Political Film Society - Three Kings

PFS Film Review
Three Kings


If war is hell, then going AWOL must be a relief. Not so in Three Kings (originally called "Spoils of War"), directed by David O. Russell, who also developed the screenplay after eighteen months of research about the waning days of Operation Desert Storm. At the beginning of the film (actually shot in the deserts of Arizona, California, and México), American troops are rounding up Iraqi prisoners of war, one of whom has a map sticking out of his anus. Reservists Sergeant Roy Barlow (played by Mark Wahlberg), Sergeant Chief Elgin (played by Ice Cube), and Private Conrad Vig (played by Spike Jonze), who have no "taste of battle," conclude that the map locates a storehouse of gold ingots stolen from Kuwait, and they are eager to purloin a few bars on the pretext of returning them to Kuwait. In comes Special Forces Major Archie Gates (played by George Clooney), who smells the plot and wants to join and of course lead the secret mission. Although Vig earlier sang the tune "We three Kings of Orient are . . . , " we are perhaps reminded that Alexandre Dumas's Three Musketeers were four. On the trail for news is reporter Adriana Cruz (played by Nora Dunn), who wants to film the real war, not the media pap served up by officials, but Gates arranges to divert her to another spot so that she will not film them replundering Kuwaiti treasure. The dialog of the film is at a rapid clip, as confusing as war itself, but Russell appears more interested in alerting us to the serendipities of the plot. For openers, Vig shoots an Iraqi in cold blood who is surrendering, and his various maladroit antics, including racist remarks, are excused by fellow soldiers as a function of the fact that he never finished high school, telling us that wartime atrocities often occur because we cannot expect every soldier (American or otherwise) to operate by the book. Adriana tries to find out whether Gulf War soldiers believe that the "Vietnam syndrome" is over, a concept that they never heard of, but the film tells us in due course that Operation Desert Storm is a macabre Vietnam replayed. When the four jeep to an oasis where the map indicates a cache of plunder from Kuwait, the war is supposed to be over, and American soldiers are under orders not to break the ceasefire. Iraqis seeking to revolt against Saddam Hussein (under "instructions" but clearly no supplies from President George Bush) are under the thumb of Iraqi soldiers, who have arrested the local ringleader, telling us that Bush was in effect responsible for the massacres of southern Iraqis who expected the arrival of American troops to help them to overthrow Saddam Hussein. Although the Iraqi soldiers try to deceive the Americans at first, they ultimately help to load ingots from a secret underground bunker into one of their trucks, the Americans' eyes are opened to the reality of desperate Iraqis who oppose Saddam Hussein. However, after they leave the oasis, the Iraqi soldiers bomb the truck and jeep and release poison gas, and most of the Americans quickly take refuge in another underground bunker along with more Iraqi rebels, who are controlling a fleet of limousines. However, Barlow has been captured and is being tortured at the first oasis by Iraqi soldier Captain Sa'id (played by Saïd Taghmaoui), who tells him that he lost his only son in the bombing of Baghdad and that he was trained in torture techniques by the Americans to fight Iran. When Sa'id asks Barlow to admit why the Americans have attacked Iraq, Barlow mouths the platitude that Iraq was attacked because it annexed Kuwait, and Sa'id then presents Barlow with a beverage that was the real reason for the war-oil. Meanwhile, the three American soldiers insist on returning to the first oasis to rescue Barlow, and the Iraqi rebels allow them to use the limousines on condition that they will provide safe conduct for the refugees to the Iranian border. During the ensuing battle Vig dies. Next, the three take on more refugees and lead the convoy to the Iranian border so that the refugees will reach safe haven. At this point, the American military command somehow discovers where the AWOL soldiers are located and helicopters to the Iran-Iraq border to apprehend the four. The three insist that the refugees should be allowed safe passage, and they persuade the regular army commander to do so before taking the AWOL soldiers back to face a court martial. Adriana gets the story, and the three are given honorable discharges thanks to her reporting. A special revelation in the film is what happens when a bullet hits someone: if the impact does not kill, sepsis (pathogenic bacteria invading the bloodstream) multiplies, and death follows if antibiotics are not available; the medical process is displayed through two animations during the film. Although the anti-war elements of the film should be clear to the perceptive filmviewer, the advertising and trailer direct audiences to yet another action film. The result is that some may not decode the full message, audiences seem to laugh in the wrong places, and there is not enough action to satisfy those who want to see the death penalty enacted on the screen. With the action and dialog at such a fast clip, the intrigued filmviewer may be challenged to see the movie again just to sort out the complexities, which prompt the Political Film Society to nominate Three Kings for an unprecedented four awards-as an exposé that raising political consciousness about the need for greater democracy in foreign policy decisionmaking, human rights issues involving both Iraq and the United States, and the need to resolve conflicts peacefully. MH

I want to comment on this film