Puke green bile, dark blood, convulsing pink. tissue. A close-up shot following a bullet’s path into and through internal organs is a frankly terrible image. In most war movies, bullets do tend to fly. But you only see their external effects: blood spurts, faces contort, handheld cameras zig and zag, explosions-effects create aestheticized, often slo-mo, chaos. In David O. Russell’s Three Kings, however, you see the insides: the bullet rushes forward, stops, lodging in mangled, throbbing flesh while fluids accumulate. It’s visceral and immediate. It’s surreal and nasty.
This is not your typical war movie. Set at the end of the Gulf War, March 1991, 3 Kings takes an unusual step for a Hollywood flick: it critiques U.S. policy outright: it makes the well-known observation that the war wasn’t about freeing Kuwait, but about oil, and it also argues that the Bush Administration abandoned the Iraqi dissidents that it had promised to protect, if only they stood up against Saddam. It shows you the results of this post-war betrayal, graphically: while Saddam’s men torture and kill the rebels, U.S. troops are ordered to look the other way.
But the movie invites you to look exactly at the damage done. It shows abuses and murders, and U.S. soldiers who are bored and confused. They’re used to waiting, for orders, action, something to do. Now the waiting seems to be over: the war has been “won” by smart bombs and video-game-like technologies. With their “mission” deemed accomplished, the soldiers might wonder what the hell they’re doing here. They’re regular people in an extraordinary situation, not particularly honorable or motivated, they weren’t saving anyone’s son. Mostly working class and undereducated, they’re suddenly touted as heroes. But they’re also about to return to a mundane stateside reality, where, after the parades, they’ll be selling cars or working in supermarkets.
The first scene takes place in the Iraqi desert, where an Army squad is caught by the good news, mid-patrol. Traipsing over the hard, dry terrain is Sergeant Troy Barlow (Marky Mark Wahlberg), on patrol with his buddy Private Conrad Vig (Spike Jonze, until now best known as the director who made the legendarily clever videos for the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage” and Weezer’s “Buddy Holly”). They spot an Iraqi soldier in the distance: he seems to be waving a white flag and carrying a gun. Troy yells out, “Are we shooting people or what?” No one seems to know. Boom! Troy shoots anyway. The Iraqi’s head explodes. “Congratulations, my man,” his buddy exults. “You shot yourself a rag-head!” The guys run up to get a picture, and Troy is captured in the snapshot, horrified by the leaking blood and exposed brains, forever grimacing.
These first few minutes are irreverent and compelling, reminiscent of Kubrick’s relentlessly brutal Paths of Glory or Full Metal Jacket. At its best which is often the film insists on the absurdity and awfulness of the war, the U.S. racism that drives it, the U.S. sense of imperialism that allows it. Throughout, various film and videostocks, fast cuts, jumpy angles, and bizarre images convey the absolute mayhem confronting the soldiers. They’re afraid but unable to show it, angry but desperate to believe they’ve done a good thing.
Back at the base, they celebrate the supposed victory. They party like madmen, waving their weapons, dancing on tanks and tables, fucking anyone they can. The camera freezes each protagonist in mid-antic, and he’s named and defined in a phrase: Troy is “a new father,” Conrad never finished high school and “wants to be Troy Barlow,” Chief Elgin (Ice Cube) is an airport baggage handler, “on a four month paid vacation from Detroit,” and Green Beret Captain Archie Gates (George Clooney), who has until now made the Army his career, is scheduled to retire in two weeks.
The plot kicks in when these guys find a map (tellingly, in an enemy soldier’s—-) that shows the way to a stash of gold bullion that Saddam has stolen from Kuwait. Determined to leave the Gulf with something to show for their troubles, they “borrow” a Humvee and head off down the road to the village on the map. At their destination, however, the four run into a little snag, morality-wise: they see Royal Guard soldiers mutilating and slaughtering Iraqi rebels (including children). Distracted by these life-and-death matters, they all ignore the U.S. soldiers who are walking off with suitcases full of gold.
At first, this seems cool: how easy it is to plunder! But the dilemma is unavoidable (it is a movie, after all). Archie sees it first. He and his men are about to be rich beyond their wildest dreams. But here are people being killed. Pausing before he gets in the Humvee, Archie considers their situation: he’s admonished his men to not get involved or fire their weapons (it’s his description of bullet damage that inspires the earlier bile imagery), but now he’s wondering whether they should help the refugees, even save their lives. The Guard shoots a woman in the head: she falls, her daughter wails. The decision is made. Archie aims his gun at one of the bad guys. Someone shoots someone else. Bullets fly. Bodies crumple. And once again you’re looking at that yucky bile-and-tissue business, ER or the Operation Channel with a beat.
This moment marks a shift in priorities and perceptions, a choice made. As reluctant and distrustful as they may be, these guys will become heroes. When the smoke clears, they hurry the refugees into vehicles and speed off down the road. But the dilemma remains more complicated than even this burst of action implies. The line between the bad guys (the Royal Guard) and the good guys (U.S. liberators) is blurry. It’s a tricky business, war. Earlier, Chief has argued that Conrad can’t call the enemy “sand nigger,” but “towel-head” is okay. It’s a dreadful line to draw, for Chief, but he understands: the war can’t run without racism (the kids can’t kill people unless they see them as less than people), but the specific parameters are always shifting. Here, the rebel woman’s murder has obliterated their previous reality. Now they have to come up with a new one.
One of the most upsetting and incisive instances of this new reality comes when Troy is captured by the Guard and tortured by a young captain, Said (Said Taghmaoui, whom you may remember as a character named Said in Mathieu Kassovoitz’s La Haine). Said attaches electrodes to Troy’s head, then begins his interrogation by asking, “What is the problem with Michael Jackson?” Troy doesn’t get it: he offers the standard U.S. answer, that the King of Pop is crazy, an individual with problems. But Said knows better: “He’s Pop King of sick fucking country,” he says, a country that “makes the black man hate himself.” Troy is bewildered, he doesn’t know what to say. Said’s men throw the switch and Troy spasms. His face goes red and dark, his teeth grind, his veins pop out. It’s harrowing. Even Said winces.
Again, with feeling, the line between right and wrong is obscured. Said has lost a child to U.S. bombs. Troy imagines his young wife and newborn child being ripped apart by a bomb. The advanced technologies of this war suddenly seem useless. U.S. capitalism, however, has affected Iraqis in a way that the Americans could not have imagined: the bunker where Troy is tortured is piled high with cell phones, designer jeans, rolex watches, exercise bikes, and tvs (replaying the Rodney King beating over and over, just like back in the States). This massive array of goods makes clear that whatever ideological war might be waged by the Bush Administration (and others before and after), the reality is that opponents of the U.S. take what they can use, and fuck the rest.
And yet, the regular plot proceeds apace: Archie, Chief, and Conrad (now working with the refugees, in exchange for a promised escort to the Iranian border) come up with a plan to rescue their man. The movie has to conclude somehow, it has to extricate itself from its messy dilemma, re-establish your sympathies for the protagonists through heroic feats and requisite tragedies. It imagines that motivated individuals can overcome practical but inane policies and that the press selfless and brave can have an effect on military outcomes. Until it offers this uplifting resolution, 3 Kings is conflicted and harsh. This makes it a remarkable thing, a war movie that’s both exhilarating and hard to watch, a movie that might make you reconsider what you think you know.