More War Stories: Best of 2005

Cynthia Fuchs

It's not like violence is a new theme in movies. And yet, even acknowledging that cinema was conceived as a venue for the display of violence -- comic, dramatic, horrific, pornographic -- 2005's permutations provide notably acute commentary on the world beyond movies.

PopMatters Film & TV Editor

It's not like violence is a new theme in movies. And yet, even acknowledging that cinema was conceived as a venue for the display of violence -- comic, dramatic, horrific, pornographic -- 2005's permutations provide notably acute commentary on the world beyond movies. It's not just that violence is terrifying or bad, though that much is made clear in Munich's alternately brooding and sensational breakdown of the costs of counterterrorism. It's also that violence is pervasive, woven into the fabric of everyday life, indicated when young Emma Biegacki, in Marilyn Agrelo's excellent Mad Hot Ballroom, tells her interviewer that "11-year-olds are targets for kidnappers." This in a wonderful documentary focused on New York City kids learning how to rumba.

While it's easy and not especially helpful to point out the disorder that violence -- or more emphatically, war -- delivers, the year's best films took up the subject by trying to make sense of it, probing roots, deciphering rationales, dismantling socio-political contexts. Efforts to make sense of it in 2005 ranged from nostalgia for good war-making (The Great Raid, North Country) and protests against bigotry (Brokeback Mountain, Dear Wendy) to uneasy commemorations of street thuggery (Sequestro Express, Green Street Hooligans, Get Rich or Die Tryin') and lamentations for lost innocence (Oliver Twist, The New World). Not to mention those pictures that celebrate the comedic joys of crotch kicks (Kicking & Screaming, Wedding Crashers) and bloody body parts (The Devil's Rejects, High Tension, Wolf Creek).

But if these generic exercises tend to repeat what you already know about violence -- it tells a story, it shapes character, it provides release -- other films in 2005 take apart such conventions to posit alternative ways of reading. Perhaps the most obvious instance of this process is David Cronenberg's brilliant A History of Violence. Based on a graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke, the film examines the slippage between myth and realism, as predominant modes of representing violence. As the good father Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) is revealed to be a killer in his former life, the film is less interested in his spectacular lethal skills (though these are surely on display as he takes out mobster Ed Harris' thugs) than in his small-town family's responses. How to accept a gentle husband exposed as brutal, a loving father turned suddenly, chillingly ferocious?

As the movie makes Tom a model for the violent legacy that grounds U.S. self-imagery, it ponders both the fear and respect such hard-bodied deadly force inspires. Sam Mendes' Jarhead takes up such questions from another angle. Based on Anthony Swofford's memoir of the Gulf War, the film is simultaneously abstract and visceral, following Marine Jake Gyllenhaal's non-combat experience, dashed expectations, and confrontations with unspeakable, technologically enhanced violence. It takes seriously Swofford's and screenplay adapter William Broyles' critique of the military as institution, as a means to indoctrinate warriors so that the business of war might continue indefinitely, even as battle becomes a matter of pushing buttons and targeting long distance.

War stories may be best understood as they become myths, but they are never so difficult as when they appear real, as in several documentaries released in 2005. Both Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein's Gunner Palace to Garrett Scott and Ian Olds' Occupation Dreamland took up the task that most news media left undone, reporting from the front, allowing troops to speak, noting the day to day burdens imposed on those tasked with fighting on U.S.-ordained battlegrounds. How astounding and disheartening that these stories were so similar, in regret and tone if not in detail, to those stories recounted by Vietnam War veterans in Winter Soldier, the 1971 documentary only released to theaters in 2005. War, again and again, brings heartache, to its victors and its victims, no matter the fictions spun to make war seem a worthy effort.

The connections between state-sanctioned violence and national/tribal mythologies is also at the heart of Apichatpong Weerasethakul's gorgeous, utterly inventive Tropical Malady. As a young soldier becomes involved with a "country boy" in the Thai forests, the film posits simultaneous connections and distinctions between fantasy and reality, romance and violence. Essentially arranged into two "halves" (a love story and a folk tale), the film uses traditional imagery and lyrical rhythms to link emotional, spiritual, and fabulous experiences, as these create identities and dreams, elegiac and celebratory.

Another sort of nostalgia is evoked by George Clooney's Good Night, And Good Luck. The film, shot in striking black and white, focuses precisely on the showdown between Edward R. Murrow (David Strathairn) and Joseph McCarthy (occurring from 1953-54), underscoring the point that McCarthy was symptomatic, not exceptional and not especially deviant. With examples ranging from McCarthy target Annie Lee Moss to Murrow's secretly married coworkers at CBS, the film points out ongoing, official oppressions of marginalized individuals and communities. If Murrow's defiance of the bully McCarthy is sensational and rousing, the quieter resistance of these supporting characters (Moss appears as herself, in footage from the HUAC hearings) exposes the ominous extent of the problem.

Stephen Gaghan's expansive Syriana makes this extent more overt, in its sprawling interrogation of official forms of violence and intimidation, indicting the CIA, oil companies, legal firms, and all levels of governments in cahoots to preserve power and wealth. While the film boasts terrific performances across the board -- by Clooney as an aging CIA agent, as well as Alexander Siddig, Jeffrey Wright, Matt Damon, Amanda Peet, Chris Cooper, and Mazhar Munir, among others -- its particular effectiveness has to do exactly with its furious sprawl, its charges against the intricate, enduring, entrenched systems of violence against individuals and resources.

Gaghan's aesthetic here is handheld and scratchy, drawing from the claims to "truth" typically associated with documentary. Ironically, perhaps, the year's exceptional documentaries challenge such generic connotations of veracity. Darwin's Nightmare (Hubert Sauper's unforgettable documentary on "globalization" by way of the decimation of Tanzania's ecosystem by the Nile perch in Lake Victoria) focus on the subjectivity of truth and the interconnections among eco- and political systems, converging in devastation and war, always driven by profit. Even if these films argue against single answers, they insist on the moral imperative of the search for elucidation and solution.

In this context, Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man may be the year's most remarkable inquiry into the ways cultures -- "civilized" and "natural" -- are premised on violence. Culled together from the footage shot by self-documenter Timothy Treadwell, the film becomes part tragedy, part argument, and part analysis of the shifting, difficult relationship between "man" and "nature." Tracing Treadwell's efforts to protect and bond with Alaskan grizzly bears, and his and girlfriend Amie Huguenard's mauling death by a bear in 2003, the movie (especially in the form of Herzog's ongoing voiceover) looks at the disturbing intersections of ambition and trepidation as uncertain means to shape and contain violence.

Violence seems almost uncontained in Chan-wook Park's Oldboy (a 2003 film released in the States this year). Reviled or extolled as a conjurer of extreme cinematic violence, Park here makes explicit the complete devastation produced by violence, even the sort inspired by the vengeance plot that is typically revered in movies. Sustained by Min-sik Choi's extraordinary performance as the driven victim-monster Dae-su Oh, the movie offers grand martial arts set pieces and ghastly assaults, never letting viewers feel the usual action movie's emotional catharsis or visceral thrills. This is film violence with costs at every turn.

These costs are not always plainly embodied or even explicitly bloody, as demonstrated in the year's least conventional, most evocative and impressionistic fiction features, all premised on limited points of view. Gus Van Sant's Last Days offers a delicately poetic, overwhelmingly visual guess at what went on during Kurt Cobain's (played by Michael Pitt) final moments on earth, ending, of course, in his suicide by shotgun. Hirokazu Koreeda's Nobody Knows exposes the effects of adults' ignorance and abandonment on young children, taking the kids' point of view as they struggle to exist on their own.

And Michael Haneke's Caché is the year's most haunting dissertation on cultural violence and ongoing war stories. Here the occasion is comprised of French-Algerian history, embodied by a television book show host (Daniel Auteuil), troubled by mysterious videotapes documenting his daily activities and unable at last to forgive his own abuses of a childhood friend. It's a stunning, unresolved revelation.

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