Even if one considers the fact that it wasn’t
until a few years after the war in Vietnam concluded
before any real cinematic testimonials to this event
— “Apocalypse Now,” “The Deer
Hunter,” etc. — were released, it’s
difficult to overlook this simple fact: it’s
been nearly three years since September 11th, and
STILL no one in Hollywood is willing to speak up.
Aside from Michael Moore’s upcoming “Fahrenheit
9/11” — a film that lost its backing not
once but twice as studio executives everywhere cowered
— and “11'09"01,” the little
seen collection of vignettes made by an international
array of prestigious directors (including Ken Loach
and Amos Gitai), mainstream cinema seems, frankly,
too frightened to make a statement about what is perhaps
the most politically and socially turbulent time in
America’s history in thirty years.
That being the case, it still seems nearly impossible
not to look at modern cinema through post-9/11
eyes. Few critics neglected to point out the newfound
subtext of “Lord of the Rings,” “Black
Hawk Down” and “Gangs of New York,”
but those films started rolling before the phrase
“let’s roll” had any special meaning.
Much more fascinating has been the strange influx
of what might best be described as “revenge
movies.” In a time when “an eye for an
eye” is a more quoted Biblical passage than
“turn the other cheek,” there can be no
lack of importance to examining the underlying ideologies
of these films.
Sean Penn stars in two of the more thoughtful revenge
themed films: Clint Eastwood’s “Mystic
River” and Alejandro González Iñárritu’s
“21 Grams” (both Iñárritu
and Penn contributed segments to “11'09"01”).
In “River,” violence and revenge is shown
to be a never ending cycle: as a child, Dave (Tim
Robbins) is raped; as an adult, he feels compelled
to beat to death a man he witnesses receiving oral
sex from a young boy. As a result, he is mistaken
for the murderer of the daughter of his friend, Jimmy
(Sean Penn). Jimmy, in turn, discovers it was the
son of one of his previous victims, and not Dave,
who shot his child — and finally, another cop
pal Sean (Kevin Bacon), chillingly mimes shooting
Jimmy — a not so subtle declaration that he
will soon take his own revenge.
This could go and on and on if Eastwood didn’t
choose to roll credits. It’s a powerful message
that stays with you, and it’s one of the reasons
why Eastwood’s film turned out to be one of
Hollywood’s most rewarding last year. Eastwood
is supposedly a devout Republican, but by populating
his film with avowed celebrity liberals, he emphasizes
the socio-political underpinnings of what might otherwise
have been just a good murder mystery.
Jonathan Hensleigh’s “The Punisher,”
by contrast, condones revenge as adamantly as “River”
condemns it. Hensleigh crafts pornography for lovers
of violence: the titular hero (Thomas Jane) watches
his son, wife, mother, father, siblings, uncles, aunts,
cousins, dog, gold fish, etc., get slaughtered before
having to endure an emasculated justice system that
fails to punish the evildoers.
Like Baby Bush ignoring the U.N.’s pleas for
some level-headedness, The Punisher ignores the police
and takes justice into his own hands, rationalizing
and distancing himself from the suffering he will
cause: “This isn’t vengeance,” he
proclaims in voice over narration, “It’s
punishment.” Hensleigh fails to take the Eastwood
route of noting that Saint and Castle are actually
mixed up in their very own never-ending cycle of revenge:
the film opens with The Punisher, a cop, having an
Amadou Diallo moment and shooting Saint’s unarmed
son in a bust gone awry.
What does connect “River” and “Punisher”
(or the nearly identical actioneers “Man on
Fire” and “A Man Apart” —
the former of which actually has our noble American
hero doling out his punishment to corrupt “savages”
in the third world) are their portrayal of what Jonathan
Shay, M.D., Ph.D., writing in his book “Achilles
in Vietnam,” calls the “berserk state”
— a state of mind in which someone is so overcome
with the need for revenge that he or she becomes “socially
disconnected... enraged, cruel, without restraint...
devoid of fear... inattentive to [his] own safety...
indiscriminate [and] reckless.”
Shay was studying the connection between Achilles,
the protagonist of Homer’s epic “Iliad,”
and Vietnam vets with post-traumatic stress disorder.
The state is actually best depicted in “A Man
Apart,” in a scene when Vin Diesel’s bereaved
“hero” is so anxious to kill his enemies
that he looses all verbal skills and endangers the
life of his partners, but it’s there, too, in
the look of rage in Dave’s eyes as a beats a
child molester in “River” and in the simultaneously
homicidal and suicidal Punisher’s refusal to
share his grief with those around him.
What all of these filmmakers understand, either inherently
or intellectually, is the lack of logic inherent in
the need for revenge. But Hensleigh romanticizes the
berserk state, concluding that the blind rage that
comes with it can be an invaluable tool for justice
seekers. And while "berserkers," overflowing
with anger and without regard for their own lives,
often do, consequently, become, “unstoppable
killing machines”— Shay notes that soldiers
often wanted to be patrol with these men because it
made them feel safe — Hensleigh (and filmmakers
like him) implies that it’s okay to exploit
the berserker’s need for revenge.
No film understand this exploitation better than
“Troy” (based, of course, on the “Iliad”
of which Shay writes). Poorly written, blandly directed,
and horribly acted, “Troy” is, nonetheless,
the most politically relevant movie released since
last year’s invasion of Iraq. Director Wolfgang
Petersen and screenwriter David Benioff expertly portray
the manner in which tyrant king Agamemnon (Brain Cox)
takes advantage of both his brother’s desire
for revenge and Achilles’ berserk state for
his own “nation building” purposes. The
film ultimately does even “Mystic River”
one better: it expands the dangers of revenge from
the personal to the societal, from the irresponsibility
of the Hensleighs to the insanity of the Bushes.
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