Tag Archives | war on terror

TV Review: The Looming Tower (Hulu)

Having previewed Hulu’s new TV miniseries based on the Pulitzer-Prize winning book, The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 by Lawrence Wright, I can attest that the series takes its subject, the impending Islamic terrorist siege on September 11, 2001, seriously. The show chiefly stands out for an intelligent performance by Jeff Daniels as federal policeman John O’Neill.

O’Neill tried in vain to warn the United States government that Islamic jihadists would strike the World Trade Center again after 1993. In the wake of repeated failures by the U.S. government, despite being forewarned in specific detail in advance, to stop Islamic terrorist attacks in San Bernardino, Boston, Orlando and Texas, The Looming Tower depicts the truth about the ominous implications of today’s corrupt, deficient United States government and its surveillance statism. This week’s newest mass murder in Florida, another instance in which the federal government knew in advance of an impending attack and did nothing, highlights the point.

The Looming Tower follows key members of the the FBI’s and CIA’s counter-terrorism teams in New York and Washington, D.C. as they jockey for status or, in O’Neill’s case, rush to prevent new jihadist acts of war, while ostensibly working to achieve the same goal. With crackling dialogue, and not too much equivocation of the enemy’s ideology, this well-paced procedural re-creates condensed points from Wright’s 2006 bestseller, focusing on the government’s detrimental internal rivalry.

Emphasis on John O’Neill, the subject of Frontline‘s excellent profile, “The Man Who Knew“, as he faces and responds to attacks on Americans, including the Iranian-sponsored attack on the USS Cole, is warranted. This politically incorrect freethinker, who died when Islamic terrorists attacked America on Black Tuesday, forecast the act of war which ended his life.

Jeff Daniels, recently cast to play Atticus Finch in Aaron Sorkin’s new Broadway adaptation of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and so memorably effective in key roles in Pleasantville and Steve Jobs, steals every scene. Whether battling his CIA counterpart Martin Schmidt (Peter Sarsgaard) or mentoring an Islamic colleague (Ali Soufan), Daniels portrays O’Neill with the passion, rationality and sense of urgency he is reported by Wright and Frontline to have possessed.

Legendary Television’s The Looming Tower, which also stars Michael Stuhlbarg (The Shape of Water, Call Me By Your Name) as Richard Clarke, airs the first episode on February 28 — two days after the 25th anniversary of the first Islamic terrorist attack on the World Trade Center (previously depicted in the HBO movie Path to Paradise).

I did not watch every episode of The Looming Tower. What I have seen is very good.

Movie Review: The 15:17 to Paris

The newest movie directed by Clint Eastwood, The 15:17 to Paris, is as plain and perfunctory as its title. Screenwriter Dorothy Blyskal oversimplifies the heroes’ decency, mixing in clashing motivations (possibly taken from the heroes’ book upon which this film is based). Mr. Eastwood’s minimalist filmmaking and decision to cast the three American heroes whose story unfolds here puts 15:17 to Paris in a striking contrast to today’s overproduced movies, such as Marvel’s mangled Black Panther, though both movies have conflicted themes in common.

Similarities end there. For starters, unlike Marvel’s movies and like the heroic story of 12 Strong, the extraordinary events depicted in 15:17 to Paris happened. Three Americans chose to act upon their own judgment, tackling an Islamic terrorist rampaging with an arsenal through a train, capturing, detaining and hogtying the jihadist, securing the train and medically treating wounded passengers. The three Americans saying “Let’s go” recalls Flight 93’s American passengers saying “Let’s roll” on 9/11. In this case, saving everyone on board. 15:17 to Paris depicts the Islamic terrorist attack, which is unfortunately never branded as an Islamic terrorist attack, and what made three friends since childhood in California the type of men to shut it down.

That Alek Skarlatos, Anthony Sadler and, especially, Spencer Stone, who portray themselves, went from forgotten middle school students to European hostel heroes tracks back within each individual to mutually shared confidence in being a boy with the world as his to master. This exuberant boyhood is cultivated by the boys themselves, who play war with toy guns, study combat with maps and certain gaming scenarios and think of themselves as worthy in themselves, not as means to the ends of others. Raised by single mothers, except for Anthony, a charismatic black kid whose home life goes unseen, these boys struggle from 2005 to 2015 in today’s government-dominated educational system, which ignores or neglects boys. When switched to a religious school, problems persist and deepen. But Alek and Spencer also meet Anthony, who becomes their playmate and, in a way, mentor. Anthony, the least anxious of the trio, is the one who challenges Spencer, who’s the center of The 15:17 to Paris, which intersperses flashes leading up to the jihadist siege.

Anthony’s candor is his armor, as anyone who watched his breathtaking accounts of the attack knows. The white boys enlist in America’s military, Spencer seeking meaning in life and Alek, whose mother says she talks to God, driven by legacy. By the time they trek across Europe, they’ve been three decent, productive boys who seek to acquire knowledge, trade and play to live meaningful, enjoyable lives. Whatever fleeting notions and hunches anyone voices, and 15:17 to Paris sends mixed signals, these three move toward action with a sense of purpose. They expend effort. They practice. They fail. But, always, these boys prepare for life as men.

For instance, during an alert at Lackland Air Force Base, Spencer goes rogue. But, in doing so, Spencer shows strength and preparedness. Called out by his instructor, he knows exactly why he chose to disobey orders (and he has a point). Alek, deployed in Afghanistan, becomes the reason his fellow soldiers must divert from plans, endangering the team. But Alek, later visiting Germany, honors an ancestor’s military service, demonstrating a commitment to think, re-think, act and become his best. In a smaller way, brandishing a selfie stick while being a tourist with Spencer, Anthony, too, learns from his mistakes. Each superficially bounces like a rolling stone toward the unseen, the unknown, like many young Americans. But each acts like he knows that he’s taking charge of his life and that he likes and knows that he’ll earn it.

This may be Mr. Eastwood’s point, and movies he directs, such as Sully, American Sniper and Jersey Boys, reflect the idea that Western man is good, decent and honorable. Clint Eastwood is too journalistic and pragmatic to fully dramatize this theme but his movies tend to be good, sometimes excellent.

With the actors portraying themselves coming off as more self-conscious than natural, The 15:17 to Paris is less a docudrama than a stone-faced re-creation. It’s too scripted, stiff and staged. Yet 15:17 to Paris reconstructs their lives and re-creates their goodness, making the climactic terrorist attack by the religious fundamentalist (Roy Corasani) more tense and dramatic. Every encounter in Europe, especially boarding the Paris-bound train when they help an old man, is benevolent. Whether speaking in the foreign language of the land they visit, flirting with young women or trading while traveling, no one is the Ugly American, to use that hackneyed term. The men, as I previously wrote, represent the heroic American — each a kind of handsome, upright cowboy.

Clint Eastwood’s The 15:17 to Paris contrasts these innocent, cheerful, peaceful Westerners, unashamed of their Americanism and wearing symbols of Adidas, Yosemite and Los Angeles basketball, with the barbaric religious terrorist, whose eye is evil and whose face is blank. The muffled sound of the siege on the train to Paris follows ramblings about God, destiny and determinism and Spencer, who more than anyone saved the 15:17 to Paris, says a prayer. But a French statesman calls these three men what they are: Americans (also a Brit) who “fight for liberty”…to “save humanity itself”. As with his movie about Mandela in Africa, Invictus, Clint Eastwood’s underproduced new movie is probably too muddled and plain to convey its theme that the essence of being American means reverence for life — and that it’s usually the American who achieves peace and harmony and fights to preserve both.

Movie Review: 12 Strong

This is a good war movie with moments approaching greatness. If you’ve enjoyed Thank You for Your Service, 13 Hours, American Sniper and other movies about the nonstop, unending U.S. military response to the Islamic jihad slaughter on September 11, 2001, you’re likely to appreciate 12 Strong for its pointed depiction of American heroism.

I figured this would be a proper, which is to say relatively straightforward and unfiltered, dramatization from its setup scenes. 12 Strong rightly begins in 1993, when Moslem terrorists first attacked the Twin Towers. Then, to other acts of war on America in 1998 and 2000. So, right off, there’s at least an attempt to provide pretext to the story of 12 heroes who volunteered to deliver America’s first post-9/11 military retaliation, which is one of the few the U.S. got exactly right.

To underscore this unequivocal rightness, the Army team’s single-minded captain (Chris Hemsworth, Thor: Ragnarok) asks the helicopter pilot after the pilot tells him that the aircraft is descending over northern Afghanistan: “On purpose?!” The captain’s short, urgently repeated demand signals the caliber of soldier about to disembark and confront the guerrilla Islamic terrorist state. The band of men do not just listen, obey and follow orders: they make crucial distinctions, take command and act with swift thought and precision, leaving nothing to the aims — and sloth and errors — of others, including those in their own army.

The captain’s leadership is based on study, clarity and reason. From camping his men at an allied Afghan base 40 miles from their terrorist center target to leading the horse soldiers’ charge toward the enemy’s worst weapon, Hemsworth’s captain examines every angle, nuance and trajectory necessary to achieve his goal. Director Nicolai Fuglsig shows fidelity to the essential facts of this hard-fought, extraordinary and, yes, glorious military victory. He doesn’t adorn the movie or characters with frenzied or slow-motion moments of blood splattering and bombs exploding. There’s no showboating. There’s the hard work and grit of men fighting to avenge their country and defend their lives, fortunes and future.

The men include the silent loner (Trevante Rhodes, Moonlight) who becomes the fixation of an Afghan boy. And his opposite, an expressive fighter who once taught history (Michael Pena, Lions for Lambs, The Lucky Ones). Or the team’s chief warrant officer and voice of reason (Michael Shannon, Mud, The Shape of Water). Some of the 12 Strong have wives, some have kids, and most have gripes and doubts, though 12 Strong stays on track and avoids war movie cliches. They all trained for war in the Middle East and they all want nothing less than victory. 12 Strong does not deal with the fact that Bush, Obama (and, so far, Trump) equivocated, appeased and never came close to wiping out states that sponsor Islamic terrorists let alone declaring, waging and winning the war the enemy started.

The Jerry Bruckheimer (and scads of others) produced film, co-written by Peter Craig and Ted Tally and based on the book by Doug Stanton, does, however, allude to U.S. military incompetence. So-called smart bombs fall on the wrong coordinates. There’s an implication about friendly fire (remember Pat Tillman). And then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s bravado, which would thrust America into an unwinnable war in Iraq, gets an apparently and deservedly fact-based dig.

12 Strong focuses, though, mostly on what it takes to render the deadly counterstrike to 9/11. From the Northern Alliance faction leader skillfully portrayed by Navid Negahban to the sharp colonel incisively portrayed by William Fichtner, the team earns and keeps the support of superiors and natives alike to trudge through the passes and trails of the Taliban-run country. Without neutralizing moral judgment on Islam, the religion which motivates the enemy, 12 Strong puts the campaign in clear perspective. Females are slaughtered like American infidels, simply for seeking knowledge. “God is great!” goes the familiar death call as the U.S. first applies its antiquated rules of engagement (which got worse after this campaign). So don’t expect the now-incessant and tired evasion of any mention of what makes the enemy evil. A murderous mullah speaks the truth about his religion.

Also, don’t expect evasion of what makes Americans good. Though 12 Strong is a good, not great, war movie depicting soldiers in a particularly grueling combat, and I do wonder whether the team declined to wear helmets throughout the battles and trek, the two-hour film lets its heroes shine.

Thankfully lacking vulgarity, and with a stirring gallop to answer the Flight 93 passengers’ call to arms, “Let’s Roll”, 12 Strong is the inspiring tale of the twelve soldiers who rolled. They did it weeks after America was attacked in New York City and Washington, DC.  They did in weeks what experts projected would take two years. This combat picture shows that twelve men rolled with the thunderous strength and purpose that America and Americans deserved. It pretty much ended there. It hasn’t happened since. 12 Strong demonstrates with power and skill that this victory did happen.

Movie Review: Thank You for Your Service

Writer and director Jason Hall, who wrote Clint Eastwood‘s searing American war drama, American Sniper, debuts his feature directing skills in Universal’s Thank You for Your Service. With commitment to his script, based on the book by David Finkel, Hall largely succeeds. I found myself wanting a wider scope for much of the movie. The intense war veteran drama sub-genre comes from this long, endless, asinine non-war in the Middle East, which Sen. John McCain once let slip might become a hundred-year war. They’re piling up, from Jarhead, Green Zone, Rendition, Stop-Loss and The Lucky Ones, which this picture most closely resembles, to The Hurt Locker, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi and the sterling American Sniper. And the cluster of post-2001 war movies deserve rapt attention from today’s American moviegoer. Most are mediocre to bad. They all merit praise for daring to dramatize what Americans ignore and evade.

Thank You for Your Service is good, and by good I mean it is moving, sad, horrifying — which every war movie if it is a war movie ought to be — tense, confused and heartbreaking. Thank You for Your Service is also absorbing. You watch the men in agony, you want to know if they make it, you care about the characters, who, incidentally, are based on real American soldiers, a fact the movie thankfully doesn’t inflate and lord over the audience. The title is both biting and unbowed. And that faraway look in the movie poster’s Army sergeant (Miles Teller, Whiplash) is earned.

The vacancy this ‘war on terror’, as George W. Bush described it when he was president after Islamic terrorists attacked America in 2001, marks three war vets’ faces when they at last come home from Iraq. There’s husband, father and explosives expert Sgt. Schumann (Teller, as sharp as ever) and his grunts Solo (Beulah Koale) and Heller (Joe Cole). They jostle, tease and prep for the homefront on the plane and it’s already clear that they’re feeling restless about coming home to Kansas. One returns to a wife who dares him to test her strength. Another wants to father a baby with his missus. Another is engaged and he’s all about that right now.

They attempt to adjust. As they do, the complexity of the task and the complications of what constitutes the military service for which they volunteered become a moving tapestry of what’s now known two decades into this war for nothing in the Arab world (not to mention West Africa). Mental illness, trauma and suicide loom. But the men hold tight to one another. In an emotional bonding scene and set-up for what’s to come, they take a break from re-connecting at a local bar and hop around to a pop tune about love.

It’s one of the best scenes because Hall lets this initially humorous outlet for the men’s anger, pain and physical trauma unwind naturally, melding into a moment in silence with gripping and holding on. This transition is memorable. It could’ve pulled the camera back and gone on.

Thank You for Your Service does go on, with other manifestations of what today’s war veteran faces. Prosthetics, ignorance, trauma. Flashbacks, delusions, more trauma. Waiting for bureaucrats, accounting for the impact, trudging through the lowest moments of more trauma, which means melting down, and this part Thank You for Your Service gets down pat. As Sgt. Schumann’s wife, Haley Bennett is excellent. The whole cast shines, too, with Teller in the lead, Koale as the American Somoan soldier and Kerry Cahill as a dead soldier’s mom standing out.

Hall might have made more or less of certain details, such as the horseshoe in the Humvee or the flag-poled house as a symbol for the happiness pursuit. But he gets the emotional power just right, in scenes with them dancing through the rage, losing power during sex and embracing at a bus stop. Like American Sniper, Thank You for Your Service puts the audience smack into the soldier’s world. There, one sees the value of a fast car, the toxicity of a brainless video game and the importance of owning — and stitching — a dog. War cliches abound, it’s true, and surely someone’s going to find fault in this for that. It comes down to combat, roads not taken and men you may have left behind.

Thank You for Your Service dramatizes with skill and emotional impact the aching loss, void and aim of war in its last two words. It does this about a war which — still, outrageously, after 16 years!!! — is not allowed to be a war in any way that matches this sacred, highest goal. Whatever its flaws, Thank You for Your Service shows the unjust process, from deployment to Veterans Administration (VA) deathtrap, of Americans being soldiers in a deliberately forgotten war. It depicts an ongoing, in-your-face tragedy that’s more important and powerful in this sense than all the artsy films combined. Have a look at what becoming a soldier’s become and think about what it means that they’re coming undone. Everyone should thank Thank You for Your Service.

Movie Review: 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi

Paramount Pictures’ war movie about the September 11 Islamic attack on America at Benghazi, Libya, is both visceral and powerful. Coincidentally, and I say this because I’m not a fan of the director’s work, it’s the best movie directed by Michael Bay (Transformers: Age of Extinction).

In fact, this gripping account of what exactly happened in those 13 hours does not depict exactly what happened, not in a comprehensive sense, but the character-driven movie is one of the better pictures about the long, unnamed, undeclared, unending military conflict between Islamic jihadists and the West. I can’t speak to the film’s fidelity to what did or did not happen. 13 Hours is based upon a book by the men who were there, the only Americans to defend the U.S. assets and Americans attacked (read what I posted about the 2012 attack here).

13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi begins as most of these types of movies do with titles and setup scenes to establish what many already may know about the Libya crisis. During the days of the so-called Arab spring, when American intellectuals became convinced that the West’s meddling in Middle East, Arab and regional affairs would lead to liberalization of Arab and other area dictatorships (it didn’t, hasn’t and won’t), Libya’s longtime dictator was ousted—so was Egypt’s—with tacit or explicit U.S. military support. All of this U.S. military meddling instead destabilized Africa and the Middle East and put Islamists in power. Today, for instance, Libya is in serious peril of falling completely to the Islamic state. But a few years ago no one could convince Washington, DC—from Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton on the left to Ambassador John Bolton, who supported Obama’s attack on Libya, on the right—that removing dictators in countries vulnerable to Islamic jihadist insurgency was a terrible idea.

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Michael Bay’s movie version of the military mens’ book does not delve into that background or context, though it’s surprisingly thoughtful and layered in depicting the film’s unseen villain: the state. Yes, this abstraction is at the plot’s center of what really threatens and endangers the characters, heroes and American interests in 13 Hours; both the unseen, unnamed states that sponsor Islamic acts of war and the elusive American state that enables, appeases and essentially supports states that sponsor Islamic acts of war. While 13 Hours breaks no new ground in storytelling, and needs improvements and edits, this villainy is carefully embedded, probably thanks to the book’s writers and screenwriter Chuck Hogan (The Town).

The world at large is at stake from the start, as Bay offers a view of the globe from space, then a drone’s lens’ view common to this genre before the main character (The Office‘s John Krasinski, excellent in Aloha and also here) sits on a passenger jet bound for post-U.S. intervention Libya. Clearly, his character values life. He is fully facial-haired, too, a common choice among American contractors in Libya, so he’s trying to blend into today’s increasingly unstable world, in this case a society where beards show that one has faith and is not an infidel. After he looks at a fellow passenger—a head-scarved woman of indeterminate designs—the camera cuts to the exterior of the descending plane as it lowers, drifts and blends into Libya’s beige, desolate landscape.

This sets an ominous tone. Tension builds as soon as Krasinski’s soldier meets his fellow soldiers at a secret CIA facility and they’re assigned to accompany an undercover couple in Benghazi. The head honcho (David Costabile, Lincoln) embodying the worst bureaucratic stereotype, represents the left’s mindlessness in practice, spewing forth that the band of bodyguards, because they are strong, military contractors not intellectuals who went to Harvard or Yale, are “not so good at following orders”. Of course, he means this as an insult, even though it affirms that Ivy League schools turn out followers.

Not following orders is precisely what makes the difference in the battle of Benghazi.

It happens on 9/11. The year is 2012. Someone at the CIA compound watches a news clip of the hijacked passenger jet as it veers into the World Trade Center on 9/11 of 2001. Someone says something about an Islamic attack in Cairo. Any but the most daft could have predicted that Benghazi would require serious security precautions and defense.

Enter U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens, an altruist and “true believer” in the Obama administration’s policy of sacrificing for the sake of others, an explicit rejection of selfishness as an ethical virtue which Stevens practices to a tee. The ambassador, the men of the security detail are informed, insists, in accordance with the left’s multiculturalist fantasies, upon his own reckless procedures. He chooses to stay at a posh, unsecured open compound. He makes other bad choices, too, some of which are overturned. But he is willful and explicit in his altruism: “America is here for you,” he tells a local Libyan gathering. He means it. America is not there to advance its interest, not even to foster mutual understanding and peace. America—the new America outlined in Obama’s inaugural worldwide apology tour—is there to serve others, period.

It’s the Obama (and Bush, McCain, etc.) way: put others above self.

Time and again in 13 Hours, a heart-pounding tale which comes in waves, altruism and its particular execution through an effete left-wing lunacy is vilified by dramatization. Not as sculpted as the brilliant portrayal of a sacrificed soldier in Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper, Krasinski’s posted soldier, too, misses his life at home, strives to be his best, and learns from the devastating attack in Benghazi. While he bonds, leads and pivots around the ambushes, schemes and nuances of these deadly days and hours, his wife and kids gain admittance at Disneyland. It’s the perfectly secular, American contrast to the mindless, faith-based wails in Arabic that “God is great!” And if thoughts of his family at the happiest place on earth bolster his fighting spirit, the reality of his brethren at the most miserable place on earth—where “we got nothin’ and no one”—weighs heavily on his conscience.

“What a shit show”, one of his fellow secret soldiers concludes after the blood spills and Americans are murdered—yet again—with no support from the U.S. military, which never does show up. The brutal 13 Hours, with piercing battle scenes as  Islamists lay siege upon the Americans, shows what happens when those with delusions reign over those with knowledge. One officious character offers a stinging lesson in earned guilt. Others among the soldiers talk and trade stories of life and love on the downtime and this is their story foremost. The cast is suited to the material.

But 13 Hours does not stop at depicting the men who are engaged in today’s constant state of American military altruism. The State Department and Obama administration officials are an unseen, offscreen presence, represented on screen by the intelligence types that buy into Obama’s diplomacy and surveillance state as the total solution to all foreign problems. Decent, pro-Western Arabs are also on screen, fighting for their country and their lives, though they are tiny in number and have a minimal impact.

The most exciting scene involves a Mercedes-Benz that makes a wrong turn. It’s the toughest movie motor car since Patriot Games and it’s a symbol for the audience; a reminder that toughness has limits and can be breached. It is impossible while watching 13 Hours, which I think every American ought to see, to escape thoughts of Islamic terrorist attacks on Americans in Paris, San Bernardino, Boston, Fort Hood, Garland, Beirut, Berlin and countless passenger planes, cruise ships and hotels. It’s been 15 years since the Twin Towers, Pentagon and thousands of lives were breached and destroyed and the enemy looms. The horror of being abandoned to insurgents in an Islamic siege with no hope for U.S. military intervention—in Obama’s America, you’re on your own—is forecast in the faces of the men murdered in the inferno at the U.S. consulate and those slaughtered and maimed in the assault that followed.

Compounding the effect: the men you’re watching are trained for battle. You, the audience, probably are not.

“Watch for different tactics,” one secret soldier says during another siege. But how can the U.S. government—whose primary purpose is to defend America and Americans—watch when they refuse to see? In the end, it’s an oil businessman’s jet—running on the energy source the Obama administration does everything to oppose—that offers safe passage for what’s left of the living. Watch the movie’s sole female operative for a complete arc from mindless automaton to fully functional human and try to appreciate that making this movie is itself a courageous act of defiance against the United States government. Or don’t. But take 13 Hours for what it is—an intense and powerful account of one small battle in the Islamic barbarians’ war against the West—with its cautionary theme and warning that, in the words of one brave soldier, “this isn’t over…’til they’re all dead or we are.”