The Movie Club

Why War Movies Leave Me Cold
Critic vs. critic.
Jan. 2 2007 2:50 PM

The Movie Club

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Dear Keith, Carina, and Wesley,

Welcome to Slate's ninth annual Movie Club and the first one to be hosted by me—a somewhat intimidating fact, given that I've long been a big fan of this feature under the direction of my former colleague David Edelstein. I want us to stir the pot and get some heated discussions going this week, but before we start, please know that I'm delighted to have you all to squabble, pontificate, and crab about movies with. I just wish we all lived in the same city, so that we could do it as it should be done: over drinks.

Dana Stevens Dana Stevens

Dana Stevens is Slate's movie critic.

I'm going to start with a personal confession that I hope will open out onto some bigger questions—not only about this year's movies, but about the ever-scarier world outside the theater. Here goes: I don't like war movies. Worse, I don't seem to get war movies. Even as the lizard part of my brain recoils appropriately from images of young men blasted to bits by bombs, my higher faculties inevitably shut down, and any cinematic subtleties are lost on me. It's as if I myself, as a viewer, were suddenly plunged into a war zone, where the world narrows to the question of sheer survival.

My thought process during your average war movie, if transcribed, would read something like this: God, war is strange. … Large groups of men in uniforms trying to kill other men in uniforms, in service of an abstract concept … How could anything so horrible have happened once in the history of humanity, much less be happening all over the world right now? … I wonder if the American death toll in Iraq has passed 3,000 yet … Oh shit, Giovanni Ribisi is gonna get it now. …  Please don't show his guts.

By the way, this kind of dissociative disorder strikes only during the classic boys-in-the-combat-zone movie: a Saving Private Ryan, a Flags of Our Fathers. Films that take place on the fringes of war, like Kubrick's incomparable court-martial drama Paths of Glory, or those that document what Wesley, in his 10-best appreciation of Melville's L'Armée des ombres (Army of Shadows), calls "a war with no battlefield," are another story entirely and number among my favorite films.

What does it mean, this resistance to a genre that, I can objectively acknowledge, has produced so many powerful and moving and important films (among them Clint Eastwood's grave and supple Letters From Iwo Jima, which, I notice, is on Keith's 10-best list for the year)? Pathology aside, it may have to do with the Spam-in-a-can structure of the classic war movie: Bring on the doughboys in Act 1, subject them to awful torment in Act 2, and award whoever's left standing a Pyrrhic victory in Act 3 (the ironic, undeserved medal; the hollow-eyed surveying of a ravaged battlefield). Maybe I resent the ready-made suspense of the war movie, its willingness to trade on our most primordial terrors to build its dramatic structure. (Carina, you get at something like this when you say, in the intro to your 10-best list, that year-end lists tend to recognize extremes of sensation.)

This may also be why United 93, as sickeningly effective as it was, left me cold as a work of art. It didn't show me anything except how awful it would have been to be on that plane, which is something I will never really know and may not even have the right to try to know. It could be—to paraphrase the old Mark Twain line about discussing the weather—that I'm just sick of the fact that movies are bent on showing us war but can't seem to do anything about it.

Here's one more scrap of bait for anyone who wants to take it: I notice that, of the four of us, only Wesley put Borat on his 10-best list. It never really occurred to me to include it, as Borat always seemed like something more or less than a movie—an extended sketch, a filmed prank, a brilliant stunt, but not quite a for-your-consideration cultural object. (Sacha Baron Cohen is another story; his Borat-all-the-time personality during the press tour took him into some Andy Kaufman-like realm of pure performance.) Keith, I know you were interested in discussing the reception of Borat, the wave of lawsuits and backlash that followed its insanely hyped release. To quote you back to yourself, is it a brilliant satire, a hateful anti-American treatise, both, or neither?

Unto the breach,
Dana