You’ve heard, of course, that war is hell. It’s likely you’ve also heard that “war has its bright side as well,” but in The Hunting Party, Duck (Terrence Howard) speaks with the sort of authority that comes with experience, as if he’s telling you something you don’t know. “Being that close to death,” he says, “being that alive, it’s addictive.”
To illustrate, the movie opens on a war zone in urban Somalia: amid explosions and small arms fire, Duck, a cameraman, scampers with his TV reporter partner, Simon Hunt (Richard Gere). Jaws set, faces weary, they pause for a smoke, leaned up against a broken-looking wall that might have been borrowed from any Hollywood “war zone” set. Simon asks Duck if he’s brought along some drugs (“I wish I had a fucking Quaalude!”), then prods him to get out there and get some footage. “Simon gave me balls I didn’t know I had,” says Duck in his voiceover. Again, not exactly a newsflash.
Based on a 2000 Esquire magazine article by Scott Anderson, Richard Shepard’s film is premised on this familiar notion, that war correspondents are both courageous and mad, seekers of truth who sometimes get twisted by the utter absurdity of their workdays, watching carnage and cruelty, exposing ugliness, occasionally finding remarkable heroism and selflessness. As they get off on the excitement, the risk of injury and death, they also seek truth. The sidetracking — the lapses into corruption, black humor, and sarcasm — all this is to be expected when your life is on the line so incessantly.
As Duck tells it, when Simon suffers a “fucking meltdown” on camera, he has good reason. Speaking by remote to his slick Stateside anchor Franklin (James Brolin), Simon reveals not only that he’s drunk, but also that Franklin — and by extension, anyone who hasn’t “been there” — can’t comprehend the complexities of the shifting sides and compound horrors reporters observe daily. Simon is fired, Duck gets a promotion (a safe gig, in charge of Franklin’s studio set) and “gets soft,” picking up awards, bedding lovely blonds, doing his best not to feel guilty over his old friend’s collapse, and missing “the adrenaline and nonstop erection that comes from fear and war.”
When Duck is sent to Bosnia a decade after the war there, the moment is ripe for redemption. In order that a youngster might also learn a life lesson to boot, Duck brings along his network VP’s son, Benjamin (Jesse Eisenberg). During a standard war journalists’ reunion in a bar, the vehicle for redemption is established, namely, the Fox (Ljubomir Kerekes), “the most wanted war criminal in Bosnia.” The story of the Fox makes obvious allusions both to actual Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and Osama Bin Laden, indicting international wheelers and dealers who profit from such a man’s evasion of “justice,” as well as the world leaders who benefit from his fearsome legend. The reporters all laugh and drink into wee hours, drunken Benji stumbles to his bed, and then, right on cue, Simon shows up in Duck’s hotel room with the story they both need: he can get an interview with the Fox.
The threesome’s journey into darkness in pursuit of the Fox — guarded by a veritable army, including a psycho-killer who prefers to use an axe — is pretty much what you’d expect. Mysterious locals offer warnings (“The woods know when there’s blood in the air”), ill-equipped cops avoid engagements, and U.N. monitors declare their inability to do anything, according to their gunless mandate (“We’re here to reform the police force, not hunt for war criminals”). That the film overkills its characterizations (the cops eat Dunkin Donuts, the monitors mistake the journalists for a CIA “hit squad”) is less blackly comedic than clunky. This because the joke is familiar, so you’re always a step or two ahead of the punch line.
At last the intrepid trio meets a supposedly sinister contact (“She might seem young and beautiful to you,” advises their skulky liaison, “But she would cut your balls off!”). Though Mirjana (Diane Kruger) wears perfect makeup and is lit like Marlene Dietrich, she’s apparently very hardcore. And yet, despite her initial mistrust of the men’s naïveté (“You don’t know shit until you’ve been gang raped for seven hours”), she soon gives up her info on the Fox’s whereabouts, maybe because she thinks they’ll assassinate him, maybe because she’d just as soon see them murdered instead.
Though The Hunting Party begins with a snarky caution against believing what you see — “Only the most ridiculous parts of this story are true” — by this time, you’re feeling the weight of its constant self-congratulation and worse, its distrust of viewers to keep up without prodding at every turn. While it might be argued that the sentimentalizing of Simon’s original breakdown (having to do with a lost romance, in brutal fashion) makes a case for his core morality, the effect is to cheapen his investment in what he’s calling “truth.” The story of the Fox is personal for Simon, and so the film loses sight of the context it would seem to care so much about — the Fox’s victims, the Bosnian Muslims and Croats who were raped, tortured, dismembered, and killed.
The satire here would seem to be aimed at the relentless failure of authorities to do their jobs. Simon points out the obvious, that his crew’s ability to find the Fox in a mere three days suggests that in fact those authorities aren’t doing their very best to locate, try, or punish him. Emotionally ravaged, Simon finds his own reasons for the work he does (summed up in his too-quotable admonishment to Ben, “Putting your life in danger is actual living, the rest is television”), but still, he’s positioned as the champion, his quest made noble because the world around him is so corrupt.
It’s telling that the figure who hovers in the film’s background is Chuck Norris. Raised as a jokey specter when the gonzo journalists first tell the story of the Fox (“Every bounty hunter from here to Chuck Norris looking for him”), his super-stanch Col. James Braddock is resurrected on occasional TV screens, literally emerging from a baptismal river with weapon blazing. Norris found lost souls and achieved justice again and again, the Missing in Action franchise the spawn of Rambo’s desperate need for vengeance and The A-Team‘s absurd bravado.
The lunacy of such plots and heroes surely needs satirizing, especially as it continues to inform political and military endeavors. Anderson’s article notes right off the silliness of self-aggrandizing moral assessments, as he meets with a U.S. lieutenant colonel who claims to work for “the Light Side.” Yes, we know that light and dark are direly interrelated, that such self-naming is less a matter of true believing, mostly convenient and cynical. Still, The Hunting Party plays smug, ensuring that it misses a range of deserving targets, while picking off the easy ones.