My country, right or wrong

Rules Of Engagement (15) | Director: William Friedk | Starring: Tommy Lee Jones, Samuel L Jackson, Guy Pearce, Ben Kingsley | 127
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The Independent Culture

The Big Picture

The Big Picture

Should you be in the dark as to what the US military code known as "rules of engagement" actually means, don't worry - according to the courtroom-combat drama Rules of Engagement, the US military doesn't seem to have much of a clue either. Upon this confusion hinges a potentially fascinating movie that involves tough questions about the use of force in a military-civilian conflict, and about the way a culture values human life in relative terms. The key word there is "potentially": this year, in Three Kings, we've already seen an American movie bravely, if not always coherently, take issue with the behaviour of American troops on foreign soil. Would it be unrealistic to expect another?

If the director William Friedkin is way past his prime - his best work, The French Connection and The Exorcist, dates from the early Seventies - then at least the film goes in to bat with two solid leads. Samuel L Jackson and Tommy Lee Jones have the right bearing and gravitas for career soldiers, and in the latter at least there's always a humanising undercurrent of regret to soften the clipped formality.

Jones plays Marine Colonel Hays Hodges, about to retire after a wound in Vietnam 30 years back invalided him back home to a legal desk job; divorce, drink and a dose of the Nam flashbacks have plagued him along the way.

There to award him his retirement present and a manly bear-hug is his old friend Col Terry Childers (Jackson), whose career has taken him on a rather different path; tours of duty in Vietnam and the Gulf have earned him a reputation as "the warrior's warrior", a title shortly to be tested in the volatile climes of the Middle East.

Childers has been deputed to lead a "babysitting" mission into Yemen, where the US embassy is reportedly undergoing some local difficulties. As the helicopter gunships descend overhead, the true scale of the problem becomes apparent: the embassy building is besieged by a large mob of angry demonstrators, while snipers on the roof opposite take potshots. The nature of their grievance isn't clear, and Childers hasn't the time to find out, in any case. It's roiling chaos in there, and some quick decisions have to be made. The film's background volume is turned so high during these scenes that it's well-nigh impossible to hear anybody whose voice is pitched below a shriek.

With the cool-headed command he's famous for, Childers sorts out his priorities immediately; first, he helps the US ambassador (Ben Kingsley), his wife and their terrified kid into a waiting chopper, then he sprints to the top of the building and, under heavy gunfire, rescues the American flag - raise those cheers - which he deposits in the hands of the departing dignitary. Thus do the stars earn their stripes.

What follows, however, rather undermines this noble work. With three of his men already killed in action, Childers decides that enough is enough and gives the order to return fire. His men empty their guns on the demonstrators below, a crowd that includes unarmed women and children. By the end of this engagement, 83 Yemeni civilians are dead and over 100 are wounded, and American diplomacy is in tatters. Back home the National Security Adviser, William Sokal, (Bruce Greenwood) takes steps to deflect world outrage by making an example of Childers and putting him on a court martial.

"They killed three of ours," an underling objects. "And we killed 83 of theirs," Sokal snaps back, a point that remains essentially unarguable throughout the movie, though it is Sokal who is cast as the villain of the piece for suppressing videotaped evidence that supposedly exonerates the charged colonel.

With a courtroom drama in the offing, we brace ourselves for the film to prick its fingers on the thorny ethical issues arising from the massacre. Childers has asked Hodges to be his attorney, first because he needs a man who knows combat at first hand, and second, because Hodges owes Childers his life after the latter made another horrifyingly cold-blooded decision in Vietnam, reprised at the beginning of the film. With only days to go before the trial, Hodges makes a journey back to Yemen, where he discovers the consequences of his friend's action: a hospital full of maimed or blinded Yemeni children.

It's rather like Holly Martens visiting the children's hospital in The Third Man and learning the consequences of Harry Lime's heartless profiteering. Only it isn't. For while the film seems to have fastened on to some thought-provoking material, it's just a diversion from its real agenda, namely, justifying America's self-appointed role as global police force.

How interesting it might have been if Hodges had truly doubted his friend's integrity and raised the subject that's been unspoken between them for nearly 30 years. How unusual it might have been to examine the thin line that divides being "charged with murder and hailed as a hero".

But no, the military looks after its own, and Childers' insistent plea that his own men were being shot at is deemed a valid defence. What the film argues, without ever articulating it, is that the life of a US marine is more valuable than that of some "raghead" protester. Nothing said in the courtroom contradicts this view. As prosecuting counsel, the Australian Guy Pearce (as good as he was in LA Confidential) gives a crisp and invigorating performance; he judges a tricky role just right - not so sharp that he outwits Tommy Lee Jones, not so sympathetic that he's a pushover - but he's still a fall-guy to the film's chauvinism.

The longer Rules of Engagement goes on, the more obviously rigged it looks. Nobody, for instance, asks Childers why he didn't order his men to fire over the heads of the crowd and try to disperse them. Nor is it explained how a fist-waving, stone-throwing rabble was suddenly transformed into a fighting unit armed with automatic weapons (there's a disgraceful shot of a little girl firing a gun - the one implicating the many). Worse, the film isn't just a defence of the present American military; it makes an opportunistic bid to dignify its past, wheeling on a Vietcong colonel to make an all's-fair-in-war admission that wipes Childers' ( and, by extension, America's) slate clean.

By the end, you wouldn't bat an eyelid if Childers were seen getting another medal pinned to his chest. The reason for this spree of self-justification may be located in the person of James Webb, a former US Secretary of the Navy, who is credited with the film's story. One hopes that Mr Webb exercised more honesty as a government official than he does as a writer.