Films

In the mood for war

In a cluster of combat movies, saving one American life is paramount

Brian D. Johnson March 25 2002
Films

In the mood for war

In a cluster of combat movies, saving one American life is paramount

Brian D. Johnson March 25 2002

In the mood for war

Films

In a cluster of combat movies, saving one American life is paramount

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

While war rages in the mountains of Afghanistan, we have very few combat images to go with the

news, which is dominated by press briefings from the Pentagon. But for those craving a visceral taste of life and death on the front lines, Hollywood has been quick to oblige. Lately we’ve been swamped by war movies, and although they were made before Sept. 11, they’ve taken on a peculiar resonance. All of them glorify Americans trying to rescue compatriots trapped in foreign hellholes—and tend to promote the idea that saving a single American life is worth risking countless others.

Depicting war as a kind of high-contact sport, Behind Enemy Lines featured a downed flyer dodging bullets and fireballs in Bosnia. Then came Black Hawk Down, Ridley Scott’s grisly masterpiece of combat porn, about a real-life rescue mission in Somalia that turned into a bloodbath. In We Were Soldiers, based on another true story, Mel Gibson is a ramrod commander who leads his troops into Vietnam’s first brutal baptism of fire. And now Harrisons Flowers presents the fictional odyssey of an American woman who wades into Croatia’s carnage to search for her husband, a photojournalist who’s presumed dead.

These movies take place in what used to be called “Indian country”—where decent folk find themselves surrounded by hordes of hostile natives. In fact, Gibson’s God-fearing character in We Were Soldiers, Lt.-Col. Hal Moore, draws grim analogies to Custer’s Last Stand as he heads into what he calls “the valley of the shadow of death.” Yet none of these films attempts to explain the politics behind the slaughter. Time and again, we’re told what counts is not the cause, but the bond of brotherhood forged under fire. While Black Hawk Down presents war as a glorious obscenity, Soldiers treats it as a sacrament, complete with a hymnal score. As if Apocalypse Now,

Platoon and Full Metal Jacket had never happened, writer-director Randall Wallace revises Americas Vietnam experience as noble sacrifice. The narrator is a photojournalist who bravely ditches his camera for a rifle. And the media show up on the battlefield after the fact like a pack of simpering tourists. The moral: war can be understood only by the men who fight it.

But 64 journalists died or disappeared in Indochina’s wars; 80 were killed in the recent Balkans conflict, and eight have died in Afghanistan. Just last week an Italian photographer was killed by an Israeli tank. Harrisons Flowers is dedicated to those who risk their lives by watching. Though in English, with American actors, it’s not a Hollywood movie. Written, directed and produced by French filmmaker Elie Chouraqui (The Liars), it’s a fictional story loosely based on Je voulais voir la guerre (I Wanted to See the War), a battlefield memoir by French war correspondent Isabel Ellsen.

The premise, however, is fanciful. When veteran Newsweek photographer Harrison

Lloyd (David Strathairn) goes missing in Yugoslavia, his wife, Sarah (Andie MacDowell), refuses to believe it. Abandoning their two children, she risks making orphans of them by flying off to the war and throwing herself into the heat of battle. MacDowell can be an irritating screen presence at the best of times, and here, as she plays the crazy female tagging along with a band of male photographers, it’s hard to share the film’s empathy for her.

That said, Harrisons Flowers offers a compelling, and timely, portrait of the daredevils who take cameras into the line of fire. Adrien Brody, Brendan Gleeson and Canada’s Elias Koteas give top-notch performances as the cowboy trio of photojournalists who help Sarah get to the besieged city of Vukovar. With its action sequences, this European drama flirts with Ffollywood overkill. There are unlikely scenes of photographers standing around in ffee-fire zones like open targets. But after all, it’s only a movie. Armed with the message that love conquers all, it affords a romantic immunity unavailable in a war. CU