Is There No More Escapism? Napalm, Mayhem Fill the Screen

Antoine Fuqua’s Tears of the Sun , from a screenplay by Alex Lasker and Patrick Cirillo, deserves the bad reviews and the lackluster earnings it has accumulated thus far. But I saw it at an interesting moment, an early-afternoon showing 72 hours before the pre-emptive invasion of Iraq. The audience, not surprisingly, consisted of me and three other white guys, suggesting that Tears of the Sun was not a “crossover” attraction like, say, Bringing Down the House .

Even before the film started, I was assaulted by a series of deafening commercials-Big Brother–ish animated admonitions against heckling, chatting on cell phones, and littering the aisles with trash from the popcorn and coke orgies promoted by the management. Then came the coming attractions for selected “hot” summer releases. The Core , as far as I could determine, involved the U.S. military experimenting with earthquakes on one continent and causing even more destructive earthquakes on another. In the process, they had immobilized “the core” of the earth, which means curtains for us all. So the only thing standing between humanity and extinction is a couple of nuclear explosions at the center of the earth and some computer hacking by a teenager. I may be off on some details, but even the Rumsfeld-Cheney-Rove “Axis of Evil” cannot be accused of devising anything as diabolical as this.

After The Core came Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator 3 . This time around, his nemesis is an intergalactic alien (who happens to be a very pretty girl) bent on killing everyone on earth. Only Arnie can stop her. Rumor has it that Terminator 3 was ready for release just before 9/11, but was held over because it was assumed that audiences were too traumatized by the real-life demolition of two skyscrapers to appreciate the finer points of simulated explosions in the nihilistic Schwarzenegger universe. So now Terminator 3 is scheduled to open in the middle-or, let’s hope, near the end-of the real-life blowing up of Baghdad.

I had almost given up on seeing any escapist movie fare when a Disney “comedy” featuring an obese teenager with smelly armpits (ha, ha) broke through the blow-’em-up monotony. This brief interlude of nonlethal distraction ended abruptly with action shots of Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta in jungle-ranger gear in a film involving the D.E.A. and drug lords in Colombia, I think. The buzz on Basic , which opens soon, is that it features a slimmed-down Travolta. The movies, it seems, are no place to escape from the real world.

Tears of the Sun begins with Muslim rebels in Nigeria engaged in a genocidal uprising against a Christian government. The choice of a real country (on the verge of a real election) as the fictional setting for an American rescue of Christians threatened with slaughter and rape by Muslims is strange enough. But it’s positively uncanny that Nigeria is the only African country south of Libya with vast oil reserves. I have no idea when the script was written, but it was probably after Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Dow n (2001) reproduced an actual American military catastrophe in Somalia. With Lt. A.K. Waters (played by action axiom Bruce Willis) in charge of a mostly white contingent of Navy SEALs, the emphasis shifts from the high-level American command miscalculation in Black Hawk Down to the awakening of moral idealism in the lower-level leader of the Navy SEAL contingent.

It is Mr. Willis, as Waters, who defies his superiors and risks the lives of his own men after he witnesses with his own eyes the atrocities of the rebels. His official mission is to rescue an American citizen by marriage, Belgian doctor Lena Hendricks (played by the suddenly omnipresent Monica Bellucci), who is saddled here with one of the worst roles a woman can get in a man’s action picture.

As the plot unreels and unravels, Waters finds himself in the midst of nation-building as he discovers among the Christian refugees the son of a tribal chieftain, a man who could lead his people back to democracy. But first, Waters and his Christian African charges have to escape the savage Muslim hordes. As they flee, a squadron of missile-bearing fighters soars out of the sky to set the jungle aflame. The napalm is a nod to Robert Duvall’s frenzied air-cavalry commander in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979). But the tone back then was ironic, if not sarcastic, about a war that had already been lost and discredited; the efficient annihilation of the enemy in Tears of the Sun is intended to bring joy to the hearts of patriotic American audiences.

Is it a good idea to be reviving the centuries-old conflict between the Cross and the Crescent at a time when a born-again Christian fundamentalist President is leading our country into war against a brutal Muslim tyrant? The British have been down this road many times. They could have warned us against shedding our blood and spending our treasure; they could have cautioned us against shouldering the white man’s burden, civilizing the so-called inferior races of the Earth. No such luck. Bye-bye, Baghdad.

Death-Row Debacle

Alan Parker’s The Life of David Gale, from a screenplay by Charles Randolph, has its heart in the right place-a principled opposition to capital punishment-but its head is hopelessly mired in the muck of a preposterous melodrama. I confess that at first, I was suspicious of the virtually unanimous negative critical reaction to the film. After all, how bad can a film be if it’s against capital punishment and has some of my favorite performers-Kevin Spacey, Kate Winslet, Laura Linney-in the leading roles? Well, the answer is pretty bad. Indeed, I ended up feeling sorry for Mr. Spacey, Ms. Winslet and Ms. Linney, so contrived was the foolishness in which they found themselves embroiled.

Yet if the production notes are to be believed, the three leads were quite eager to participate, and Mr. Parker, the director, chose the script out of many during a frantic period when Hollywood was rushing anything and everything into production for fear of an industry-wide strike. (The threatened strike action in 2000 never actually materialized.) They all had their eyes wide open and joyously bright.

So what went wrong? To answer the question, I’ll have to give away the bizarre plot twists that made the film fall apart. If you’re one of those readers who stick pins into voodoo dolls fashioned in the likeness of critics who give away surprise endings, read no further.

First, though, I should say that in his production notes, Mr. Parker discusses the thorny issue of capital punishment with great candor, fairness and sophistication. He is against capital punishment, as am I, though perhaps for different reasons. My own position is vaguely religious. I do believe that our liberty is based on a social contract that allows society to punish murderers by imprisoning them for the length of their lives for having violated that contract. It’s society that gives us our liberty, but it is God who gives us life, and we should not usurp God’s power by taking His precious gift away, as murderers and public executioners do.

There are many arguments against capital punishment, of course. As Mr. Parker notes, even Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, a fervent defender of the death penalty, draws a distinction between rightful and wrongful punishment: “Death is no big deal, but the execution of an innocent is.” Unfortunately, most movies about capital punishment trick up the argument by populating death row with prisoners who are in fact innocent. Only rarely does a movie confront the issue head-on. In Andre Cayatte’s We Are All Murderers (1952), a notable exception to this rule, each of the three co-protagonists is guilty of taking the life of another human being-and yet the film still denounces the barbarity and inhumanity of executions.

The Life of David Gal e opens in a newspaper office, where a tough-as-nails newspaper reporter named Bitsy Bloom (Kate Winslet) is given an assignment to interview a former college professor on death row, David Gale (Kevin Spacey). Her initial hard-nosed skepticism softens into a sympathetic curiosity, and ultimately into a deep emotional involvement. From the very beginning, we are conditioned to believe that David is innocent, and that he may even have been framed by death-penalty advocates.

And so Bitsy’s race to clear David begins, with four days remaining before David is dispatched by the state of Texas, as 300 other folks have been since the death penalty was reinstated in 1982. Most of these folks were poor and African-American, generally with inadequate legal representation. (In a United Nations survey of the number of executions in the world in 1999, the United States finished fourth-behind China, Iraq and the Congo, and just ahead of Iran.)

To make David a more “complex” and “believable” victim, the script reveals that he’s an alcoholic and recently divorced from his wife. His now ex-wife has followed her Spanish lover to Spain, taking with her the child whom David adores. He has also been charged with the rape of a pretty student named Berlin (Rhona Mitra), whom he unwisely allowed to seduce him after she declared she’d do anything for a good grade except study too hard. Though he was eventually acquitted of the rape charge, the scandal got him fired from his academic post, despite his popularity with the students. (Even quoting Jacques Lacan does nothing to dim his popularity.)

Meanwhile, he enjoyed a one-night-stand with Constance Harraway (Laura Linney), his longtime activist comrade in the anti-death-penalty movement. Then Constance, who had been diagnosed with terminal leukemia, is found murdered in what looks like a ritualistic sex crime. David’s semen is in her body, and he is accused and convicted of killing her. The truth is finally revealed to Bitsy through two videotapes (perhaps left over from The Ring ) that show Constance committing suicide, with David and another anti-death-penalty associate acting as enablers. In a sense, Constance and David have engaged in what amounts to a double suicide pact so that anti-death-penalty activists will have two new martyrs. The cliché of the race for the reprieve is clumsily preserved until the very end. David is declared dead, and Bitsy weeps and weeps.

Let’s face it: If my glorious fellow Brooklynite, Susan Hayward, couldn’t end capital punishment with her stirring, Oscar-winning performance in Robert Wise’s I Want to Live (1958), then no mere movie can. Perhaps they shouldn’t even try. Even so, Ms. Hayward earned our sympathy only with the plot proviso that she was framed by criminal acquaintances.

Is There No More Escapism? Napalm, Mayhem Fill the Screen