Three Kings-style self-consciousness concerning the pervasiveness of U.S. popular/commercial culture in even the most destitute and war-torn areas of the world. But it also drops incisive commentary on the stakes and costs of longstanding conflict, something this not-so-talkative kid on the truck knows much about. For Chris, an initially glib and selfish flyboy who learns serious lessons—about morality, loyalty, valor, etc.—through the course of the film, this point is pretty much lost. For viewers, however, the point might be useful as a lens through which to read the film’s alternately loony-tunes and sobering narrative, as well as the timing of its release.
The timing, of course, has actually proven newsworthy, as Hollywood producers and media critics have been showing up on TV entertainment-news programs to opine as to why post-9-11 war movies—from the flag-waving (The Last Castle) to the not so flag-waving (Spy Game)—are attracting audiences (on second thought, perhaps it’s not war movies at all that are working the box office “magic” here, but Robert Redford movies…). Given that the briefly prevailing wisdom following 9-11 was that moviegoers would only want romantic comedies and Tim Allen movies (for example, Collateral Damage was pushed back to 2002), this apparent shift has surprised those who pronounce such wisdom. Indeed, when 20th Century Fox test-screened Behind Enemy Lines, audience response went “through the roof” (there must be a press mandate on this phrase, because I’ve heard it used numerous times in relation to this film). And so, the decision was swiftly made, to open it early, not spring 2002, but, this very week.
The logic turnaround here would be remarkable if you hadn’t been expecting it all along: there was no way that blockbuster action pictures were going to be driven from the face of this planet. No sir. You can almost hear the collective sigh of relief wafting from Hollywood’s offices: Thank goodness, the New New Normal is taking hold at last: no more tenuous, teary sensitivity over showing explosions, corpses, or planes. American consumers need to get on with the slam-bang business of (mediated) life.
Mediation is the key concept here. When Chris early on complains that he’s tired of running routine recon missions, of being a “cop walking a beat nobody cares about,” his primary beef is that “We’re watching, not fighting.” Chris, nostalgic for times he never knew, laments to his buddies that he’ll never have a chance to “punch a Nazi in Normandy.” Now, it’s all about looking at screens and flipping switches. He learns that he needs to be careful what he wishes for, and that engaging an enemy is really scary and awful. Still, the movie insists, with a patriotic fervor that even John Wayne movies used to challenge (remember the Sarge’s pain in The Sands of Iwo Jima?), that this experience makes Chris a man, in a way that just “watching” emphatically cannot.
This becoming-a-man-through-unspeakable-trauma is a profoundly disturbing premise, certainly, but it is a common one (for all his various insanities, Oliver Stone has consistently made the point that war does not make you a “better person,” and is not a preferred mode of maturation). Also typical is the case that Chris isn’t quite making (because his concerns are more personal), that U.S. isolationism is short-sighted policy. Chris’s concern appears to be more mundane still: his principal goal is to engage (or more plainly, punch) an enemy. And the film’s, presumably, is to show how wrong he is about what that will mean.
The problem (or the genius, depending on your point of view) is, Behind Enemy Lines also makes this trauma really cool to watch. Its thrills are so supercharged and grandly stylistic that it makes it a little too easy to forget that all those enormously entertaining visuals have a horrible story attached to them: characters (not people, granted) are dying, after all. But this is all too recognizable ground for many folks in the U.S.: America At War, the War Against Terror, and The Search For Bin Laden are TV shows, on all the time and often alarming, yet still distant. The immediate threat of 9-11 has been replaced—for the moment—with the familiar sense of distance permitted (and encouraged) by such watching. Behind Enemy Lines is excruciatingly jingoistic in its creation of such invigorating distance.
There is no shortage of “watchers” in the film itself. Chris initially gets in trouble while on a recon mission with his pilot, a pleasant enough stock character named Stackhouse (Gabriel Macht), when they inadvertently take pictures of mass graves. Spotted by a Serbian paramilitary group that is commanded by the sinister Lokar (Olek Krupa), the Chris and Stackhouse are soon trying to outrun a pair of SAMs (surface-to-air missiles), in the film’s most exhilarating scene: the out-top-gunning-Top Gun effects are breathtaking, with the F-18 zooming and zipping through the sky, and the camera swish-panning and smash-cutting like there’s no tomorrow.
When the flyboys eject from their exploded jet, the Serbs take after them, with tanks. To ensure the mano-a-mano showdown the movie demands, Stackhouse is soon out of the picture, and Chris is being chased by a vicious tracker/sniper guy named Sasha (Vladimr Mashkov). Chris checks in periodically with his reluctant mentor, Admiral Reigart (Gene Hackman, who makes this clichi of a character more complex than he has any right to be), who in turn keeps track of “our boy” with some fancy thermal-detecting satellite technology (not unlike the they-can-fin-you-anywhere gimmickry in Enemy of the State or, jeesh, Bait). When using this technology, Reigart and his team feel frustrated: it’s like they’re watching, not fighting. Get it?
On the ground, meanwhile Chris is struggling with his guilt (not only has he been generally inconsiderate and arrogant, but he feels bad about the Goose’s, I mean, Stackhouse’s, death). At the same time, Reigart has his own moral battles to slug out. In particular, he has to decide whether he’s the Navy to obey orders or to do the right thing, a tension instigated when the current NATO commander, Admiral Piquet (Joaquim de Almeida), says that the kid has to be sacrificed to keep the “peace talks” on track. (And isn’t that always the way, that some “peace talks” are gumming up the rescue mission? See, for example, oh, Spy Game.) Even when Reigart pulls a Redford, going to the press to release news of the downed U.S. navigator, Piquet stalls, sending out a French rescue team (who can’t get the job done, being called back, under suspicious circumstances). So yes, if you want something done right, you (assuming you’re the U.S. military) need to go on and do your own self. Reigart risks his command by disobeying orders and going after Chris, with a few loyal Navy guys (including David Keith, who looks frighteningly like he did in An Officer and a Gentleman) and one valiant Marine (Charles Malik Whitfield), who manages a mighty studly stunt in the last seconds of the film.
All the while the guys on the ship are angling for the moment when they can actually get the mission underway (this would be, the dull part), Chris is dodging bullets and claymore mines explosions (this would be the video-gamey part). The action is considerably amplified by incredible camera tricks: those speedy zooms in and out, freeze frames, all shook up shutter speeds, and exciting-to-the-max editing. No surprise, director John Moore and cinematographer Brendan Galvin worked on Adidas and SEGA commercials before this, Moore’s first feature. With all this amazing technique to make him look good, Chris is essentially a videogame character, a cocky and sympathetic one, too. This is one reason why audiences respond to his adventures so viscerally: it’s like you’re playing some huge-screen game. That, and… Rambo was never so agile, pretty, or so lucky as this kid.