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Four Movies on Conflict in the Islamic World

It just so happens that through the wonders of DVR and Netflix in the last couple of weeks I viewed four award-winning movies on various conflicts in the Islamic world that range from the excellent to the very entertaining.  The films are: The Battle of Algiers (1966), The Hurt Locker (2008), Zero Dark Thirty (2012), and Argo (2012).

The best of these films is The Battle of Algiers, which was nominated for three Oscars, including best foreign film.  It covers the conflict between France and the Algerian independence movement from 1954 to 1962.  Commissioned by the Algerian government but produced and directed by Italian cinema, it is a remarkably evenhanded presentation of the horrors of urban warfare, including torture and the bombing of civilians.  Most importantly, the films shows how these horrors tragically lead to the radicalization, extremism and dehumanizing of the people caught in the middle of opposing forces.  When questioned by the press about his brutal tactics, Colonel Mathieu, leader of the French military forces, sums up the situation, “We want to stay, and they want us to go.”  The consequences of these contradictory purposes result in the moral ambiguity of the whole situation in which both the French and Algerians participate.  Colonel Mathieu’s analyses of how guerrilla movements work and the way to combat them are so incisive that the Pentagon actually held a screening of the film in 2003 to help understand the problems in Iraq.  It was promoted as showing “How to win a battle against terrorism and lose the war of ideas.”[1]  Unfortunately our leaders didn’t seem to take these lessons to heart.  The movie is available through Netflix.  Be sure to get the version with subtitles for the French and Arabic dialogue rather than the dubbed one.

The Hurt Locker is the story of a three-man American bomb disposal unit in the Iraqi War.  It won six Oscars, including best picture and best director for Kathryn Bigelow, the first woman ever to win that award.  The movie is an extremely tense drama and powerfully depicts the emotional and psychological stress on the men.  The portrayal of Staff Sargent William James, the risk-taking “cowboy” leader of the unit ably performed by Jeremy Renner, has been criticized by many veterans as being the last kind of person that should be the leader of a bomb squad.  While true, this criticism fails to appreciate one of the main themes of the movie, which begins with the quotation “War is a drug” taken from Chris Hedges’ book War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning.”  One of the tragedies of war is that the violence and tension are addictive.  Sargent James appears to be not a hero or a patriot so much as someone who is enslaved to the adrenaline rush of danger.  It’s the one thing that he truly loves.

Zero Dark Thirty, also directed by Kathryn Bigelow, won one Oscar and was nominated for four others, including best picture.  The plot concerns the ultimately successful American efforts to kill Osama bin Laden.  The graphic portrayal of torture, which resulted in important information leading to the success of the mission, has stirred up quite a bit of controversy on two accounts.  First, it is claimed that the film is historically inaccurate because information derived from torture was not crucial to the assassination of bin Laden.  Related is the criticism that the film was a politically motivated apology for the use of torture.  Whatever the legitimacy of these claims, they once again show how political heat leads to foggy critical appreciation.  Maya, the CIA intelligence analyst, played by Jessica Chastain in an Oscar-nominated role, is obsessed with getting bin Laden.  It is literally her whole life.  At the end of the film the pilot of the plane asks her where she wants to go.  She has no answer.  Whatever one thinks of the validity of her mission, Zero Dark Thirty does leave us with questions concerning what we dedicate our lives to.  Maya has lived ensuring the bin Laden got his just desserts, but once he is dead it seems as if her life is over too—another victim of war.

Finally, Argo, which won three Oscars, including best picture over Zero Dark Thirty, weaves a compelling tale of the rescue of six American embassy workers who were given shelter in the Canadian ambassador’s home after having escaped from the embassy when it was taken over by the Iranians.  Without a doubt Argo is the most entertaining of these four pictures.  Its thrilling final segment on the escape literally had me on my feet.  Unfortunately, the movie lacks the depth of the other three and can be justly criticized for historical inaccuracies.  Those thrilling and tension-packed scenes at the end are fictional.  While much leeway should be allowed for artistic license, there was no justification for the misrepresentation of the British and the New Zealand embassies.  In the film they are said to have turned the Americans away, when in fact they took great risks to help the Americans hide and escape.  This hurtful lie adds nothing to the dramatic effect of the film.

All four of these movies are worth watching, but especially the first three because of their effective presentation of the moral challenges of war to societies and individuals.  The Battle of Algiers is especially recommended because of how it gives us a glimpse into the justifiable rage that many Muslims often feel towards Westerners and how that rage leads to a murderous extremism that dehumanizes them and their victims.

[1] Cited in Wikipedia, The Battle of Algiers.

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