Memorial Day brings cable channels full of war-movie marathons, but mostly these are not movies about war. War is the wholesale slaughter of those Other people you’ve come to believe are not even human, and is very tedious to watch. If the Viewer wants entertainment, then torture porn, where people are killed off one by one, is far superior. But of course Hollywood “war movies” are just character dramas in a war setting, so, you know, Pearl Harbor.
I have seen a couple of genuine war movies lately, though. The first, City of Life and Death, directed by Lu Chen, depicts the massacre of 300,000 unarmed people and the rape of between 20,000 and 80,000 women by Japanese soldiers in the six weeks after the Chinese capital of Nanking was captured by the Japanese in 1937. I read Iris Chang’s book, The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II, a few months ago, and it is truly shocking. The Japanese atrocities against the people of Nanking were so extreme that a Nazi party leader based in China petitioned Hitler to ask the Japanese government to stop the massacre. The Japanese atrocities against the people of Nanking were so extreme that after researching and writing their history, Iris Chang committed suicide.
City of Life and Death is an extremely beautiful black-and-white film of extremely ugly scenes. The film introduces specific historical characters, such as the Nazi German businessman John Rabe, who established a “safety zone” for Chinese civilians trapped in Nanking when the city fell. Chen tries to show the events from many points of view, including a rather sympathetic portrayal of a fictional Japanese soldier named Kadokawa. But that character gets mired in a clichéd love story involving a Japanese comfort woman that is unnecessary and detracts from the film. Still, in the depiction of unrelenting horror and tragedy bludgeoning helpless people into numb despair, City of Life and Death seems like a pretty accurate war movie.
Restrepo, which I saw last week at a screening that featured a Q-and-A with the film’s editor, is a documentary shot and directed by Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington over the course of a year they spent with an American platoon in northeast Afghanistan. Juan “Doc” Restrepo is the likable platoon medic who’s introduced in the first scenes of home video of him goofing around with the other guys being deployed. A few minutes into the film, after the platoon’s reached Afghanistan, one of the soldiers makes a remark in passing about “when Restrepo got killed,” and I was like, What? But yeah, he was one of the first two soldiers killed, and the others ended up naming the outpost they built after him: Operating Post (O.P.) Restrepo. (It reminded me of Forward Operating Base Tillman, named after Pat Tillman, who I learned about in the excellent book Where Men Win Glory.)
Restrepo is a 93-minute film constructed from 180 hours of raw footage brought back by Junger and Hetherington, who shot all of it themselves—no helmet-cam footage, they were really there. In one of the first scenes, Junger is riding in an armored vehicle that’s attacked—pretty harrowing. The Korengal Valley, where the platoon establishes O.P. Restrepo, was known as “the most dangerous place on earth” while they were there. Knowing that the U.S. has now pulled out of the valley, in spite of everything these soldiers went through, increases the sense of futility—for me, and for other viewers in the audience that night. But editor Michael Levine assured us that the Army loved the film, so who knows. Watching Restrepo, you can see that the soldiers are there because they believe they’re doing the right thing and fighting for their country (USA!), but Junger and Hetherington are there … to make a movie? Plus the soldiers have guns, but the only thing J&H are shooting is a video cam. Restrepo was nominated this year for a best-documentary Academy Award; Tim Hetherington went to Misrata to cover the Libyan civil war, and was killed there on April 20.
Today I saw Went the Day Well? an Ealing Studio “unofficial propaganda” film by a one-named Brazilian director, made from a Graham Greene story, filmed in 1942 but set in a near-future England where the war is finally over, and it was pretty crazypants so probably not really a “war movie,” but I recommend it, especially for the performance of Muriel George as Mrs. Collins, my new hero.