Department of Theatre and Film
Balancing Threat and Power: Re-evaluating Three Kings as National Security Cinema
In fall 2004, a year and a half after the United States’s March 2003 invasion of Iraq and the beginning of the military conflict that would come to be known as the Iraq War or the Second Gulf War, some people were looking to a cultural artifact in hopes that it could help foster resistance to the war and help defeat incumbent President George W. Bush in the upcoming November election. The artifact in question was David O. Russell’s Three Kings, a 1999 film about four American soldiers (played by George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Ice Cube, and Spike Jonze) who, in the days following the end of the first Iraq War, attempt to steal millions of dollars in gold initially seized by Iraqi soldiers during their invasion of Kuwait. One of the people imbuing this ostensibly antiwar film with the power to sway public opinion was Russell, the film’s writer and director who, before directing Three Kings, his 75 million dollar budgeted debut with a major distributor, had made a splash with his first film, Spanking the Monkey (1994), a low-budget, dark comedy about incest for then-mini-major New Line, and whose follow-up, Flirting with Disaster (1996), was a more light-hearted, but still twisted paternity comedy for Indiewood stalwart Miramax.
Reportedly, Russell approached Warner Bros., the film’s original distributor, to suggest a theatrical release and a “fifth anniversary edition” DVD of the film, with both releases accompanied by a documentary by Russell, Tricia Regan, and Juan Carlos Zaldívar about the war in Iraq entitled Soldiers Pay (Mottram 273). However, after Russell allegedly pushed to get the movies into theaters and on DVD before the election, Warner Bros. got nervous, and the “studio’s lawyers argued that the Federal Election Committee might [deem the releases] ‘soft-money’ – in other words, unofficial support for a candidate outside of the ‘hard money’ each party is allowed to receive” (Mottram 274). In light of this controversy, Warner Bros. cancelled their release plans for the film and the documentary.
Warner Bros.’s decision caused howls of indignation from some more “liberal” members of the entertainment community. For instance, Tom Hall, blogger for the respected filmmaking website indieWIRE, posted an angry missive about Warner Bros.’s treatment of Three King’s re-releases on 29 October 2004. In his post entitled “Democracy: Inaction,” Hall rushes to the defense of Three Kings and praises it as a “subversive action comedy . . . one of the best films of the 1990’s [sic] . . . a smart and entertaining critique of the American mission in the Middle East” (Hall). Emphasizing its significance to the pre-election moment, Hall continues, “The film is as resonant to American policies in the current Iraq War as it was to the original Gulf War” (Hall).
Hall was not alone in his high opinion of the film. Peter Biskind, in Down and Dirty Pictures, his overview of American independent-film-gone-Hollywood in the 1990s, also expresses his admiration for Three Kings and champions Russell as “the most successful [of the ‘indie’ directors who eventually worked with the Hollywood studios] in pushing a personal, even subversive vision through the studio Cuisinart” (419). Similarly, Sharon Waxman, in her gossipy Rebels on the Backlot, heralds Russell as representing “the best of the young generation [of Hollywood directors] that had emerged in the late 1990s” for helming films like Three Kings. Perhaps the most sweeping praise for Three Kings comes from James Mottram who proclaims that the film depicts “how politics, big business, and the media have negatively affected contemporary society” (257).
Praise for Russell’s Three Kings does not stop with popular critics like Biskind, Waxman, and Mottram, for the film is also admired in academic circles. Russell was not the only person returning to his film in late 2004 in hopes that it would offer a new perspective on the present; in a short piece for the Winter 2004 issue of Cinema Journal, B. Ruby Rich mentions Russell’s film as she calls for “a reexamination of films that represent, counter, or analyze earlier moments of national trauma or historical redefinition” in a post-9/11 context (111). In this regard, Rich argues: “Three Kings commands our attention for the successful way it launches a savage analysis of the first Gulf War, using the methods of the action genre and music video as countercritque” (111). Here, Rich seems to be responding to Russell’s “MTV aesthetic” that included shooting much of the film on Ekachrome to give the images a gritty, washed-out look similar to photographs taken with an Instamatic camera (Waxman 233). Rich’s assessment of the film as countercritque also seems to reflect the fact that it sometimes portrays American soldiers in a less-than-heroic manner. For instance, an early sequence in the film depicts juvenile US soldiers celebrating the “victory” in Iraq by dancing, drinking, getting into water fights (while Iraqis around them are starving and have no access to water), singing “God Bless the USA,” and bragging to television reporters about how they “liberated Kuwait.”
Indeed, Three Kings appears subversive when considered using frameworks established within academia for the study of the war film genre. In an overview of the World War II combat film, Kathryn Kane explains that war films feature a set of “primary dualities” such as “War and Peace, Civilization and Savagery” (87). According to Kane, these primary dualities break down into other dualities that “provide much of the narrative tension” in the combat film (87). These include “honor vs. brutality, duty vs. self-interest, cooperation vs. individual heroism, sacrifice for others vs. personal pain” (87). Kane explains that when war films depict these dualities as “not so black and white, nor so clearly separated into good and evil columns” (87), they are generally referred to as “antiwar films” (87). The assumption is that by breaking down these dualities, the films are protesting the act of war.
Given that assumption, it is not difficult to see why critics, both popular and academic, may be tempted to praise Three Kings as a subversive, antiwar film, for the film is, in some regards, irreverent and demolishes many of the dualities noted by Kane. For instance, honor and brutality are irrevocably blurred in the film’s opening scene. The film begins with a card that reads: “March 1991. The war just ended.” This card is followed by a scene in which Sergeant Troy Barlow (Mark Wahlberg) encounters an Iraqi soldier in the desert. After spying the soldier in this distance, Barlow asks his fellow soldiers, “Are we shooting people or what?” Yet, Barlow’s comrades are more concerned with finding a stick of chewing gum and getting sand out of their eyes. This changes, however, when Barlow informs them that the soldier has a weapon. But Barlow neglects to notice, as he draws a bead on the Iraqi, that the soldier is also waving a flag of surrender. Barlow shoots the soldier in the neck, and as he and his fellow soldiers run toward the body for a closer look, the Iraqi soldier chokes and sputters blood and dies. To depict this moment, Russell offers a low angle shot of Barlow that emphasizes both his power and ambivalence about what has just taken place. His comrades, however, feel no such ambivalence. One of them, Conrad Vig (Spike Jonze) says to Barlow, “Congratulations, my man, you shot yourself a raghead!” Another excitedly scrambles for his camera so he can take a photo of the dead Iraqi whose sign of surrender went unheeded.
Unheroic scenes such as these blur the distinction of honor and brutality and make Three Kings seem ostensibly antiwar. However, Kane is quick to point out that the labeling of films in this manner is “ironic” and that so-called antiwar films inhabit “a predictable place on the genre continuum” (87). According to Kane, even in “antiwar” films, the issues of “Why the men fight . . . why they are engaged in . . . war, what the ideological or political issues or causes might be, are not relevant topics of discourse in the films” (87). The film’s absence of commentary about the ideology behind war, coupled with the tendency of critics to see it as antiwar, perhaps point to the need for new analytic frameworks that make it possible to see how these films can offer cynical depictions of war and superficial critiques of the United States’s military actions abroad, but still support the basic tenants of the United States’s National Security policies.
National Security Cinema
A shift in focus from the battlefield to the ideologies and strategic policies that lead to the battlefield situation – and are, more often than not, reinforced by filmic depictions of the battlefield scenario – can take place if one considers films like Three Kings not merely as war or combat films, but as National Security Cinema films, a category established by defense strategy expert Jean-Michel Valantin in his provocative book Hollywood, The Pentagon and Washington. According to Valantin, the United States’s national security policies are based on three foundational myths: the Frontier, Manifest Destiny, and the City Upon the Hill. These three myths, which fueled American expansionism throughout the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries, are updated and revitalized by National Security Cinema to justify US military actions around the globe.
In the updated scenario, the world outside of the US border is the Frontier, dangerous, lawless, and uncivilized and something that must be brought to heel under US military might (Valantin 2). This violence is justified by Manifest Destiny. Once a belief that the United States had the “right” to rule the North American continent from the Atlantic to the Pacific, Manifest Destiny has transformed in the present day into the belief, enforced by the US military, that the United States has the right to rule the globe (Valantin 2). The United States believes it has this right because of the third foundational myth, that of the US as the City Upon a Hill, which holds that Americans are “God’s chosen people,” moral, virtuous, and worthy of global dominion (Valantin 2). Valantin examines the intersection of the United States’s national security policies and Hollywood cinema and how these two institutional entities – the Pentagon and Hollywood – often feed off the images and ideologies of each other. When one acknowledges that, at a fundamental, systemic level, the US, in regards to its foreign policy, adheres to a belief in these myths, a truly “antiwar” film produced by the corporate media entities with strategic ties to the United States government and military is a near impossibility, a fait accompli made clear by Valantin’s National Security Cinema framework.
Valantin’s formulation then allows one to look past cynical and superficial critiques on a film’s surface and examine how Hollywood cinema consistently positions “virtuous” Americans in peril from threats from the foreign “frontier.” According to Valantin, the United States is fairly unique in that its foreign affairs and international policies are predicated on the idea of threat: “This near-obsessive perception of threat, where others might simply see differences or natural obstacles, is specific to the US national security system and at the heart of the production of strategy” (xi). Additionally, Valantin argues that “Hollywood cinema shows these threats and the mobilization of the means with which to overcome them” (xi). In other words, US military strategy is based on constructing the “outside world” as a constant threat to the “American way of life,” and Hollywood cinema often capitalizes on this climate of threat – reinforcing defense strategies and sometimes creating them – by bringing these threats “to life” on the big screen and showing both the worst possible scenarios of what could happen and how these disastrous scenarios can be overcome. Ultimately, in foreign policy and Hollywood film, the United States, a country that has never experienced full-scale invasion, bombing strikes, or nuclear holocaust, is often constructed as the “victim” or the “underdog” in geo-political struggles, thus justifying any use – no matter how bellicose – of US military action. This situation has grown worse since the events of 9/11, when an actual attack on American soil was used to justify illegitimate wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Valantin proposes that there has been a dearth of films dealing with the first Gulf War because it was “not perceived by American public opinion as a defence [sic] operation” (41). According to Valantin, “The clearly offensive Nature [sic] of the Gulf War, in the name of power interests, as well as the total asymmetry of military means and will, makes it impossible to [follow the standard process of] creating heroes without clearly denying the reality of the situation” (41). These problems in representing the first Gulf War are clearly evident in Three Kings, one of the few “Gulf War” movies. It can be argued that Three Kings critiques the United States’s involvement in Iraq as superficial, greedy, and brutal as it unfolds the story of army officers who attempt to steal Kuwaiti gold. However, when the soldiers undergo a crisis of conscious and, instead of stealing the gold, help a group of Iraqi rebels fight against and escape Saddam’s regime, the film also demonizes Iraqi soldiers, asserts the United States’s basic moral superiority over the Iraqis, and implicitly makes an argument for a full-scale invasion of Iraq, a military action that would eventually take place in March 2003.
Re-assessing Three Kings
Ultimately, viewing Three Kings through the lens of National Security Cinema brings into view how the United States is cast as both aggressor and supposed victim. This duality can be seen by briefly tracing the trajectory of two of the film’s main characters, Major Archie Gates (George Clooney) and Sergeant Troy Barlow. As mentioned previously, the opening scenes of Three Kings are cynical and seem critical of the United States’s involvement in Iraq, and this cynicism toward the First Gulf War is exemplified in Major Gates, who, as an introductory subtitle reveals, “retires in two weeks.” In an early scene, Colonel Ron Horn (Mykelti Williamson) urges Gates to cooperate with embedded news reporters because they are involved in a “media war.” Gates, full of disgust and frustration, yells, “I don’t even know what we did here. Just tell me what we did here, Ron!” His outburst implies that the United States was not in the Gulf to defend Kuwait or the anti-Saddam Iraqis, but to augment business and corporate interests. In the next few scenes, it appears as if Gates decides that since greed is the order of the day, he should profit as well and so hatches a scheme, along with three other army soldiers, to steal Kuwaiti gold from Saddam’s army. As Gates and his comrades dream of obtaining enough gold to “get [them] out of [their] day jobs,” Three Kings comes dangerously close to representing and criticizing the Gulf War as, to quote Valantin, “a non-heroic operation of military . . . power and hegemony” (41), a war waged by the United States not to defend itself, but to consolidate and enforce its economic and militaristic dominance.
Valantin argues that representation of United States military power like the one at the opening of Three Kings runs the danger of “starting a crisis between Washington and Hollywood” (41). Thus, we should not be surprised when the film’s plot takes a turn, and the trajectory of Major Gates’s story – and the film’s representation of US armed forces – becomes drastically altered. After Gates and his men trace the gold to an Iraqi village, Gates informs them that “the most important thing in life” is “necessity,” and he assures them that because the Iraqi army’s “necessity” is to put down the rebellion of Iraqi citizens and to maintain peace, the Iraqis will not interfere with the Americans’ acquisition of the gold. However, Gates’s attitude changes when the Americans enter the village and find Iraqi soldiers torturing civilians they claim are part of an uprising. The inevitable turning point comes when an Iraqi solder executes a woman in front of her husband and child.
In a bravura sequence in which an exchange of gunfire between Gates and his men and the offending soldiers is slowed down to a crawl, Gates and his compatriot Chief Elgin (Ice Cube) are photographed, in two separate shots, from a low angle with the clouds in the sky visible behind them sped up through time-lapse photography. Similar to the earlier low angle shot of Barlow after he killed the Iraqi soldier in the opening scene, these images suggest the power and nobility of American military power. While Barlow’s depiction was tinged with uncertainty, this sequence conveys that these mighty men, through their benevolence, have placed themselves in danger, in a situation that is racing along out of their control. When Barlow asks what happened to necessity and their plan to take the gold, Gates replies, “It just changed.” This plot twist serves two functions: first, to construct United States military service personnel as part of a benevolent, if mighty, force that ultimately has the best interests of the Iraqi people at heart even if policy and some actions do not reflect this, and second, to depict Major Gates and his men, who have traveled deep into Iraq against military orders, as vulnerable and under threat of attack, a position that squares with the United States’s threat-based strategic security policy as outlined by Valantin.
From this point on, the film shows Gates and his men leading a group of Iraqi civilians to safety, and even though the US Army is initially against Gates’s action, the military eventually throws its support behind Gates and company to assist them in assuring the safety of the refugees. Along the way, Gates and his men encounter violent Iraqi soldiers and kindly Iraqi citizens. All of these scenes suggest that the United States’s involvement in the first Gulf War was much too limited to truly help Iraqi citizens and that what is needed is a full-blown invasion of Iraq that can unseat Saddam Hussein. For instance, when Gates and his men take shelter with the Iraqi refugees in an underground bunker, the Iraqis criticize the United States not for invading their country, but instead for not displaying more military might. One refugee cries out: “Where is America now? Where is the Army now?” The possibility of diplomacy is never broached, and more military action is the only proposed cure for Iraq’s trouble. Thus, Three Kings ends up being anything but a thorough critique of the United States’s involvement in Iraq, unless a call for further military engagement can be considered a critique.
The closest that the latter half of Three Kings comes to challenging US policy is in the development of Sergeant Troy Barlow’s character. After Gates and company flee the village with Iraqi refugees in tow, they come under fire from Saddam’s army. In the ensuing melee, Barlow is captured, interrogated, and tortured by Said (Saïd Taghmaoui), a Captain in Saddam’s army who refers to the United States as a “sick fucking country.” To the film’s credit, Said is far from a stock villain: during his interrogation and torture of Barlow, he reveals that his wife’s legs were crushed and his infant son was killed when United States bombers attacked Iraq. When Barlow attempts to establish a connection with Said by telling him that he has a newborn daughter, Said scoffs and replies, “Very nice for you, bro. She’s safe in Arizona, without the bomb, the concrete and all this shit,” a comment that belies the United States’s possession of a safe position of privilege, despite defense strategy claims to the contrary. Barlow offers Said platitudes about how the United States declared war on Iraq to save the Kuwaiti people and to “stabilize the region,” but Said angrily refutes these claims, responding, “Stability for what? Your pickup truck?” Perhaps the most damning of all Said’s comments are those in which he reveals that he received all of his weapons and military training from the United States during the conflict with Iran. In sum, these scenes with Said are an anomaly in United States war films, for they provide a human dimension to the “threats” that supposedly lurk outside the United States’s borders, and they openly question the corporate and economic motives behind United States’s military policy.
However, the scenes with Barlow and Said also seem to ultimately show that the United States and its military possess some sort of moral superiority to Iraq and its soldiers. During the interrogation scenes, great pains are taken to draw connections between Barlow and Said: they both are young fathers, and they both signed up for military service out of economic necessity. Nevertheless, there is a clear difference between them that is highlighted when Barlow counters Said’s discussion of how the United States indiscriminately bombed civilians in Iraq with stories of Iraqi atrocities toward Kuwaitis. Said concedes that he had done some things that he was “not proud of” in Kuwait. This leads Barlow to comment: “Who’s got the sick country?”
The scene has its corollary later in the film when Major Gates comes to Barlow’s rescue. Gates bursts into the room, wounds Said, shoots the other Iraqis, frees Barlow, and hands him a gun to give Barlow the opportunity to kill his tormentor. However, instead of shooting Said, Barlow, photographed from a low angle, angrily shoots the wall by Said’s head; Said begins to weep, and having spared Said’s life, Barlow self-righteously walks away. This time, the use of the low angle emphasizes both military might and moral superiority; the implication is that Barlow, unlike Said in Kuwait, has the moral ability to show compassion and mercy, even when his superior officers condone violence. By comparison, Said regrets the heinous acts he committed when he was “following orders.” Here again, while Three Kings offers some criticism of United States’s military policy, these critiques have their limit, and the film ultimately depicts the United States as a benevolent force whose major fault was not executing a full-scale invasion of Iraq during the First Gulf War.
In these ways and others, Three Kings is typical of many Hollywood narratives in that it says two things at once. Indeed, the double-voiced narrative of Three Kings resembles what Robin Wood famously calls “incoherent texts,” films that simply “do not know what they want to say” (42). According to Wood, the incoherence of select films from the late 1970s and early 1980s was a result of a “questioning of the entire social structure that validated” the Vietnam War (44). In some Hollywood films, this questioning led to a crisis in representation, and the “possibility suddenly opened up that the whole world might have to be recreated” (44). However, “this generalized crisis in ideological confidence never issued in revolution” (44), as no coherent alternative to the capitalist patriarchal status quo emerged. The appellation “incoherent text” might also pertain to Three Kings: if Russell’s intention was to make an “antiwar” film, how might an “antiwar” film be enunciated in a culture so steeped in the language of National Security Cinema and in notions of the Frontier, Manifest Destiny, and the City Upon a Hill?
At the same time, the label “incoherent text” does not seem to completely fit when it comes to Three Kings. While Wood claims that “incoherent texts” from the past strive to make sense but “seem to crack open before our eyes” as if by accident (45), Three Kings seems like a willfully incoherent film with its incoherence being completely by design. Frank P. Tomasulo notes this trend in Hollywood cinema as he explains, “It is a common marketing strategy of the American cinema to attempt to deal with controversial subject matter by having it both ways, so as not to alienate segments of the mass audience who have strong feelings on one side or another of a particular issue” (147). According to Tomasulo, this trend is particularly prevalent in war movies. For instance, a film like Francis Coppola’s infamous Vietnam epic Apocalypse Now (1978), as Tomasulo notes, “shows the war not as immoral, only mishandled” (149), a comment that sounds as if it could easily have been written about Three Kings. Tomasulo also accuses Coppola of “subordinating content to style and foregrounding aesthetic ambiguity and richness” in Apocalypse Now, and he concludes his argument by calling for films about war that “[take] an unambiguous stand on the imperialist involvement and illegal conduct” of the US military (154, 157).
Three Kings, with its flashy aesthetic (praised by Rich) and its double-voiced attitude toward the First Gulf War, stands guilty of similar charges. If one wishes to read Three Kings as critical of the United States’s involvement in Iraq, there is sufficient evidence to do so; however, the film can also easily be read as a justification for a full-blown invasion of Iraq, a military “option” that came true in early 2003 and continues to come horrifically true every day, despite President Obama’s announcement on 31 August 2010 that the war was “over.” If director Russell intended to make an antiwar film, perhaps the impossibility of representing – and interrogating – the First Gulf War in a Hollywood film forced him to do otherwise. After all, Three Kings was, for all intents and purposes, a “prestige” picture, a modestly budgeted (by Hollywood standards) movie by an “indie” director released during Oscar season (the film was released on 1 October 1999) in hopes of garnering nominations and awards.
Yet Three Kings was shut out of all major nominations. However, it seems that this outcome had more to do with Russell’s rumored bad behavior on the set (Russell allegedly got into a physical fight with star Clooney at one point) than with any radical political content in the film (Waxman 244, 283). If there were any radical content in the film, it would have been shut out of popular discourse long before the Oscar nominations were announced. After all, Hollywood and the Pentagon have, for years, enjoyed a profitable relationship that neither side would want to disrupt. The Pentagon’s involvement with the films of Michael Bay exemplifies this relationship; as journalist Scott Brown has noted, Bay, with pro-military blockbuster films like Armageddon (1998), Pearl Harbor (2001), and Transformers (2007), “has built up so much goodwill with the Pentagon that he can call up and order F 16s [sic] the way the rest of us order hot wings” (Brown). Bay’s films benefit both Hollywood and the Pentagon. With budgets kept (relatively) low because of military support, his films make massive amounts of money at the box office and big profits in ancillary markets.
They also make the massive military force of the United States look attractive, mighty, and benevolent, just as Three Kings ultimately ends up doing. Now that the Iraq War is “over,” people might again turn to Three Kings for answers about how the United States got into this conflict in the Middle East; if viewed through the lens of National Security Cinema, perhaps they will find answers, even if they are not the answers they had hoped to find.
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