We watched it — well, most of it, including the start and the end, and parts of the plodding middle — so that you don’t have to. And we’ll say this about that: don’t. Don’t waste your time. This $35 million contribution in kind to the 2008 Obama campaign is as bad as the reviewers said (most of them probably didn’t watch the whole thing, either). It’s possible but It’s been decades since we personally put that much effort into anything that doesn’t earn a badge.
And yet, the cast is full of incredible talent: Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep, Michael Peña. The movie is not overly long. (Well, it is, really, at two minutes short of an hour and a half; this could be cut to fit in a half-hour TV slot, with commercials, and not lose anything meaningful to the plot. But it would still probably be too long).
So what happened? A bad script, no, a truly dreadful script, and a director whose celebrity has outpaced his meager talent (that would be Robert Redford, also appearing as a Mary Sue character as an all-wise college professor in a talky, plodding subplot).
The movie has a three-stories-in-one conceit ripped from the milieu of off-Broadway theater — first-night-closing variety. Stop us if you’ve heard this before: Stereotyped soldiers-as-losers-who-get-stuck-in-Afghanistan by Stereotyped DC Cheesers driven by greed and malevolence (that’s the other kind of movie “projection”), can only be saved by Stereotyped Crusading New Journalists (for which they cast a now-Metamucil-age actress from the actual baby boomer New Journalist era) and Stereotyped Righteous Professors (for which they cast Redford, an actual baby boomer full of Vietnam War bullshit which he emits interminably).
The three stories are (spoilers, because you’re not really going to watch this steaming turd, are you?)
- a professor encourages his students to get out of the school and experience stuff for real; he’s appalled when two join up, and spends the bulk of the movie counseling a third. The payoff in the movie is apparently going to be this punk kid’s decision. By the end of the movie, nobody cares about him, but it still feels like a waste when he makes no decision.
- the two students who joined up go on an operation, where everything goes wrong, they’re abandoned in the mountains and go out in a blaze of glory at the end.
- a journalist who opposes and wants to undermine the war in Afghanistan interviews at great length (really great length….zzzzzzzz….) a slippery politician whose “new strategy” is seen by the journalist, herself the sort of strategy expert one becomes by interviewing politicians interminably,
Only the military story resolves, if unsatisfactorily. The other two are left hanging, even though they make up the lion’s share (no pun intended) of the screen time.
Acting and Production
Robert Redford is still handsome, if you like the dissipated Kennedy look, but Cruise is handsome and younger, works a lot harder to try to sell his crudely written part. Streep is still homely, which helps with verisimilitude if you remember your J-school chicks from college, but gives her crudely written part her best shot. Even Streep can’t save a part that is clearly meant to be a more verbose and less empathetic Barbra Walters. She has a decision to make — does she run the interview with Cruise’s Ambitious Politician Stereotype #3B, as her bosses (shallowly drawn as “corporate stooges”, the favorite villain of Hollywood Bentley Bolsheviks) want her to do, or does she quit and take her crusade against Cruise’s character to the public? The movie leaves you hanging, without knowing what she did, not that you really care by that point. (Not that the public cares, they’re changing the channel so that they can tune in Even the Kardashian Guys Have Boobs).
Redford, and his scenes, are painful to watch. An actual director who was anybody except ego-tripping Bob Redford would have taken the scissors to most of Redford’s screen time; his professor sits behind his desk (presumably so we can’t see his Depends) and yabbers, yabbers, yabbers at a his students, as the movie tells us rather than shows us that he’s the most beloved mentor on campus, yadda yadda yawnskins.
As mentioned above, the student who has to make some decision also doesn’t, after Redford and whatever bozo wrote the script having set that up with a Niagara of verbiage for nearly ninety minutes. And neither the character nor the actor in the part of the kid is at all appealing — for all the talk about changing the world, he’s going to wind up as a midlevel bureaucrat at VA screwing vets out of X-rays or something. Or, worse, a Hollywood screenwriter.
The score is neutral — neither intrusive nor, really, noticeable. Was there a score? And the cinematography is dark, especially in the “Afghanistan” scenes, which were shot during daylight and darkened — overdarkened — in post-production (see example in the section below). In a theater this was probably bad enough; on TV with the TV network’s white logo embedded in the corner of the screen, whatever was happening on the screen was washed out.
Fortunately, nothing was happening on the screen. The whole movie is paced like a three-toed-sloth on Thorazine.
Accuracy and Weapons
For a movie that’s ostensibly about the War in Afghanistan, there’s little time spent on actual fighting. The two abandoned Rangers have M4s that have fake ACOGs on them:
Apart from the fake ACOGs and the use of Tauruses for Berettas (which has to do with blank adaptation and Hollywood being cheap, and, frankly, it’s a licensed Beretta anyway), the movie doesn’t botch the guns. Well, except for how they’re used.
The troops don’t act much like troops. They act like the way the sort of deskbound know-it-all that Redford’s character and his students condemn think that troops act.
The strategy change that Cruise’s character talks about, putting small teams at remote points, was never proposed by anyone; actually, it’s pretty close to what we (SF) did in the early months and years of the war, before the Pentagon decided we need to get a broader range of career officers’ tickets punched.
But by 2007 it wouldn’t have made any sense at all. But nothing in this plot has to make sense. Cruise’s character just has to say some things while we’re signalled with all the subtlety of a .500 S&W Mag that this is the bad guy.
We love Michael Peña as an actor, but his character and the other dude’s portrayal of doomed helplessness is a deep insult to a couple of million of GWOT veterans.
Even the depiction of college isn’t remotely realistic, and is anyone else tired of crusading reporters? It’s past time for crusading reporters to meet some real-world Saracens.
Special appearance by that creature of the New York media, the Dreaded Afghan Winter™.
The bottom line
If you see this movie coming, split.
For more information
These sites relate to this particular film.
- Amazon.com DVD page (there are other ways to see this on Amazon, but the best way of all is not to):
- IMDB page:
- IMFDB page:
- Rotten Tomatoes review page (27%, rotten — naturally):
- Wikipedia page:
- NEW! History vs. Hollywood Page. (We hope there’s one of these for every “true” war movie soon).