Navy SEAL Lieutenant A.K. Waters (Bruce Willis) doesn’t talk much. He’s one of those durable military types who tend to show up in U.S. war movies, duty-bound, descended from John Wayne. Or better, descended from a pervasive idea of John Wayne, the one where he’s uncomplicated and grandly heroic (which, in fact, he hardly ever was). Waters believes he is unmovable, able to handle whatever comes his way. And, at least at first, he appears to be right.
Waters initially appears in Antoine Fuqua’s Tears of the Sun returning from an especially tough mission. You can tell this because, as he strides across the deck of the USS Harry S. Truman (“somewhere off the coast of Africa”), he looks the slightest bit weary in his super-uprightness. Striding beside him, his loyal and rugged men — Red (Cole Hauser), Zee (Eamonn Walker), and Lake (Johnny Messner) among them — look equally square-jawed, primed, and begrimed from their time in the field. And then they get the order they most fear and desire: Captain Rhodes (Tom Skerritt) sends them on another perilous mission, of some utmost importance.
Their “priority task” is the extraction of U.S. citizen/French-born Doctors Without Walls physician Lena Hendricks (Monica Bellucci). It seems that, in a fictional echo of the Biafran-Nigerian civil war, her patch of Nigerian jungle has recently turned particularly dangerous, as the introductory voiceover has already told you. Muslim rebels have assassinated the President and his family, and are now rampaging through the country, killing all Christians they can find. The Muslim rebels are indeed horrific — as quick to take a machete to a priest’s neck as to burn down the “house of god” he begs them to respect. Their eyes are hard; they wear red berets and green uniforms; they hiss when they speak. And they’re led by the ominous Colonel Idris Sadick (played by poet-activist turned actor Malick Bowens), a brutal, taciturn terminator.
Lena can’t know that all this is headed her way. Waters, the green-face-painted soldier who would also be a terminator, informs her. When he first sees her, she’s angelic, in mid-operation, covered in blood, her staunch assistant, Patience (Akosua Busia), close by her side. Told she has to go, she refuses; she won’t leave, she says, without “my people,” that is, the Nigerians she’s tending. Waters is momentarily stumped by stubbornness. But, ever determined and on task, he figures out a way to get his job done: he lies. That is, he agrees to move her people with her. They traipse through the jungle with his men on guard, to the LZ. Only then does she realize that there aren’t enough helicopters to take all the refugees. And only then does Waters’ inured capacity for cruelty become crystal: he hoists her on his shoulder, deposits her in the waiting bird, and they take off. Below them, wailing men, women, and children.
Spectacular and heartbreaking, this chopper shot is all too familiar in recent U.S. war films. (And, for that matter, in recent U.S. urban movies.) Hovering, roaring, the whirly-monster grants a poignant bird’s eye view of panic: the Nigerians know exactly what’s headed their way. And the view belongs to the interlopers, the SEALS and the doctor, those who leave, who can leave. Their dramatic departure makes their perspective small (or maybe vast): the refugees recede, the blades’ thrumming overwhelms. Lena shoots Waters a horrified look. Scrunch-faced, suddenly, he’s conflicted.
This sort of moment, as Tears of the Sun tells it, is the repeated tragedy of “surgical” U.S. interventions: swooping in, swooping out, never understanding the lives they’ve disrupted and deaths they’ve brought on. Heroic as they may see themselves, U.S. troops tend to look different to those communities they circle, observe, penetrate, and leave. Waters can’t think about doing the right thing (as if there is one right thing to be done). He has orders. He has somewhere else to be.
Of course, this isn’t quite the end: the story takes turns, illuminating rising tensions between understanding and rigidity, sympathy and stoicism. During a long hump through the jungle, Lena is almost waylaid by a rebel at night. She’s saved by Waters, who slides in like the stealth killer he is, slices the would-be way-layer’s throat, then wipes the blood off his knife. Cold, he repulses but also moves Lena: he’s saved her life after all. But he’s frightening, adept at maintaining pain (but it’s not a tumah!). Lena’s passion proves instructive, and soon, Waters is making decisions in the field that controvert his military orders. Back on the ship, the captain yells into his phone, mad like he’s Perry White slamming Waters’ Clark Kent.
Alex Lasker and Patrick Cirillo’s script has Waters going through his own unlikely fast change, turning all moral and empathetic after spending a few days with Lena and “her people.” He goes so far as to engage his men despite their strict “rules of engagement” edict — no shooting unless you’re shot at. One of the film’s most distressing sequences occurs when Waters and crew discover a band of revels raping, torturing, and slaughtering a village full of people. The SEALs take out target after target (as each target is assailing a helpless victim). They perform expertly, viciously, and righteously. Their violence is justified by the violence of the barbarians (who, Patience says, cut off nursing mothers’ breasts so they cannot feed their children). Surely, killing these fiends is morally sound.
Still, and to its credit, the film’s action here is somber rather than thrilling; you can root for the SEALs, but the toll on them is visible. Waters’ decision to go off-mission (“We have a new mission”) dooms him and his men to a no-return of complete engagement: they must follow through, they can’t extract and leave. But while they might wonder about his motives (“What are you doing!?”), they mostly go along because they are loyal soldiers, and earnestly want to do good work.
When he finally asks for their feelings on the matter, the surviving black team member holds out the longest in granting his approval. But then he takes his LT aside and reassures him: “These are my people too. For all those years we’ve had to stand down or stand by, you’re doing the right thing.” And for all the violence and frustration in the movie, this moment — the grave and reluctant Zee’s full-on engagement with the cause Waters has redefined — is what Waters (and the film, apparently) has been waiting for. How odd (and familiar) is this scenario? The white guy will save the grateful, black oppressed, when he finally “gets it.” Thank god. Tears of the Sun was conceived before 9-11 (its original title, Man of War, was changed following the attacks), but here and now, it’s morphed into Black Hawk Down without the skeeddaddly camerawork and with a bizarrely “happier” ending, following elaborate and rousing action: explosions, firefights, rushing about. Given the current moment, this moral lesson (do something for real people, rather than follow orders that have no sense of the world they’re affecting) reads like an endorsement of “preemptive” striking… especially if you’re willing to hump through the jungles to Cameroon and leave out collateral-damaging bombs.