Jack Starks (Adrien Brody) in John Maybury’s The Jacket. Because of the Iraq war, a veteran returning home from combat becomes a timely theme again.
John Savage in The Deer Hunter (1978). The first important films about Vietnam were not made until several years after the end of that war.
Jake Gyllenhall in Jarhead (2004). By contrast, Iraq cinema has kept pace with the war itself.
In Stop-Loss (2008), veterans come home but cannot leave the war behind. This veteran sleeps in a ditch in his front yard, with his gun in hand.
The veteran's disillusionment has been a theme of many films. In Cold Mountain (2003), Civil War vet Inman (Jude Law) returns from the front to sacrifice himself for his community and his love Ada (Nicole Kidman).
Inman tells Ada about his ordeals in battle: “They kept trying to put me in the ground. But I wasn’t ready. Whatever was good in me I shot it dead.”
In The Roaring Twenties, Cagney plays a World War I doughboy who cannot find legitimate work after returning to the U.S.. The cold-bloodedness of his combat experience leads into a life of crime.
In The American Soldier (1970) Fassbinder deconstructs the trope of the warrior in society, purging all vestiges of the detested feminine yet succumbing ironically to a doom brought about by women themselves.
Harold Russell, a World War II amputee, received an Oscar for his portrayal of a troubled vet in The Best Years of Our Lives (1946).
The Best Years of Our Lives, a quintessential male-melodrama, was one of the first films to examine the psychological difficulties of combat veterans returning to domestic marriages and families.
Chris Marker stops time by creating a film made of still images. La Jetée, like The Jacket, is about time travel.
In 12 Monkeys, based on La Jetée, an everyman is sent into the past to collect data about a pre-apocalyptic world.
With increased numbers of servicemen and women returning to U.S. society from war zones in the Middle East and elsewhere, the problem of the veteran’s re-assimilation to civilian life has become the stuff of timely cinematic drama. There has been a spate of recent Hollywood films about Iraq, including Jarhead (2004), Rendition (2007), In the Valley of Elah (2007) and Stop-Loss (2008). Most of these films take the somewhat equivocal stance of being “pro-soldier/anti-war.” One either believes in the Iraq war or one doesn’t, and it’s only humane to be “pro-soldier” when considering the enormous risk these fighting men and women have placed themselves in under the name of a dubious agenda so ill-defined and often mismanaged by the Bush/Cheney administration. But are these films really helping any kind of cause? Or are they symptomatic of a tendency, already becoming deeply ingrained in our media culture, to fictionalize the real and turn it into a kind of escapism that assuages guilt while changing nothing?
Unlike Vietnam cinema, whose first important exemplars — The Deer Hunter (1978), Coming Home (1978), Apocalypse Now (1979) — were not made until several years after the U.S. pullout from Saigon, Iraq war cinema has kept pace with the war itself. This mania for being current, which characterizes our present time, often leads to muddled, undigested statements that mirror the distracted/distracting way in which the real war has been prosecuted and covered. From day one, the invasion and occupation of Iraq have already been promoted, shamefully, as a kind of mass-escapist entertainment (escapism from fears of 9/11 and doubts about U.S. world dominance) and milked for opportunities for jingoistic political spectacle. In a conflict where reporters have been embedded and more or less de-fanged, and where photographs of potentially demoralizing U.S. casualties were criminalized by fiat in the Bush era, we probably need more documentary, and less fictional, evidence about the Iraq experience.
To a great degree Iraq differs from all other “official” wars that the United States has waged, in that many of the coalition soldiers are well-paid contractors who have signed up, not with the army, but with private military firms. In his landmark study, Corporate Warriors (2003), P. W. Singer asks whether the recent proliferation of these private firms, with their tendency to exploit warfare for profit and stock-option speculation, is eroding our trust in social institutions. He writes,
Privately contracted armies are like Pandora’s box: once sprung upon us, they are unlikely to go away. Singer’s only real conclusion to the thorny problem of how to provide international security in a complicated globalized marketplace is that changing times require changing ingenuities. But whatever we might think of wars themselves or the people who inevitably profit by them, one constant remains — that the combat veteran continues to have a difficult and traumatic experience. A figurehead of barely commensurable contradictions, trained both to unquestioningly obey all orders from above and also to kill at will, the veteran can become a painful misfit when he must re-learn how to function beyond the military’s strict disciplinary codes. Sometimes he can never re-learn this.
If the nineteenth was the century of industrial capitalism and the twentieth the century of advanced, post-industrial capitalism, then the twenty-first century (or at least its first eight years) seem to be an era of “psychotic capitalism,” lacking moral restraint or social conscience. Now single big-grab payoffs are favored over long-term investments, insider trading and illegal deals flourish under cover of respectability, and burnt bridges preempt cultivated business opportunities. The implosion of Wall Street and the investment banking system in the United States (even vaster in implication, perhaps, than the 1929 crash and the ensuing Great Depression) indicate psychotic capitalism writ large, leaving scorched earth rather than arable soil. It is as if the country assumes that whatever crime one can get away with amounts to sound business practice. And again, the effects of gambling with enormous sums of capital, as well as using extreme and potentially criminal methods of reaping and protecting further sums, characterize the privatized military sector, where any multi-millionaire can theoretically buy an army or armed conflict anywhere in the world. As Singer writes,
No longer beholden to the rational, psychotic capitalism runs amok, loses touch with right and wrong, and mortgages a steady, solid future for the adrenalin-rushing ups and downs of today.
And when the larger society suffers from a kind of mental instability, its individual citizens cannot be far behind, particularly those most burdened by having to do the “dirty work,” so to speak. We know all too well that combat veterans are subject to lingering psychological after-effects, perhaps most notably post-traumatic stress disorder. This diagnosis came to light in the wake of Vietnam but for all intents and purposes is probably no different than the “shell shock” that afflicted veterans of World War I. Because he can be seen as both an Everyman and an iconoclastic individual set apart from others, the war veteran has had a long history of being both hero and anti-hero in Hollywood cinema. The jaded, vengeful posse in John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) are Civil War vets, as is the weary infantryman, Inman (Jude Law), who returns from the front only to sacrifice himself for the good of his community and the woman he loves, Ada (Nicole Kidman), in Anthony Minghella’s Cold Mountain (2003). Cagney’s vicious gangster in The Roaring Twenties (1939) is a World War I doughboy who comes home to an America where he is reviled and denied honest work, while the amoral, emotionally vacant, cold-blooded men who slouch and swagger through the films noirs of the 1940s and 1950s are often veterans of World War II.
Many films argue that a penchant for killing, learned on the battlefield, cannot be unlearned in civilian life; in fact, killing is often the alienated veteran hero’s only entrée into civilian society, as a hired gun. Rainer Werner Fassbinder deconstructed this trope explicitly in The American Soldier (1970), in which a Vietnam vet is hired by a Munich police department to covertly assassinate its public enemies. He mainly kills women and one effeminate homosexual, so that the entire film reads as a surreal statement on how a hyper-macho (sub)culture, inculcated by war but extended into peacetime, seeks to relentlessly purge from itself all vestiges of the detested feminine element. At that film's end, by way of symbolic retribution, the U.S. soldier’s own mother and gay brother inadvertently bring about his doom.
It was World War II that produced what is perhaps the quintessential veteran saga, William Wyler’s ironically titled The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). The recipient of numerous Academy Awards, this well-known male-melodrama kaleidoscopes the stories of three returning veterans as they deal with alcoholism, depression, disabilities, and their inability to relate to their families. The film's driving theme is that the soldier’s experience of war is one which he cannot share with civilians who have never “been there.” This overwhelming feeling of isolation threatens the veterans’ stability, sanity, and future potential. The movie is painfully authentic: Harold Russell, one of the lead actors in The Best Years of Our Lives, was a real-life veteran who had lost his hands.
Tom Gregory’s comments about The Best Years of Our Lives are interesting in this regard:
However uncomfortable some of its scenes might be, The Best Years of Our Lives is nonetheless a kind of whitewash, as Jean-Luc Godard noted. Addressing the “myth of death in American cinema,” Godard establishes a distinction between two different kinds of mise-en-scene — for our purposes here, a crucial distinction.
It is overt emotionalism, sentimentality, combined with a flat Norman Rockwell-esque portraiture, that undermines the ostensible subject of The Best Years of Our Lives: dehumanization. Of course, those “aberrations of heart and mind” have come to signify our total interest in the arts, to the extent that one could argue they are now as predictable as anything else. But in films about veterans, where there are common elements such as emotional trauma, lingering violence, alienation from the society which the veteran once defended, we can return to Godard’s suggestion that these elements are more powerful when fully internalized by the mise-en-scene rather than externalized as set pieces and soap opera.
Two recent films, John Maybury’s The Jacket (2005) and David Ayer’s Harsh Times (2007), are an object lesson in this distinction. Both look specifically at the plight of Iraq and Gulf war veterans. Both are high-wire balancing acts, nervy, nightmarish, often stomach-turning. They also feel "ripped from the headlines" in an almost semi-inflammatory way. Writer-director Ayer has insisted: “[Harsh Times] isn’t a rap video . . . It’s more realistic.” Likewise, Maybury made these revealing comments about his research for The Jacket:
Aesthetically, the films play out somewhat differently from each other. Harsh Times is a far more conventional action film, and as such, it somewhat blurs the line between critique and exploitation. It makes the viewer complicit in the titillation produced by scenes of violence and macho posturing. In contrast, The Jacket is a comprehensive repudiation of violence on all levels: the violence of war, the violence of crime, the violence of domestic life, and the violence of the criminal justice system. Both The Jacket and Harsh Times mingle genres rather freely. Harsh Times darkens the classic “buddy film” with overtones of gangland noir. More imaginatively, The Jacket blends science fiction and politics with romance and family drama to create a unique and iconoclastic vision of contemporary United States. The Jacket qualifies as science fiction in that it is a time travel film, and also, in a related way, a film about a restless spirit trapped between death and existence. The granddaddy of such films, and by far the most poetic and groundbreaking of them, is probably Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1966), a short film made up not of live action but a series of oddly wistful still photographs. In a motif begun in Marker’s film, subsequent after-life fantasies such as Jacob’s Ladder (1990), The Crow (1994), and Terry Gilliam’s remake of La Jetée, 12 Monkeys (1995), the unfairness of a man’s sudden death causes him to come back to life in a kind of limbo state, attempting to redress some painful cosmic injustice and redeem his own thrown-away life.
In particular, 12 Monkeys parallels and prefigures The Jacket in its use of fatalism. In both films, time travel is used to suggest closed circles of eternal recurrence, in which an Everyman figure struggles with the inability to change the outcome of events. In 12 Monkeys, James Cole (Bruce Willis) is sent into the past from a post-apocalyptic future in which the remnants of the human race have been driven to live underground after a pandemic. His mission is ostensibly to observe and gather data. But he begins to take it upon himself to try to prevent the disease's spread in the first place, i.e., to change the course of events. However, his interference ensures two things: that the pandemic will occur as it was meant to, and that it will be blamed on someone other than the ones who started it, who are the ones who came to rule in the underground. Why the future would need to go back and ensure that the past will conform to its agenda (again) is less germane than the fact that, regardless of what new elements are tossed into the mix, the course of events remains unalterable. Jack Starks in The Jacket has more success in breaking out of this stifling logic but mainly because he does not set out to save an entire world but only a few people in it. Even then, like James Cole in 12 Monkeys, he has some difficulty escaping his own foreseen and pre-ordained doom.
Substituting a heightened dystopia for a corrupt or untenable reality is nothing new. Science fiction in general has long been recognized as having an affinity with political and social theory. For example, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1926) can be read as a veiled critique of the racist Nazi philosophy of subhumans ruled by supermen. If the alien-invasion films of the 1950s were largely covert stagings of anxieties surrounding the Cold War and the atomic bomb, then many sci-fi films of recent years could be deconstructed as allegories of life in an era of perceived disinformation. Superficially these films concern time warps and time travel, and they often take their cue directly and indirectly from Asian cinema’s use of the horror/sci-fi/fantasy genres to explore social disorder.
For example, Hideo Nakata’s Japanese film Ringu (1998) became a cult sensation and was remade as a Hollywood film called The Ring in 2000. In it, the ghost of an abused girl has become a ghost in the machine of technological society, sending her nightmares from beyond the grave in the form of a mysterious video-cassette whose gruesome images kill anyone who watches them within a week’s time. Curiosity triumphs over caution, and one by one the circle of people exposed to the deadly tape increases. Slaves to a culture industry which already indoctrinates them to passively accept what the media presents, the characters are willing, at least at one point, to pay the appointed price for having watched the forbidden tape:
Having lost hope in the future, the present is ready to shrivel up into the past. Likewise, Dark Water (2005) is a remake of another Nakata film, Honogurai mizu no soko kara (2000). In both versions, a single mother facing dire financial straits moves her young daughter into a rundown apartment that happens to be haunted by the ghost of an orphaned little girl. The past returns to swallow up the mother and daughter when the ghost demands that one of them sacrifice herself to become the dead girl’s playmate in eternity. As Nina K. Martin has written about Honogurai mizu no soko kara:
Put otherwise: as reification of the heartless demands which capitalism places on the underpaid and overburdened, both versions of the film drive the hard-working, well-meaning mother to ensure her daughter’s safe future by giving up her only and final possession — her own life. The relentless, seeping invasion of the water could also be read as a metaphor for wire-tapping and spying on ordinary citizens within their homes. We see that the most abused victim of psychotic capitalism is identical to the innocent who takes up residence in a haunted house, the poltergeist of which, an ambassador of antimatter, seeks to co-opt the living resident into its own limbo state. Adorno, who detested those genres which passed off horror and murder as entertainment, wrote:
Those “living” patterned and paraded “like dead matter” were clearly the Nazi troops themselves, every German man, woman and child subsumed under uniform, armband, ideological straitjacket. Certainly the veterans in both The Jacket and Harsh Times are similarly men for whom life and death have become conflated: already dead or doomed even when they seem to be superficially alive.
Still other examples indicate how political controversies have been explored in recent genre films, mainly science fiction. For example, The Lake House (2006) was adapted from the South Korean film Siworae (2000) by Eun-Jeong Kim and Ji-na Yeo. In it, a couple fall in love even though they are actually living two years apart from each other; they are connected by a “magic” mailbox in which they receive letters written to each other from the past/future. Under the surface of being a harmless, even sappy love story, The Lake House raises issues about what can and cannot be believed or trusted, as well as the fatalistic idea (again) that the past cannot save the future nor vice versa. Similarly, in Premonition (2007), a woman knows that her husband will die in a car accident on a given day but can do nothing to prevent it. Furthermore, she keeps reliving the last day of his life over and over, only to find him alive again the next day and still facing the same imminent danger. (Coincidentally, both The Lake House and Premonition star popular actress Sandra Bullock.) Most tellingly, perhaps, in Déja Vu (2006) and Next (2007), men attempt to go back in time or forward into the future to try to prevent 9/11-type disasters. In all of these films, ordinary people are forced to accept a difficult and inexplicable piece of knowledge at some cost to their sense of peace, order and sanity. The world as they have comfortably come to accept it is revealed to be more chaotic and unstable than they had assumed. They also have the added problem of ultimately being unable to prove this knowledge to those around them, again a possible allegory for a U.S. constituency that has the vague persistent feeling of being lied to about a whole host of issues: election fraud, Enron, Worldcom, torture at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, the deceptive pretext for the invasion of Iraq, the suspect “friendly-fire” death of serviceman Pat Tillman, and even our possible foreknowledge of the 9/11 attacks themselves.