Americans may be tired of being at war but they’re not tired of war movies. The Oscar-winning Hurt Locker on Iraq in 2008 and 2010’s award-winning Restrepo, a documentary on Afghanistan, provided day-to-day grit in what no one anymore likes to call the war on terror, and both showed why that’s exactly what it is.
The Hornet’s Nest (rated R for language) follows similarly in its gritty portrayal, bringing to life in real-time footage Operation Strong Eagle 3, a 2011 battle in Afghanistan’s Kunar Province that involved hundreds of Afghan and U.S. soldiers from the 101st Airborne. From the beginning we see what U.S. military personnel are up against: A cache of missiles turns up in village hideouts, and children are the victims of IEDs the soldiers try to thwart. Spc. Bret Kadlec hears a couple of Afghans whispering, only to discover “they were right in the trees above us.” The militants flip their weapons to fire, and “it was all pretty much chaos from there.”
War is chaos but a documentary about it shouldn’t be so hard to follow. The Hornet’s Nest struggles for narrative arc, plus makes the mistake of casting the journalist-narrator rather than the soldiers in the leading role.
Veteran war correspondent Mike Boettcher takes with him on this particular military embed his estranged son Carlos. That in itself could be a story. But despite Boettcher’s overwrought narration, we rarely see the two together once they make it to the airport, and there’s no tangible resolution in the relationship.
Likewise, so many soldiers are shown so fleetingly it’s hard to track their stories in what proves to be a costly battle. In the end everyone comes off one-dimensional, from soldiers with their expletive-laced camaraderie to the Afghan villagers all out to betray them to the journalist who can’t keep himself on the sidelines, where he belongs.
Americans present and future could appreciate more documentary film work about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—but as stories worth telling, not shoot-outs cut and pasted together.
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Donald Rumsfeld Associated Press/Photo by Jacquelyn Martin
The Unknown Known
by Megan Basham
About halfway through the new documentary, The Unknown Known, culled from 30-plus hours of interview material with Donald Rumsfeld, director Errol Morris asks the former secretary of defense about his first impression of Saddam Hussein. Rumsfeld appears to ponder the question for a moment then comments, “He was living his image of himself, which was pretend.”
The camera then lingers for several long, awkward moments on Rumsfeld’s face, apparently inviting the viewer to consider that the same may apply to the film’s subject. Yet, with the exception of some seriously indicting film editing, nothing Rumsfeld has said invites the comparison. The irony is totally in Morris’ mind, and a similar disconnect between content and intent characterizes the entirety of his film.
Morris achieved filmmaking fame (and an Academy Award) with the 2003 documentary The Fog of War, in which he managed to get Vietnam-era Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara to confess that some of his actions may have constituted war crimes. Throughout The Unknown Known, Morris seems to think he has something similar on Rumsfeld—some damning admission or unintentionally revealing comment—that he doesn’t. He asks questions that, to a conservative point of view at least, seem at best naive, at worst childlike (i.e., what if Saddam Hussein had been killed in a missile strike? Could the Iraq War have been avoided?). He then seems frustrated as Rumsfeld proceeds to dismantle the premise of his questions or treats them with the lack of seriousness they deserve.
Instead, what slowly and subtly emerges of Rumsfeld is someone with honorable intentions and a greater sense of wit and self-deprecation than most younger, millennial viewers previously would have imagined of a man who’s been painted as one of recent history’s greatest villains. For example, Rumsfeld’s staff had termed the voluminous memos for which he was notorious “snowflakes.” In a sly wink to this, he titled his last “The Blizzard Is Over.” Morris’ documentary even had uber-leftwing TV host Bill Maher defending the man, informing a crestfallen Morris that the documentary left Maher with a sense of Rumsfeld’s humility and nuance, a sense of a man who “thinks about things.”
Perhaps that’s why Rumsfeld made the seemingly inexplicable decision to participate in the unapologetically liberal Morris’ documentary. He believed that even with a deck as outsized as 33 hours of interview material culled down to 140 minutes working against him, he’d be able to defend the rationale behind the Iraq War, even if some of that rationale eventually proved incorrect.
In this, Rumsfeld’s bet largely pays off, particularly when he expresses his sincere regret and sense of failure for the abuses that took place in Abu Ghraib. If anything, Morris’ lens lingering on the notorious photos of nude prisoners comes off a bit petty in light of the great questions and responsibilities Rumsfeld had to grapple with during his time in the Bush administration.
The title of the film comes from Rumsfeld’s explanation of a 2004 memo where he detailed the central challenges of intelligence gathering, namely that, along with what we know and what we do not know, there are also “unknown knowns”—things that we know that we don’t yet realize we know. When Morris informs him that in the actual memo he defined the term as things we think we know that later turn out to be wrong, Rumsfeld looks surprised, but not particularly flustered. “Is that what it says?” he asks. “Well, I think that memo is reversed. I think it’s closer to what I’ve said here.” Then he smiles the same relaxed, comfortable-in-his-own-skin smile he’s been indulging nearly all of Morris’ semantics-splitting questions with and shrugs. “I think you’re probably chasing the wrong rabbit.” Indeed.
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Gospel for Asia
Veil of Tears
by Sophia Lee
Have you ever seen the face of a woman who spends her days waiting to die? You’ll see close-ups of many such faces in Veil of Tears, a new documentary that uncovers what one Indian woman calls “the darkest side of our country”: the bitter, lifelong oppression of women in India, all for the crime of being born female.
Veil of Tears, directed and produced by award-winning filmmaker brothers Kenny and Kyle Saylors (Kimjongilia), is meant to make you squirm and gasp until you feel charged with the desire to do something. At times, it feels like a promotional piece for its sponsor, Gospel for Asia (GFA), a mission organization that supports indigenous missionaries from West Africa to East Asia. But the 90-minute film successfully depicts—with powerful human stories, shocking statistics, and gripping imageries—why mission work in India is so important.
Here are some of the atrocities still happening in a country with one of the world’s largest and fastest growing economies: Husbands pass wives from neighbor to neighbor for prostitution that pays for the husbands’ gambling and drink. Suicide rates among women in India are 21 times the average rate worldwide. In 2010, there were 8,391 confirmed dowry-related deaths. Every hour, a husband burns his bride alive. About 46 million widows languish in mud-caked slums, banished by in-laws because a wife bears the blame for her husband’s early death. Gender-selected abortion and infanticide are common; India has 37 million more men than women.
Despite the heavy subject, the film bursts with the rich colors of saris, the cheers of waving children, and realistic snippets of daily life: flies crawling over toes and noses, women washing clothes on a communal river while naked kids wade and splash, and even a shot of two men tussling and pulling hair on the back of a pickup truck. In between such shots, GFA missionaries and founder K.P. Yohannan explain why there’s a persisting disconnect between Indian government efforts to eradicate inequality and the thousands-year-old caste system and gender discrimination—and how the gospel of Christ can bring transforming change.