The 1991 Persian Gulf War proved a much-needed victory for the American military, restoring both here and abroad the credibility that the United States had lost in Vietnam. Support for U.S. intervention against Iraq after its invasion of Kuwait wasn't universal, of course. Pope John Paul II and many others argued that additional diplomacy might have prevented the conflict, and that the damage to innocent Iraqi civilians was immoral and unnecessary.
But when American public opinion swung toward the hawkish view, some opponents of the war shifted gears and tried to stir up sympathy for another set of victims — Iraq's Shiite minority, whom the United States encouraged to rise up against Saddam Hussein but abandoned when the going got tough. This line of thinking went down badly with the public, because supporting the Shiites would have involved substantially more U.S. casualties. Furthermore, the Shiites have never done America any favors. From the hostage crises in Iran and Lebanon through the recent bombing of U.S. facilities in Saudi Arabia, the fundamentalist wing of this Muslim sect has schemed tirelessly to humiliate us as the Great Satan, killing American citizens in the process.
The Iraqi Shiites have given the U.S. other reasons to keep them at arm's length. Shiite persecution of Christians is well known. And our Saudi allies are afraid that, if they carved out a nation for themselves in southern Iraq, it would threaten the stability of the nonfundamentalist regimes in the region.
This complex but common-sense reasoning seems lost on the makers of Three Kings. Director-writer David O. Russell (Spanking the Monkey) and coscreenwriter John Ridley attack ex-President Bush by name for having gotten us into the war and, once involved, for allowing Saddam to crush the Shiites. Our former commander in chief is presented as an off-screen villain almost as bad as the Iraqi dictator.
But the filmmakers have more on their mind than politics. Their intention is to reinvent the war film, pushing the genre's conventions to its outer limits and adding something new to what's left. The result is a movie with plenty of attitude — an edgy, irreverent, unpredictable telling of a familiar story with the jagged rhythms of hip-hop and grunge music.
The opening sequence sets the tone. “Are we shooting people or what?” asks Sgt. Troy Barlow (Mark Wahlberg), who, out of ignorance or fear, guns down an Iraqi holding a white flag. The U.S. Army reservist shows a glimmer of conscience and expresses remorse, but this is quickly forgotten in the raucous celebration that greets Iraq's surrender. This lightly sketched moral conflict will be further developed when circumstances put him to the test.
While Barlow and his hillbilly buddy, Pvt. Conrad Vig (Spike Jonze), are rounding up prisoners, they discover a map with directions to Saddam's hidden bunkers, where millions in gold bullion are stored. As they wonder what to do, some other American combatants decide to cut themselves in for a piece the action: Special Forces Capt. Archie Gates (George Clooney), a take-charge cynic who's scheduled to retire from the regular Army in a month, and another reservist, Staff Sgt. Chief Elgin (Ice Cube), who's a baggage-handler back in the States and a born-again Christian. Ethically, these two are polar opposites, but greed overwhelms them both.
“What's the most important thing in life,” the officer asks after he's persuaded the enlisted men to go AWOL in pursuit of fabulous and illicit wealth. “Respect,” “love,” “God's will,” are some of the answers. “Necessity,” Gates replies, reflecting the pragmatic, dogeat-dog set of moral values he uses to justify their conduct.
At this point the movie looks like it's going to be just another ultraviolent, action adventure, buddy story. But our four heroes get tangled up in some unexpected complications which change their point of view. While hunting for the treasure, they are caught in the cross-fire between Saddam's Republican Guard, who are protecting his spoils of war, and the Shiite civilian populace, who have used the conflict to advance their own fight for freedom.
Barlow is taken prisoner and subjected to the same savagery which our heroes have seen inflicted on the Shiites. In a sick joke that underlines what the filmmakers think the whole war is about, he's tortured and forced to drink a quart of motor oil. Our heroes are forced to choose between going for the gold and doing the right thing, which the filmmakers define as helping the Shiites in a way that defies Bush's orders.
The movie's title is suggested by the three kings who followed a star to Bethlehem to worship the infant Jesus. It echoes a theme of two John Ford classics, Marked Men (1919) and Three Godfathers (1948), in which a trio of badmen redeem themselves during a desert trek.
American foreign policy has been at loose ends since the end of the Cold War. Our leaders can't decide to what degree policy should reflect moral principles while protecting our economic and political interests. Three Kings should be applauded for creating protagonists who must wrestle with these issues on personal terms. Their dilemma dramatizes Christian values like sacrifice and personal redemption. But it all seems too easy. They pay no price for their choices.
Where the film also fails is in its blend of excessive violence, profanity and sex scenes which ultimately numbs the audience and torpedoes any chance of it making a credible moral assessment of the Gulf conflict. Veterans Day fare it's not.
Arts & Culture correspondent John Prizer writes from Los Angeles.