War movies are hit-and-miss with me. I haven’t seen Saving Private Ryan all the way through (don’t judge me…). I loved American Sniper—it’s a story that, I think, needed to be told. The Patriot is a good one—an annual watch, like James Cameron’s Titanic—if a bit far-fetched, but that’s just how Roland Emmerich directs. Other than that, I really don’t watch war films; not a fan of the subject, so I don’t entertain films related to or talking about it, usually.
This movie, though, had me seriously questioning my prior reservations about the genre.
Even though the story is set in 2007—after the reconstruction efforts began in the Middle-East—these are still US soldiers, armed to the teeth, in a foreign land. By definition, that’s a war film. However, it looks at very human concepts and issues—letting go, self-forgiveness, and the seeming endlessness of conflict amongst human beings. This is an intense movie, and asks us to look at ourselves and wonder when enough will finally be enough. An introspective, edge-of-your-seat cinematic experience.
As the trailer advertised, there are some slow moments, as well. I went in expecting this, but I still found myself nodding off during some scenes. It’s an interesting concept—like Alfred Hitchcock’s 1944 classic, Lifeboat—where the entire film takes place in a single setting (there’s another, more recent example, although I can’t think of it now), but it comes and goes. Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s Isaac comes to terms with his past mistakes in the military, forgiving himself in order to complete his task. That part, I really enjoyed; it’s the well-done evolution of a character that makes a film, for me. Laith Nakli—whose only credit in the film is his voice (we never see the character on-screen)—is fantastic, that kind of conniving, head-game villain that tries to chip away at Issac’s psyche while he bakes in the desert sun.
The characters, themselves, represent wartime feelings. Taylor-Johnson’s Isaac is the one fighting to accept the reality: War is ugly, won’t ever change, and it is he that must learn from his service and become a better man for his brothers-in-arms and his country. Nakli’s Juba is the wholeheartedly-committed one, looking for the madness to perpetuate itself (which it does, no spoilers), and will never give up the killing spree until he, himself, dies. John Cena’s Matthews is the one in the middle—quite literally. He’s absent for a lot of the discourse (as are those that talk about, but don’t rightly agree with, wartime policy). When—no spoilers—Isaac finds that Matthews’s way won’t help anyone, it’s up to the more level-headed among them (the one who knows war must exist and why, but also knows that it is the caliber of men that make all the difference in the outcome) that must take charge and do what is right for the greater good. This film is as much a discussion on the roots of good and evil among factions as it is an argument of the nature of the human soul. The frequent concentration on the face—specifically on the eyes as windows to the soul—is evidence of that.
The level of detail—even in the dull environment of an Iraqi desert—is astounding. Cut-away shots of trash rolling around and things in the environment being affected by the wind and sand really immersed me in the setting. Director Doug Liman (Edge of Tomorrow, The Bourne Identity) and his writers paid close attention to their visual storytelling aspects, and didn’t spell everything out for the audience. The continuity and attention to the fragility of Isaac’s situation adds realism, too; he’s stuck in a place and must use his wit and skill to survive…or die.
There’s a cliffhanger ending which just puts the period on all this, and it’s done effectively and chillingly. It’s not where I pictured the film ending, but that’s what I love about it—the filmmakers threw my assumptions out the window, and showed me something even better, even more unsettling, instead.
While a rollercoaster ride in good and bad respects, Doug Liman’s The Wall made me re-evaluate the formula of a good war film, and earns the final ‘Risk Assessment of ****/*.
Next review: Baywatch (2017)