27 March 2001 | Spleen
Morally disgusting, fundamentally confused, poorly constructed, blatantly manipulative.
Let's take those points in turn.
(1) Okay, killing 83 civilians and injuring 100 more is something that can happen to anyone; what's amazing is that Terry Childers feels neither remorse nor regret. He's surprised that he's even being tried. (He's not, it must be said, the brightest of men.) His defence? When he deigns to justify his actions to people who haven't themselves killed anyone, all he can say - although he says it with an amazing tone of wounded moral outrage - is, "They killed ... THREE ... MARINES!" Oh, well, in THAT case ... I mean, it's not as if the 83 Yemenites were MARINES. (By the way, I wish the Americans would drop that ridiculous word, "marine". It makes it sound as of some of their soldiers have gills.) It's obvious that the film shares Childers's attitude.
(2) And yet, and yet ... Friedkin doesn't hesitate to give us lingering shots of all the dead and wounded civilians. What is he saying? "Yes, this is tragic, but..." But what? He doesn't have anything to say after the "but". It's as if he thinks he can show the people of Yemen respect by offering them screen time - the more screen time, the more respect. -And another thing: if Friedkin has any idea what he thinks the trial was ABOUT, I wish he'd let us know. Does he think that Childers is technically innocent on all three charges? I'm glad someone is in a position to tell; we're certainly not, since we never find out in enough detail what the legal issues are (what kind of conduct IS "conduct unbecoming a marine"?), and anyway, this is one of those grandstanding trials in which neither side makes a coherent case, or wants to.
(3) Do we care what happened 28 years earlier in Vietnam? Do we have reason to care? Of course not. This lengthy prologue is there simply to make the film seem twice as ridiculous (Tommy Lee Jones looks, if anything, older in 1968 than in 1996; the statement "If you call off your men, you can go free; you have my word. If you don't, I swear I'll kill you where you stand!" gets translated into just five syllables of Vietnamese), and to give characters "a past", as if any old past will do. The trial begins at precisely the wrong time: just when our exhaustion with all the setting-up has led us to believe that the end of the film can't be far off, but early enough so that it feels in retrospect as if the film is all trial. It would be better if it really were.
(4) As for "blatantly manipulative", where do I begin? With the soundtrack? You know the kind - muted snare drums, more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger solo trumpets ...it never varies from one piece of American military sentimentalism to the next. (This particular score is due to Mark Isham, but I can't blame him. I'm sure he had no choice.) Or how about the ambassador, who we see snapping petulantly into the phone, hiding under the table, and - gasp! - forgetting to take the American flag with him when he leaves. Gee, I wonder if he'll turn out to be a coward? And what about his son, who steals screen time solely in order to look up with his big puppydog eyes and ask some, faux naïve, mummy-why-are-those-people-shouting-at-us questions? Then there's the trial, with a charm-laden Tommy Lee Jones defending and some bug-eyed weevil prosecuting.... How much more effective this trial would have been if the prosecutor had had, at the very least, silkiness - if he hadn't been someone who could be counted upon to lose the case simply by rubbing the jury the wrong way. Bah.