Films discussed in this essay:

In the Valley of Elah, directed by Paul Haggis. Screenplay by Paul Haggis. Warner Bros.

The Kingdom, directed by Peter Berg. Screenplay by Matthew Michael Carnahan. Universal Pictures.

Rendition, directed by Gavin Hood. Screenplay by Kelley Sane. New Line Cinema.

Lions for Lambs, directed by Robert Redford. Screenplay by Matthew Michael Carnahan. United Artists.

Also discussed:

24, created by Joel Surnow and Robert Cochran. Fox Television Network.


To judge by the bottom line, Hollywood's latest venture into cinema engagé is not resonating with the public. Autumn 2007 saw the release of four films claiming to tackle hard questions about hard power: In the Valley of Elah, directed by Paul Haggis, offers a nightmare vision of U.S. soldiers in Iraq; The Kingdom, directed by Peter Berg, dramatizes an FBI probe into terrorism in Saudi Arabia; Rendition, directed by Gavin Hood, focuses on "extraordinary rendition," the American government's handing over of prisoners to countries where torture is allowed; Lions for Lambs, directed by Robert Redford, accuses the news media of passivity and the privileged young of apathy. None has done well at the box office, so this trend may soon die out. But that raises a question: why haven't these films attracted a bigger audience?

Ask a blue-state pundit, and you'll hear that Americans are so brainwashed by Fox News, they are no longer capable of thinking for themselves. Ask a red-stater, and you'll hear that Americans are so savvy about the Global War on Terror, they reject unpatriotic propaganda, even if it does star Meryl Streep and Tom Cruise. These answers polarize as neatly as metal shavings around a magnet. But a better answer, albeit one less gratifying to pundits of all colors, is that Americans don't want to think about tough foreign policy issues—and they are encouraged not to by both Washington and Hollywood.

Speaking Their Minds

Let us begin with the most recent release, Lions for Lambs. The reviews damned it for being "talky," but this is a bogus criticism. Many great films are "talky" in the sense of giving us powerful characters capable of speaking their minds. Lions for Lambs is not a great film by any stretch. And many conservatives already know what they think about Robert Redford's politics. But at least this film has politics—and in its halting way it captures something of America's current mood. There are three story lines: in California, a political science professor named Stephen (Robert Redford) tries to motivate a gifted but apathetic student, Todd (Andrew Garfield); in Washington, an ambitious Republican senator named Jasper (Tom Cruise) tries to browbeat a liberal journalist, Janine (Meryl Streep), into supporting his new military initiative; and in the mountains of Afghanistan, two of Stephen's former students turned army rangers, Arian (Derek Luke) and Ernest (Michael Pena), try against forbidding odds to make that initiative work.

Strange as it sounds, the tête-à-tête between the senator and the reporter is won by the senator. Jasper's initiative may stink (the rest of the film says so), but Janine's protestations are truly feeble. Her main issue, it turns out, is not the war on terrorism (about which she has little to say) but the failure of the news media to voice any real opposition to it. This is a dodge, because while most of the news media did go along with President Bush's invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, one would have to be living on the moon (or in Europe) to think they are going along with the surge or with the idea of a military strike against Iran. Cruise and Streep are terrific actors, needless to say, but this plot line is much weaker than the other two—including, surprisingly, the conversation between the professor and his student.

Caveat: Hollywood never gets academia right. But having said that, let me give credit where credit is due. In his struggle to make Stephen a sympathetic character, Redford makes him into that rare species, the political science professor who does not use the old 1960s cattle prod to indoctrinate his students. How can we tell? Two of his favorites, Arian and Ernest (minority students on scholarship), respond to his call to "get involved" by enlisting in the army. Stephen objects, of course. But the film makes clear that the students' decision is not unreasonable, given what their professor has been urging. Later Stephen tells Todd that he served in Vietnam but then protested the war. What's amazing is that Todd doesn't already know this, because evidently, Stephen doesn't crow about it on the first day of class. Despite the blue denim and politics to match, this professor confines himself to exhorting students to take seriously their rights and duties as citizens. American higher education could do worse—and usually does.

As for Arian and Ernest, their story line is a pure comrades-in-arms war flick. Loyal and courageous to the end, their ordeal on a snowy mountaintop in Afghanistan is all the more gripping for the stark contrast it presents with life back in the States. While the politicians, journalists, professors, and students discuss weighty matters in comfortable surroundings, the real weight is borne by the soldiers in the field. Everybody gives lip service to this fact, but rarely is it brought home emotionally to those not directly involved. To give emotional heft to the facts is the work of culture, including popular culture. But popular culture has been doing a poor job of it lately. Indeed, if Redford is truly concerned about the public being fed fantasy instead of reality, he will make his next protest film about Hollywood's increasingly sick attitude towards violence.


In the Valley of Elah is the opposite of a comrades-in-arms war flick. It begins when Hank (Tommy Lee Jones), a retired military police officer living in Tennessee, learns that his son Mike, just back from Iraq, has been reported AWOL. This sounds suspicious to Hank, so he drives to Fort Rudd, New Mexico, to check things out. Stonewalled by the army and local police, he launches his own investigation, aided by a discontented detective, Emily (Charlize Theron). When Mike's charred remains are found on a hillside, the film becomes a police procedural, though Hank and Emily are no high-tech CSI team: they just poke around, ask questions, collar the wrong suspect, and finally elicit a confession from one of Mike's buddies.

The denouement comes when Mike's buddy, morphing gradually from fresh-faced youth to cold blond beast, recalls how he stabbed Mike to death after a minor altercation, then set the body on fire because he and his buddies were hungry and did not want to take the time to bury it. To this horror are added two more, visualized through a succession of fractured images rescued from Mike's damaged cell phone. The first occurs on Mike's first day of duty: his armored vehicle runs over an Iraqi child who fails to get out of its way. The second occurs several months later, when Mike has become a different person, a joker whom the others call "Doc," because he gets his jollies thrusting his hand into the gaping wounds of captured Iraqi prisoners. Right after Mike's killer reveals this to Hank, the cell phone images coalesce into a shot of Mike grinning glassy-eyed while doing the deed off camera.

In the Valley of Elah is a deadly serious film about a deadly serious topic: the brutalization of young soldiers under the hellish conditions of an insurgency they are neither trained nor equipped to fight. Ironically, Hank, the straight-arrow warrior whose life is upended by these grim revelations, is a Vietnam vet. Last I checked, the Vietnam War was also a nasty insurgency that brutalized some of those fighting it. Hollywood certainly thought so. Right afterward, in the late 1970s, a slew of films appeared portraying soldiers and veterans as dangerous lunatics: Taxi Driver (1976), Rolling Thunder(1977), Apocalypse Now (1979), The Ninth Configuration (1980). The noble exception was The Deer Hunter (1978), and by the 1980s, it was no longer cool to portray Vietnam vets as nut jobs. In the Valley of Elah is based on a true story, and that story is not unique. But it would carry more moral authority if it appeared after the conflict was over. There is something unseemly about producing a film about the demoralization of American troops while thousands of them are still in harm's way.

Torture's Mythology

The sickest part, though, is the public response to In the Valley of Elah. Ten years ago, a movie showing an American soldier torturing a prisoner for kicks would have raised a hue and cry. Today it occasions barely a murmur. What has changed? In the realm of popular culture, the most obvious change is that scenes of torture, including vivid on-camera ones, are now standard fare. The best known example is 24, the Fox TV series starring Kiefer Sutherland as Jack Bauer, America's favorite anti-terrorist. Jack Bauer does not torture prisoners for kicks, but he does torture them frequently: 67 times in the first five seasons, by one count. And these scenes are a wonder to behold. Jack Bauer can maul a captive and get actionable intelligence faster than I can put a dollar in a vending machine and get a Diet Coke.

The motives for torture are as old as human society: to punish wrongdoers, to crush dissent, to intimidate populations, to force retroactive confessions. Perhaps the most primal motive, shared by cats toying with mice, is to lord it over the weak. In war this is called "victor's spoils," the pleasure of inflicting pain on vanquished enemies. This is Mike's motive, which together with the others mentioned above is rejected as barbarous and tyrannical by all liberal democracies, including the United States. But that leaves one additional motive: Jack Bauer's. In the debate over whether it is right to define waterboarding, stress positions, and other "leave no mark" methods as "enhanced interrogation" not torture, a frequent touchstone is 24. For many Americans, Jack Bauer makes it easier to argue that even torture is okay when used by a scrupulous professional. To quote the standard riposte: what would you do if a ticking time bomb were about to go off, and the guy tied to the chair in front of you was withholding the information you needed to prevent catastrophe?

This frequent reference to 24 is unfortunate, because although the show is highly addictive (your sober reviewer confesses to having inhaled the first four seasons), it should not be a touchstone in this debate. Despite its many charms,24 embodies a mix of cowardice and recklessness, the two vices that Aristotle contrasted with the virtue of courage. The cowardice shows up in the program's timid selection of villains: vengeful Serbs, a bitchy German, red-handed Mexican drug lords, a turncoat British spy, a greedy oil executive, power-mad government officials (including one president), and—once in a blue moon, when the Council on American-Islamic Relations is looking the other way—violent jihadists.

As for recklessness, it shows up in the demeanor of 24's creative mastermind, Joel Surnow, a man who by his own testimony came up the hard way. The son of a Los Angeles carpet salesman, he grew up south of Olympic Boulevard, where there was never enough money for the designer sunglasses favored by his classmates at Beverly Hills High. Apparently this youthful deprivation provides an excuse for acting like a jerk. Last year, Surnow blew off Brigadier General Patrick Finnegan, dean of West Point, and Joe Navarro, an expert FBI interrogator, when they traveled to Los Angeles to urge a change in the way 24 depicts torture. These visitors were seasoned practitioners with a practical complaint: that their cadets and trainees, steeped in the excitement of 24, now dismiss warnings about the legality of torture and (more troubling) the evidence of its limited effectiveness.

Some of Surnow's colleagues, including Sutherland himself, did meet with Finnegan and Navarro. So it will be interesting to see how torture is dealt with in the seventh season (scheduled to begin in January but probably postponed because of the Writers Guild of America strike). To judge by the online trailer, the issue will be front and center:

White letters on black screen: They can attack him.

Senator in hearing room, grilling Jack: "Mr. Bauer, did you torture Mr. Haddad?"

White letters on black screen: They can judge him.

Jack: "Senator, Ibrahim Haddad had targeted a bus carrying 45 people, 10 of which were children. I stopped that attack from happening."

White letters on black screen: But they can never break him.

Jack: "Don't expect me to regret the decisions that I have made, because sir, the truth is, I don't."

You go, Jack. And if I were faced with a choice between letting humanity be blown to smithereens and pulling out my grandmother's fingernails, it would be "Brace yourself, Granny," and no regrets afterward. But I'm not faced with that choice, and 99% of the time neither are real interrogators faced with the ticking time bomb scenario. Retired Colonel Stu Herrington, a 30-year veteran of military intelligence, has been quoted to the effect that this scenario "is so rare in real life that it's essentially mythology." The 24 creative team is smart and talented, so perhaps it will find ways to continue making great television while also addressing the concerns of those who are actually fighting the war against terrorism. But don't count on Surnow. His refusal to meet with Finnegan and Navarro is a classic case of recklessness holding courage in contempt.

A Reassuring Professionalism

Most people consider 24 a right-wing show, in contrast with the left-wing slant of the feature films discussed here. Yet 24 has left its mark on the feature film industry, make no mistake. In both The Kingdom and Rendition there is a Jack Bauer-like character: brave, smart, loath to inflict pain, but adept at doing so when needed. Interestingly, neither is an American. In The Kingdom, it is Faris Al Ghazi, an upright Saudi policeman played with toughness and charm by Ashraf Barhom. Basically an action film, The Kingdom stars Jamie Foxx as Ronald, a maverick FBI agent who defies his inept superiors and a timid State Department to lead a proper investigation into a terrorist attack on a U.S. enclave in Saudi Arabia (similar to the 1996 Khobar Towers attack). When Ronald's team arrives in Riyadh, they are stonewalled by the Saudis until a discontented cop, Al Ghazi, steps forward to help. His Jack Bauer moment comes when he stops the torture of a prisoner—not because he opposes torture in principle, but because he deduces from the evidence that it's fruitless in this case.

It is vital to distinguish between Al Ghazi, a fine officer with a warm heart and a cool head, and the nameless goons who do the actual trussing, beating, electrocuting, whatever. Like Mike's sadism, the goons' work is kept decorously off camera: all we see is the scrupulous professional giving the orders. A similar scene occurs in A Mighty Heart, the powerful film about the terrorist killing of journalist Daniel Pearl. In that film, the professional is a gentle, handsome officer (played by Irfan Khan) in the Pakistan secret police, the ISI, who gazes soulfully at his captive every time he is obliged to order another round of agony. Like 24, both The Kingdom and A Mighty Heart reassure us that the good guys are in charge, not the goons.

Surprisingly, the same reassurance appears in Rendition, a would-be exposé of extraordinary rendition. Anwar (Omar Metwally) is an Egyptian-born chemical engineer living in Chicago and married to an American, Isabella (Reese Witherspoon). Because his mobile phone has been receiving calls from a terrorist group, Anwar is arrested while traveling home from an overseas conference, and rendered to an unnamed country in North Africa, where he is stripped, beaten, isolated in a cold cell, and waterboarded by goons working for the local police chief, Abasi (Igal Naor). Strictly speaking, this interrogation is overseen by Douglas (Jake Gyllenhaal), a CIA "pencil pusher" who steps in after another agent's death. But compared with Abasi, Douglas is a cardboard figure whose sole purpose is to show revulsion at the proceedings and (regardless of Anwar's guilt or innocence) inveigle his release. Abasi, by contrast, is a surprisingly sympathetic character: brave, smart, loving toward his family, but also haunted by his grim job. Remind you of anyone?

At the end Rendition loses momentum because of a plot twist whose only conceivable function is to keep Abasi from being too sympathetic. The film starts with the suicide bombing of a café where he takes tea every morning. Many are killed, but Abasi survives, and from there the film cross-cuts between three story lines: Abasi's interrogation of Anwar; the efforts of Isabel back in the States to find out what's happened to Anwar; and a secret romance between Abasi's daughter Fatima (Zineb Oukach) and a scruffy artist named Khalid (Moa Khouas). This third story line climaxes when Khalid turns out to be a suicide bomber who wooed Fatima as part of a plot against her father. Over time, the two have fallen in love, so when Khalid goes to kill Abasi, Fatima tries to stop him—and might have succeeded if Khalid's handlers hadn't made that impossible. The bomb explodes, and both lovers die.

The weird part is that this is the same explosion that opens the film. Instead of reaching for our handkerchiefs, we scratch our heads: Huh? What's going on? Suddenly we're back at the beginning! Since this confusion destroys the whole momentum of the ending, we might also wonder why the romance and death of Fatima and Khalid are not simply treated as a flashback. My hunch is this was the original intention, but that during the editing process somebody realized that if the audience knows from the beginning that Abasi's daughter was killed by a terrorist, they might forget the whole anti-rendition message and start rooting for Abasi as the Maghreb's answer to Jack Bauer.

It soothes the conscience, and boosts the box office, to portray U.S.-sanctioned torture as occurring only under the watchful eye of scrupulous professionals. It also helps to neutralize criticism of Hollywood for stereotyping Arabs and Muslims, to cast excellent actors like Ashraf Barhom and Igal Naor in Jack Bauer-like roles. With guys like Al Ghazi and Abasi in charge, we can relax. The prisoners may be screaming, but the interrogators take no pleasure in making them scream, and the pain stops the moment the prisoners either talk or establish their innocence. The situation is dire but not spiraling out of control.

Playground for Sadists

The trouble is, the facts are otherwise. Ticking time bombs are rare, and so are human beings capable of sustaining a scrupulously professional attitude toward torture. Indeed, when torture becomes the routine business of any military or law enforcement organization, the first thing that happens is the good guys take off and the goons take over. To believe otherwise is to be naïve about human nature. But don't take my word for it, take that of Vladimir Bukovsky, the former Soviet dissident who spent twelve years in that system's prisons, labor camps, and coercive "psychiatric hospitals." His capsule summary of why it is never a good idea to legalize and routinize torture is worth quoting at length:

Apart from sheer frustration and other adrenaline-related emotions, investigators and detectives in hot pursuit have enormous temptation to use force to break the will of their prey because they believe that, metaphorically speaking, they have a "ticking bomb" case on their hands. But, much as a good hunter trains his hounds to bring the game to him rather than eating it, a good ruler has to restrain his henchmen from devouring the prey lest he be left empty-handed. Investigation is a subtle process, requiring patience and fine analytical ability, as well as a skill in cultivating one's sources. When torture is condoned, these rare talented people leave the service, having been outstripped by less gifted colleagues with their quick-fix methods, and the service itself degenerates into a playground for sadists. Thus, in its heyday, Joseph Stalin's notorious NKVD [the Soviet secret police] became nothing more than an army of butchers terrorizing the whole country but incapable of solving the simplest of crimes. And once the NKVD went into high gear, not even Stalin could stop it at will.

I do not believe that this is a description of the United States's war on terror. But if I were a foreigner with no better source of information than Hollywood films, I might be forgiven for believing it. To judge by overall box office, the American love of torture has regressed from Jack Bauer's reluctant rule-bending to the Marquis de Sade's voracious vivisection. Audiences do not flock to see Lions for Lambs and Rendition; they flock to see Saw IV and Hostel Part 2, the latest specimens of a new genre that David Edelstein of New York magazine dubbed "torture porn." One of the cable channel Showtime's biggest hits is Dexter, about a forensic expert specializing in Advanced Bloodstain Pattern Analysis, whose chief joy consists in spilling blood, not analyzing it. A boyish team player, Dexter moonlights as a vigilante, ritually torturing and killing those criminals whom the system fails to bring to justice. If Dirty Harry's threat was "Make my day," Dexter's guarantee is "Make my night."

It is hard to criticize this stuff, because ever since 1992, when Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs made casual cruelty look cool, the Sunset Boulevard party line is that violence ceases to be shocking when it goes "over the top" into depictions of mayhem so extreme, so surreal, that they resemble the fevered imaginings of a mass murderer or extreme sociopath. Why this should be so, I have never heard anyone explain satisfactorily. The question is considered infra dig by the P.R. flacks and bloggers surrounding this genre—their websites and commentary are full of a bizarre, morally inverted appreciation of ever greater spectacles of destruction. Torture is a favorite at this feast, folks, and we're not talking about some weak-weenie waterboarding, we're talking about real torture, the prancing-around-in-arterial-blood-spray kind that is fun for the whole family.

For a taste of the sensibility involved, consider this remark by Darren Bousman, the director of Saw IV (and two of its predecessors). Hyping his new film, he boasted that it contains "a scene…where I physically regurgitated in my mouth." Bousman belongs to the self-described Hollywood "Splat Pack," a group of junior sadists mentored by Tarantino, who revel in their ability to mass-produce the most repugnant imaginable fantasies. As Eli Roth, director of Hostel and Hostel Part 2, recently told a national magazine: "Everybody says that I'm different on the days we're shooting the gore—that I'm just extra happy. I try to have that same excitement and enthusiasm for every scene, but when we're doing some really disgusting scene I'll catch myself gleefully jumping up and down at the monitor." And in another interview, he mused, "Hopefully, we'll get to the point where there are absolutely no restrictions on any kind of violence in movies."

Earth to Roth: we're at that point now. And now is also the time when millions of people around the world perceive the United States, rightly or wrongly, as having abandoned the moral high ground regarding the conduct of war and the treatment of prisoners. There is more freedom of expression in America than in any other country in the world, which is why Bousman and Roth can get away with their upchuck. But no one could accuse them of good timing.