Back to the future

In 1999, Three Kings - a film on the Gulf War - made little impact. Today, it seems chillingly prescient, says Andrew Gumbel

An exchange of mails

In the summer of 1999, the director David O Russell ran into George Bush - then an aspiring candidate for President - at a fundraiser. Russell told him that he was making a film that was critical of his father's Gulf War legacy in Iraq. To which Bush shot back: "Then I guess I'm going to have to go finish the job, aren't I?"

Portentous as that reply was, it was not exactly what Russell had in mind. The film, Three Kings, was indeed sharply critical of the way the US military had abandoned Iraq's anti-Saddam rebels to their fate in the spring of 1991. But it was also a scathing and, in the minds of its admirers, refreshingly honest examination of the follies of US military power in general.

Suddenly, five years on, it seems extraordinarily timely. While Michael Moore's anti-Bush documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 is generating all the comment - and winning the Palme d'Or at Cannes - it is Russell's film that arguably has the more subtle, more enduring perspective on a post-Cold War world coming dangerously unstuck.

Instead of the usual Hollywood tale of hardened US soldiers overcoming adversity through their wits, their firepower, and an unwavering belief in the righteousness of their mission, Three Kings has protagonists who are bored, opportunistic, confused about a war they never got a chance to fight properly, and dangerously impulsive.

Their daring little adventure, locating the gold bullion that Saddam Hussein's men had removed from Kuwait, and stealing it back for themselves, quickly leads them into more trouble than they could have imagined. To everyone's surprise, the Iraqis turn out not to be cartoon cut-out enemies, but human beings with their own complex set of problems - caused in no small part by US political decisions - to which firepower alone provides no answer. Soon, it becomes difficult to say for sure who the good guys are, or even if it is possible to be a good guy in the moral quagmire of a post-war Iraq.

Already in 1999, Three Kings came across loud and clear as a Hollywood war movie like no other. Seen through the present-day prism of the invasion and occupation of Iraq, with its attendant chaos, brutality and deep cultural antipathies, it looks something very close to a masterpiece. Not only does it have a visual flair and irreverence reminiscent of the best Vietnam War movies of the Seventies, its prescience is extraordinary. To a startling degree, its themes and preoccupations - everything from the limits of US power to the corrosive moral paradoxes of torture - have become the daily fodder of our newspapers and TV bulletins.

I discussed this with Russell while he was rushing to finish his latest film, I Heart Huckabee's, starring Jude Law and Dustin Hoffman. In person, he displayed the same acerbic intelligence about events in the Middle East as he had on the big screen.

"When I wrote Three Kings," he began, "I couldn't believe that nobody else had done a film about the Gulf War - about the fact that it had been heralded as such a success, and the yellow ribbons around trees and all that, and it was a bunch of horseshit.

"We had basically saved rich Kuwait, period. The great irony to me was that, at the time, we had an international coalition, but Bush the First seemed unwilling to use the momentum at the time to urge that coalition to create a democratic Iraq. Now it's happening without international support, making it so much more difficult."

I put it to Russell that one of the most impressive, and prescient, things about Three Kings is its depiction of the deadly confusions that arise when well-intentioned official US rhetoric is at variance with more insidious realities on the ground. This was his response: "When I was researching Three Kings, I repeatedly met US soldiers who said that they had been torn apart at the end of the war when they were forbidden to assist in the democratic uprising against Saddam. All of the extras were Iraqi refugees who'd come to America after the war. They all had been dumbfounded that the Western powers had not helped them to overthrow Saddam.

"A similarity between the two Gulf Wars is that they both completely ignore the main issue, the pink elephant in the middle of the room, or should I say black elephant - oil. We have participated in supporting corrupt dictatorships for the sake of oil. These dictatorships have spawned poverty, illiteracy, and angry Muslim fundamentalism.

"The dictators have loved this game, because it keeps the heat off them while the mullahs rail against the satanic West. We have participated in this game for no good reason, and now it is biting us on the ass in a karmic pay-off. We could have been off of foreign oil over a decade ago, but Republicans keep telling us to just drive bigger cars and not worry. And, by the way, Clinton and Gore didn't do shit to challenge this, either."

Russell's film is very eloquent about US inconsistency in the face of Saddam's excesses; happy to blow the morality trumpet to justify liberating Kuwait, but equally happy to abandon the anti-Saddam rebels to their fate. I wondered what he made of the pro-war line that to oppose last year's invasion was to condone Saddam's brutality. "It's a twisted game Bush plays, because, of course, Saddam is a dick and the world is better off without him. But weren't the hijackers from Saudi Arabia? And isn't Bin Laden from Saudi Arabia? And isn't there evidence of Saudi support for al-Qa'ida? And doesn't the Bush family have a long incestuous oil relationship with the Saudis?

"There's a possibility that, in the long long term, the takeover of Iraq as a democratic starting point in the region could work out. But it doesn't seem the right place to start. I think our energy policy is the place to start, and then Saudi Arabia."

The wonder of Three Kings is that it was not some low-level art-house labour of love, but a big-budget, big-studio action adventure with an all-star cast led by George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg and Ice Cube. From the start, though, we know we have stepped a long way from the usual Hollywood clichés. In the opening sequence, an Iraqi conscript coming forward to surrender is shot in the neck for no reason. The US reservist who hits him is guided not by policy, but by his anxiety to see some action before he leaves the desert.

It gets even darker. The uniformed men openly mock a TV reporter as she talks on air about America restoring the honour it lost in Vietnam. A Special Forces captain (George Clooney), takes a rival reporter into a satellite shed and humps her with abandon. A Christian black reservist (Ice Cube) takes exception to the terms "dune coon" and "sand nigger" for the enemy; "towel head" and "camel jockey" are suggested as perfectly good substitutes.

Twenty minutes in, you wonder how Russell ever got away with making this movie. But then the psychological complexity of his characters kicks in, along with the rollicking plot, and you realise how deftly he manages to adhere - just - to Hollywood conventions of story structure and narrative development, even as he throws everything else on its head.

The encounters between Americans and Iraqis are anything but obvious. The Shia Muslims, with their beards and veiled women, turn out to be highly conversant with late-model American convertibles. Saddam's men are not evil as such, just trying to survive, like everyone else. Mark Wahlberg's character, the reservist who fires the opening shot, ends up empathising to a surprising degree with the Iraqis, but, paradoxically, learns his most powerful lessons from a torturer who pours crude oil down his throat to ram home the true nature of US interests.

I asked Russell about this scene in the light of recent revelations about US mistreatment of prisoners. "What motivated me to do that scene was the irony that our intelligence specialists had trained the Iraqis in torture techniques when they were fighting Iran. We've done this all over the world. I can't say I'm surprised that our military has done this, given that it has been a part of our military or intelligence culture for too long, as disgraceful as this is."

Perhaps the Bush administration and the US public should have paid closer attention to this film and its lessons before throwing themselves behind last year's invasion. After watching Three Kings, the ostensible global struggle between good and evil can never look quite the same again.

An exchange of mails 

David O Russell took time out from the editing room, where he is busyfinishing off I Heart Huckabee's, starring Jude Law, Naomi Watts and DustinHoffman, to answer questions about Three Kings. Over a two-week period, weexchanged emails about US follies in the Middle East, both past andpresent, and the ways in which the themes and preoccupations of Russell'sfilm have been illuminated by recent events.

Andrew Gumbel: Do we have a distorted historical memory of the first GulfWar? If so, how have the distortions clouded more recent thinking aboutIraq and US military power?

David O Russell: When I wrote Three Kings, I actually could not believethat nobody else had done a film about the first Gulf War - about the factthat it had been heralded as such a success and the yellow ribbons aroundthe trees and all that, and it was such a bunch of horseshit. We hadbasically saved rich Kuwait, period. The great irony to me was that, at thetime, we HAD an international coalition, but Bush the First seemedunwilling to use the momentum at the time to urge that coalition to createa democratic Iraq. Now it's happening without international support, makingit so much more difficult.

AG: One of the most impressive, and prescient, things about Three Kings isits depiction of the deadly confusions that arise when well-intentionedofficial US rhetoric is at variance with more insidious realities on theground. Was this something that struck you particularly about the firstGulf War? Or is it part of your general outlook on US  policy?

DOR: When I was researching Three Kings, I repeatedly met American soldierswho said they had been torn apart at the end of the war when they wereforbidden to assist in the democratic uprising against Saddam. All of theextras in the film were Iraqi refugees who'd come to America after the war.They all had been heartbroken and dumbfounded that the western powers hadnot helped them overthrow Saddam.

A similarity between the two Gulf Wars is that they both completely ignorethe main issue, the pink elephant in the middle of the room, or should Isay black elephant - oil. Here are the facts: We have participated insupporting corrupt dictatorships for the sake of oil. These dictatorshipshave spawned poverty, illiteracy, and angry Muslim fundamentalism. Thedictators have LOVED this game, because it keeps the heat off of them whilethe mullahs rail against the satanic West. We have participated in thisgame for no good reason whatsoever and now it is biting us on the ass in akarmic payoff. We could have been off of foreign oil over a decade ago, butRepublicans keep telling us to just drive bigger cars and not worry aboutit. And, by the way, Bill Clinton and Al Gore didn't do shit to challengethis, either, as they continued the 'indulgent parent' school ofleadership, afraid to lead the electorate into uncomfortable but, in thelongterm, better, safer places for everyone. If we'd been off foreign oil,we could've been pushing through the UN for democratic regimes and humanrights in these dictatorships.

AG: Your film is very eloquent about US inconsistency in the face ofSaddam's excesses; happy to blow the morality trumpet to justify liberatingKuwait but equally happy to abandon the anti-Saddam rebels to their fate.What do you make of the pro-war line that to oppose last year's invasionwas to condone Saddam's brutality? Has the US lurched from one morallycomplex situation that it oversimplified into another?

DOR: I got to meet George W at the home of then Warner Bros chairman TerrySemel, an opportunist who was jumping off Clinton and onto the Bushbandwagon at the time, and Bush didn't even have the nomination yet. I toldW I was making a film that would question his father's legacy in Iraq andhe immediately shot back: "Then I guess I'm going to have to go finish thejob, aren't I?" This was in July of '99. They had this plan a long timeago. The problem is, it's a shitty plan, because the right hand doesn'tlook at what the left hand is doing with oil, and you can't address Arabdictatorships without addressing oil and how we've been complicit in thecorruption of that region for our own ends.And it's a twisted game Bush plays - because, of course, Saddam is a dickand the world is better off without him. But, umm, weren't all of thehijackers from Saudi Arabia? And, umm, isn't Osama bin Laden from SaudiArabia? And, umm, isn't there evidence of Saudi support for al-Qa'ida? Anddoesn't the Bush family have a long incestuous oil relationship with theSaudis? So yes - Saddam bad, bery bery bad - but perhaps beside the pointand not the best place to start? I will also confess that I do believethere is a possibility that in the long long term, the takeover of Iraq asa first democratic starting point in the region could work out. I don'trule that out with any certainty. But still, it just doesn't seem like itwas the right place to start - I think our energy policy is the firstplace to start, and then Saudi Arabia.

AG: You've come out publicly in opposition to the war. Was that astraightforward view to reach?

DOR: It was not easy for me to be opposed to the war - it was not obviousbecause I knew all these iraqi guys from the movie, and I knew how muchthey wanted America to get rid of Saddam.And I do also think that Muslim culture is very difficult to bring into theage of democracy. Not an easy thing to do at all. Supporting oildictatorships for over 50 years didn't help, did it? All the more reason toproceed carefully and with as much international consensus as you can whenstepping into this prickly area. I honestly don't know what Bush expects tosee happen - he's pledged to pull out by June, hasn't he? There's no waythe country can be stabilised by then.

AG: Your film is regularly cited as one of the very few US movies that doesnot stereotype its Arab characters.Did you feel you were pushing againstthe cultural tide to portray Iraqis as full-fledged characters?

DOR: All the Arabs I worked with, whether advisors to the film or extras,were very used to being portrayed as bad guys in movies in an unflatteringlight. I have to admit there are REASONS for this, based in reality, but Ialso agreed with them that there are lots and lots of Arabs who are notlike this and they're not represented nearly enough in cinema.

AG: I have to ask you about the torture issue that has recently erupted.One reason for asking is because of the extraordinary torture scene inThree Kings.

DOR: What motivated me to do the torture scene in Three Kings was the ironythat OUR intelligence specialists had trained the Iraqis in torturetechniques when they were fighting Iran. We have done this all over theworld. We have spread torture techniques and weaponry. I can't say I'msurprised that our military has done this, given that it has been a part ofour military or intelligence culture for too long, as disgraceful as thisis.

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