Burn, Blast, Bomb, Cut

Film still for Burn, Blast, Bomb, Cut

Desert Storm was its own triumphant movie - a war fought and celebrated on TV then quickly forgotten. How can David O. Russell's bloody new Three Kings dispel its magical aura, wonders J.Hoberman

One of the most eccentric Hollywood releases of the past few years, David O. Russell's Three Kings would be novel for its subject matter alone. In his first mega-buck production after the indie hits Spanking the Monkey (1994) and Flirting with Disaster (1996) writer-director Russell attempts to represent the hitherto all but unrepresentable 1991 Persian Gulf War, known in the US as Operation Desert Storm.

"Will the Gulf War Produce Enduring Art?" the New York Times worried back in June 1991, a month after Jean Baudrillard published his science-fiction novella The Gulf War Did Not Take Place. There was, of course, the instantly forgotten docudrama The Heroes of Desert Storm telecast by ABC that October (complete with an introduction by then president George Bush), while on a somewhat higher level of achievement Werner Herzog's horrific and awe-inspiring documentary Lessons of Darkness (1992) used the blasted Kuwaiti desert as the catastrophic projection of his own romantic Doomsday worldview. Edward Zwick's 1996 Courage under Fire was actually the first Hollywood movie to treat the war against Iraq, and Paul Verhoeven's underappreciated sci-fi satire Starship Troopers (1997) notwithstanding it was also the last - until Russell's rambunctious Three Kings.

Saddam Hussein remains a bit player in US culture, intermittently invoked by defence hawks (and appearing last summer as Satan's abusive boyfriend in the scurrilous animated feature South Park Bigger Longer & Uncut). But though Operation Desert Storm could be considered the founding moment of the so-called New World Order, its scant cinematic representation is, according to conventional wisdom, a result of its initial oversaturation. As broadcast live and round-the-clock by CNN, the Gulf War was a highly successful made-for-television movie even while it was happening. Never before in the annals of instant history had an international combat situation so merged with its own representation. The journalistic first draft turned out to be the final draft as well.

Call Vietnam a living-room war? 16 January 1991, the evening Operation Desert Storm opened with a dazzling son-et-lumiére display of bombs falling on Baghdad, was America's second most-watched telecast ever (exceeded in percentage only by the number of televisions tuned to the JFK funeral). Not a single serious crime was reported that night in Washington DC. Where the Vietnam war produced a frenzy of alienation, Desert Storm inspired fascinated disassociation. The viewing experience was routinely compared to Nintendo and Top Gun or, as the event was almost immediately theorised by postmodern academics, to the aesthetic pronouncements on the beauty of war made by the Italian futurists.

Motorboats and condoms

New military oxymorons - "surgical strikes", "collateral damage", "smart bombs" - paled before the Pentagon's mise en scène. Television watchers were routinely placed inside a missile sensor system even while military officers acted as assigning editors in determining where to dispatch the reporter pool. Show business or simulation? Historian Elaine Scarry would compare Desert Storm to Jean Genet's The Balcony: "All possible political positions began to orient themselves in relation to the theatrical spectacle rather than to the reality of the events themselves." Although the Gulf War followed by two years Ronald Reagan's departure from the scene it was the perfect postscript to his presidency (as well as to Baudrillard's reign as philosophe de jour).

Was the Gulf War a police action in the Global Village or a hyperreal exercise in national narcissism? For the first time in a generation Americans were one nation under the Yellow Ribbon which, throughout Desert Storm (and even after), was an emblem of participation worn by superpatriots, moderate supporters and anti-war demonstrators alike - the last using it to signify their opposition to US policy but support for US troops. (This negation of the Vietnam syndrome was a bit of a paradox given that the earlier war had been fought by conscripts whereas, in another US first, Desert Storm was the province of volunteers, if not mercenaries.)

Used to advertise everything from motorboats to condoms, the victory over Saddam Hussein not only occasioned all manner of commemorative collectibles (t-shirts, engraved guns and knives, model Patriot missiles) but, beginning with General Norman Schwartzkopf's 27 February Riyadh news conference, was commodified in a succession of videos produced for the home market. These included CNN's Desert Storm: The War Begins and Desert Storm: The Victory, a confidently jazzed-up alternative to the more sober CBS boxed set Desert Triumph. The British perspective was provided by ITN's Gulf War: The Complete Story while the National Football League put out Victory in the Desert, complete with Whitney Houston's melodramatic Super Bowl XXV (Desert Storm Day XI) rendition of 'The Star-Spangled Banner'.

The O. J. Simpson trial and Monica Lewinsky revelations notwithstanding, Desert Storm was the last great American festival of the 20th century. Enemy casualties outnumbered those of the anti-Iraq coalition by a ratio of 500:1; the US victory celebration lasted far longer than the actual hostilities. In the first flush of triumph, once wimpish George Bush was imagined to be US President for Life. But the Gulf War turned out to have a Warholian 15-minute half life as the giddy triumphalism of the New World Order gave way to gloomy recession.

Desert Storm has been largely forgotten - though it will surely be resurrected in some form during the 2000 presidential campaign as Bush's eldest son, Texas governor George W. Bush, proceeds (against an authentic war hero, Arizona senator John McCain) in his seemingly unstoppable quest for the Republican nomination. So where does this partial amnesia leave Three Kings?

Russell's bold and messy feature is not a movie about the nature of war, like Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line, so much as an attempt to fathom war's purpose - as seen in retrospect. The action begins on 3 March 1991, just as the ceasefire takes effect and the operation is declared successful. ("We have finally kicked the Vietnam syndrome," President Bush asserted in his remarks.) "Are we shooting?" one private (Mark Wahlberg) wonders upon spotting a perhaps surrendering Iraqi. Not waiting for an answer he nervously splatters the desert with befuddled "raghead" brains - much to his comrades' delight. The war happened after all: they finally got to see someone shot.

The morning after an American party-on bacchanal, staged as a "we're number one" sports-team celebration, Russell's non-commissioned "kings" - inexpressive Wahlberg, scowling Ice Cube, and, as a goofy redneck, Being John Malkovich director Spike Jonze - find a treasure map stuffed up a captured Iraqi ass. (The psychosexual implications are evident and comic given the American wartime rhetoric that focused on Saddam's own person.) Led by an opportunistic, dissolute career soldier - George Clooney, another one-note performer - who somehow recognises the map as a guide to captured Kuwaiti gold, the would-be freebooters hatch a quick plan to commandeer a Humvee, zip behind Iraqi lines and make themselves rich. The war had a use-value after all. If the premise suggests a vintage Uncle Scrooge comic book - with Clooney playing a tough-guy Donald Duck to the kings' Huey, Dewey and Louie - the movie's relentlessly contemporary, which is to say flippant, attitude is rendered iconic in the Beach Boys-scored close-up juxtaposing a US flag with a Bart Simpson doll.

Combat vérité

As though to dispel Desert Storm's magical aura, Three Kings is a movie of gross textures: blood flows, milk spills, oil pours. The ragged-jagged look suggests third-generation colour Xerox: at once high contrast and bleached out, it's purposefully cruddy. As intimated by his nouveau screwball Flirting with Disaster, Russell has a knack for choreographing mad confusion. Here the exciting adventures are set amid sickening violence, the chaos heightened by the use of swish pans, slow motion and eccentric camera placement. Three Kings is not only given to new-wave tonal shifts but is shot as wildly spontaneous combat-vérité.

The spectacle of things flung through the air is a recurring one. There are almost no establishing shots, though when a cow gets blown up you can bet its head will bang down on the Humvee hood. In his most celebrated stunt. Russell claims to have filmed a real bullet going through an actual cadaver - a cross-section of punctured organs. Although abstracted from the film's narrative, the shot is as visceral as anything in Saving Private Ryan's D-Day, reminding the viewer that the purpose of war is, as Scarry has pointed out, to injure - "to burn, to blast, to shell, to cut" - human tissue.

Embraced with greater enthusiasm by critics than by audiences (despite its demographically designed cast), Three Kings is from an entertainment point of view something of Desert Storm's opposite. The movie has been described as everything from an MTV-inflected The Treasure of Sierra Madre to the most visionary Vietnam movie [sic] since Apocalypse Now (1979). Be that as it may, there certainly hasn't been so bloodthirsty a Hollywood service-comedy since the Vietnam era. Robert Aldrich's The Dirty Dozen (1967) and Robert Altman's MASH (1969) come to mind. But unlike these, Three Kings isn't exactly anti-patriotic.

Born at the end of the Baby Boom, Russell was a teenager when the last US troops returned from Vietnam and he has a post-MASH sensibility. Spanking the Monkey and Flirting with Disaster were both extremely dark sex comedies predicated on convoluted genealogical issues. Here the enquiry into origins is made collective. Russell says he spent months researching Desert Storm, which may be why his characters regale each other with the war's conventional wisdom. "They say you exorcised the ghost of Vietnam," a correspondent begins one interview. "This is a media war," a commanding officer later insists. "I don't even know what we did here," the hero admits, later adding that "the war is over and I don't know what the fuck it was about."

Women with guns

Once more the search for identity: was any foreign war ever so intimately involved with its home front? The Yellow Journalism practised by William Randolph Hearst during the Spanish-American War had mutated into the Yellow-Ribbon Tele-Journalism of the war against Iraq. American television regularly covered the families of those soldiers stationed in Saudi Arabia. In one of Russell's best bits of business the Wahlberg character is able to reach his wife in Detroit using one of a pile of confiscated Kuwaiti cell phones filling an Iraqi bunker ("Gotta go, goonybird," he signs off as Saddam's soldiers burst in).

Desert Storm also complicated traditional machismo as America's first co-educational war. Indeed, back then, the home front gave evidence of a powerful yen to watch movies about women with guns. Opening a month into the bombing of Baghdad, The Silence of the Lambs thrived well beyond critical and box-office expectations on the image of ascetic female heroism - as well as a not unrelated fascination with bad and good-bad serial killers. Some months later, as the New York Times posed its question on the war's cultural production (and the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Military Personnel announced hearings to investigate the new role of women in active service), the smiling faces of Thelma & Louise shared news-stand space with the pixie redhead in desert fatigues featured on the cover of fashion magazine Mirabella: "Hail the Conquering Heroines: Our Women in the Gulf."

Appropriately, Courage under Fire (an extremely traditional combat movie, albeit made without the Pentagon imprimatur) was a fastidious Rashomon story in which America's sweetheart Meg Ryan played Capt. Karen Walden, a chopper pilot (and mother) killed in the action and up for a posthumous Congressional Medal of Honor. Three Kings recaptures the war for the guys. Don't ask, don't tell. The film's only American women are two television correspondents. The first is introduced in flagrante with Clooney (and thus may be considered a bimbo of no consequence); her older rival is a misfired parody of CNN reporter Christine Amanpur played by former Saturday Night Live regular Nora Dunn.

Hardboiled yet overemotional, the Dunn character swears like a drill sergeant but can be reduced to tears by the sight of oil-soaked birds. She is regularly confounded by Clooney yet, as immediately recognised by both Iraqis and American brass, several times saves the day. Her compassion is crucial. For where Starship Troopers gave the Desert Storm mindset a pronounced fascist inflection, Three Kings' more swinging cynicism mixes absurd slapstick with intermittent nods to those helpless, huddled Third World masses yearning to breathe free.

"There is one further problem for those who believe that this war took place: how is it that a real war did not generate real images? Same problem for those who believe in the Americans' 'victory': how is it that Saddam is still there as though nothing had happened?" (Jean Baudrillard, The Gulf War Did Not Take Place). If the Gulf War did not in fact take place - a notion dramatised by Wag the Dog (1997) and, even more, the novel on which it was based - Russell at least deserves credit for rethinking the combat-movie genre in the weird we-are-the-world terms that Desert Storm established.

Operating at the far frontier of television space, his heroes cannot help but find America. Along with concealed landmines and subterranean torture chambers, the desert sands cover a veritable Neiman Marcus of war booty. The kings need no "open sesame" to find this Ali Baba hoard of captured computers, Cuisinarts, Rolexes, Louis Vuitton luggage sets, Infinitis, Walkmans, televisions and VCRs. One of these even transmits the world-historical home video of motorist Rodney King being beaten by the LA police. (Although the King video would not go into heavy rotation until the following year, when it helped precipitate the April 1992 LA riots, there is the mystical coincidence - presumably noted by Russell - that King was stopped for speeding on the very day the Gulf War ended.)

Unlike most Hollywood movies, Three Kings does not consign the Arab foe to absolute cultural Otherness. Russell not only visualises bombed Iraqi children but even has the guts to point out that, having tilted towards Iraq during its war with Iran, the US helped to train Saddam's killers - even if he does put the thesis that Desert Storm was fought for Kuwaiti oil in the mouth of the scariest of the movie's 'wog' villains (Said Taghmaoui), who makes his point by forcing some handy petrol down captured Wahlberg's throat. It's a scene in which George Bush and Saddam Hussein would each find something to appreciate.

The Iraqis are familiar in so far as the American spectacle fascinates them as well. Specialist Melissa Rathbun-Nealy, the first US servicewoman taken prisoner since World War II, reported that the Iraqis who held her captive were "beautiful people" who innocently asked whether she knew Brooke Shields and Sylvester Stallone. "What is the problem with Michael Jackson?" Wahlberg's captor demands in accented but highly vernacular English, before answering his own question. "Michael Jackson is pop king of a sick fucking country."

George Bush wants you!

As Desert Storm consecrated America's sole-superpower status, it also illustrated the limits of US power (or interest), as in the decision to remain aloof from the anti-Saddam rebellions precipitated by the war. It is here that Three Kings starts searching for its own heart of gold. His mind blown by the sight of Saddam's soldiers shooting down an unarmed civilian before her small daughter's eyes, Clooney takes his place in the Humphrey Bogart tradition of seemingly mercenary, secretly idealistic Hollywood heroes. The action grinds to a halt so he can explain to the audience what's happening, even though (again like Bogart in Casablanca) he seems slightly ahead of actual developments on the ground: "Bush told the people to rise up against Saddam. They thought they'd have our support. They don't. Now they're getting slaughtered."

Each generation gets the Casablanca it deserves. Increasingly muddled, cumulatively monotonous and would-be heartwarming, Three Kings ultimately becomes its own entertainment allegory - fighting, Hollywood style, to occupy the position at which blatant self-interest can turn humanitarian while still remaining profitable. In a pragmatic bit of turn-around, the kings even draft the pidgin-English rhetoric needed to recruit the suspicious Iraqi rebels, never identified as Shiites, to help their American quasi-liberators get back to base. ("We will rise up together, many races, many nations... We're united. George Bush wants you!")

Opening with the war's end, Three Kings winds up perhaps two days later - just around the time that Iraq expelled all remaining western journalists, as Saddam's Republic Guards battled Shiite rebels and the Iraqi army prepared for redeployment against the Kurds. The kings have received their baptism under fire, sustained wounds and even losses, to become the real heroes of a non-existent war of liberation. In a final burst of wish-fulfilment, television is thanked for vouchsaving this tacked-on happy ending.

Given the degree to which the American media fulfilled its officially mandated function during the Gulf War and after, this tribute to an independent press is something of a puzzler. But then, in trying to integrate Desert Storm into the American national narrative, Three Kings has a unique trajectory. The movie keeps trying to go conventional and ultimately it does.

Last Updated: 10 Feb 2012