War As Carnivale
Sometime in 2008 as the Bush Presidency wound down, John Cusack and his troupe came out with War Inc. In many ways it was a pointed picture that satirised the American wars fought in Iraq and Afghanistan with much ‘privatisation’ of the war effort handed out to Halliburton. It’s a worthy subject matter and John Cusack has been known to mount snappy, witty critiques in his films such as ‘Grosse Pointe Blank’, ‘High Fidelity’ and ‘Max’. The film is directed by Joshua Seftel, but it’s safe to say, this is a star vehicle with the star’s authorial stamp emblazoned on the screen.
Unfortunately the film had the shortest of runs in the cinemas in Australia, and the story was essentially eclipsed by the stunning victory of Barack Obama. Thus I finally got to watch the film on DVD months after its immediate relevance had seemingly passed. That’s the caveat.
What’s Good About It
I have trouble saying this is a good film. Is it a bad film? I don’t want it to be, but it just might be. Maybe I’m expecting too much, but the breezy wisecracks about American values and the irony of a privatised war machine are all very poignant, but the film never actually comes close to addressing the cause.
The film does make clear that privatising aspects of war to private companies that operate on profit essentially condones state-sponsored mercenaries to play havoc on other people’s lives, and that this is going to to have tragicomic consequences. But this is no great discovery. Instead of showing why or how this is a real problem, the film chooses to describe the effects in fragments. Sometimes it looks like ‘Full Metal Jacket’. Other times it looks like a very bad trade show. The film never finds the right tone to its comedy. It contrasts greatly with a film such as Nicolas Cage’s ‘Lord of War’ which is unstinting in its Machiavellian tone.
Marisa Tomei is good (but she’s not asked to do much), Joan Cusack is not so good. Hilary Duff’s made up accent is bizarre, even accounting for the made-up country – whatever she’s supposed to sound like, she sounds bizarre. John Cusack by his own standards is pretty ordinary in this film. It does have some funny moments but the viewing experience on the whole is disappointing.
What’s Bad About It
As gallows humor satire goes, the film is nowhere near as even as ‘Gross Point Blank’ before it. Nor is it as insightful as ‘Max’. You get the feeling that the heavily ironic subjective reflection of those films got reworked to fit a greater story about geopolitics, but it’s actually so insufficient to addressing the issues at hand, it comes across as juvenile.
Also, the setting of a made up country called ‘Turaqistan’ was probably an attempt at trying to generalise the point rather than get caught in the specifics of the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, but if the last decade has taught us anything, it’s not the general principles of war that suck, it’s the details that characterise each and every military action. Iraq has entirely unique reasons of its own why war there is fucked up, as is the case with Afghanistan, and this is before the perversity of Halliburtons and their private contracts to supply the US military.
In the end, the imagining of Turaqistan seems more racist and stereotyping of Central Asia than offering any kind of insight into war. Just as it lambasts American cultural imperialism, it enacts its own, and there’s no claims of irony that can forgive that miscue.
What’s Interesting About It
The film is in its essence, a kind of self-flagellation by Gen-X, over the war. The film in its structure is a re-run of ‘Grosse Pointe Blank’. Cusack is a reluctant hitman on a job. He seeks some solace from the brutality of his job. Meets a girl. decides that it gives him the impetus to quit. Turns out his target is not who he really wants to kill – he wants to kill his handler instead.
Dan Aykoryd makes an appearance, this time not as the rival hitman but his client. Instead, Ben Kingsley steps in to play the handler who he has to kill twice in the course of the film. Joan Cusack reprises herself role as the emotionally stunted assistant and Marisa Tomei steps in as the love interest. In the process we see all the things that worked well for ‘Grosse Pointe Blank’ fail miserably.
What made ‘Grosse Pointe Blank’ so good was how the sense of irony spilled out from a decidedly subjective sense of history. The hitman was a Gen-X guy. His roots were in suburbia that oozed complacency and yet the spirit was so restless. All of that was against the backdrop of a very sunny Clintonian 90’s.
In ‘War Inc.’ we find the same restless spirit slap bang up against the GWB Naughties, where the sense of fun has devolved into a gallows laugh, where ironic detachment is no longer quite enough to stand apart. In a sense, the film is trying to take a side against war itself but its protagonist is a hitman. It can’t relinquish violence as readily as it relinquishes ideology. And that’s interesting because we’re all living the very real nightmare wars right now. We’re just lucky enough not to be there in Iraq or Afghanistan. The ironic distance we can generate is simply the same distance that lies between where we sit and those countries.
In that sense, there’s a real desperation to this production that is palpable. It is as if Cusack and his troupe are desperately trying to find some answers as they go for the things that worked in the past, and failing. Are ‘getting the girl’ or ‘re-uniting the family’ structures enough of a story to critique a heavily post-modern war? Is the film media strong enough to take on the tidal wave of other news media operating as spin? If anything this film shows just how quaint film is in the scheme of media.
Ten years on from ‘Grosse Pointe Blank’, Gen-X is being asked to step up and somehow we’re all oddly failing. The self-reflexive, heavily subjective sense of self can’t shake the posturing to come at a straight anti-war or Pro-War position. This isn’t the Vietnam generation at all. There’s too much awareness of interests – both national and self – to do that. Instead, it grumbles and goes to work, even if it is dirty work. I doubt Baby boomers would take kindly to this film where principles are sacrificed readily, but the conscience is not. Let’s face it, Oliver Stone wouldn’t make this film. However it is possible this conscience of Gen-X made the difference in voting in Barack Obama.
Maybe in 5-10years we would understand this film and by extension 2008, even more. Right now, it looks like its flailing about in the dark, probing for a light switch.