June 20, 2008

John Cusack’s WAR, INC.: A satire, but of what?

John Cusack wants to be very clear: he doesn’t object to all wars, only this war. That’s fair enough, as is the idea that, if one wants to say that Iraq is unlike any other war in history, one should make a war movie unlike any other.  The problem is that Cusack never succeeds at placing War, Inc. in the war movie genre in the first place, so all of his surreal touches (including, in no particular order, a warlord named Omar Sharif, the line “Get me Katie Couric, Al Jazeera, and a hundred gallons of sheep shit,” and Ben Kingsley’s gestures at a Texas accent) come across as misfires rather than satire.  If a chorus line of amputees had turned up in the middle of a war movie, I would have sat up and taken notice.  As it was, I saw no reason why a movie that, up to that point, had careened from black comedy to screwball to absurdist theater to music video shouldn’t also quote Busby Berkeley.

That being said, I’m willing to take War, Inc. on its own terms in spite of itself.  As far as I can tell, Cusack’s thesis runs something like this: It’s bad enough when war is run by conservatives who, as a matter of ideology, glorify corporations and corporate culture, but to go as far as actually handing the war to corporations is a new and unprecedented level of bad.  For him, it’s not the war; it’s that the war has been outsourced.

Brand Hauser (John Cusack) is not himself the sort of man who would sell his own mother for a bigger market share, but he has come to learn that working for the military-industrial complex means answering to that sort of man on a more or less constant basis.  Trading in second-hand immorality has taken its toll on Hauser—“I feel like some morally inverted, twisted character from a Celine novel”—and so he arrives in “Turaqistan” ripe to fall in love with principled lefty journalist Natalie Hegalhuzen (Marisa Tomei), win her heart, overcome a few obstacles, and learn a valuable lesson.

This may be a minor quibble, but, given that the film’s problem with corporate culture is that it rewards ruthless amorality in pursuit of the dubious goal of profit, I’m not sure that it was a good idea to make Hauser’s redeeming angel an investigative reporter.  Journalism, after all, is a profession that rewards ruthless amorality in pursuit of the dubious goal of “getting the story,” and Natalie Hegalhuzen is a journalist through and through, like Clark Gable in It Happened One Night or Dustin Hoffman in All the President’s Men.  Minutes after Hauser bares his soul to Natalie, she’s on the phone to her editor asking him to “get everything you can on this guy.”  When capitalists betray relationships in order to gratify their selfish desires, at least schools get built.

The bigger problem is that War, Inc. can no more settle on a moral than it can settle on a genre.  Bureaucratized violence is hell, it says, but so is the un-bureaucratized violence of local thugs.  (“Who do I have to shoot to get a drink around here?”)  The American culture that inspired the obscene and vaguely sticky Yonica Babyyeah (Hillary Duff as a Central Asian Britney Spears) is worthless and decadent, but so is the “Turaqi” culture that doesn’t blink at passing a sentence of public mutilation.  If Cusack’s biggest problem is the privatization of war (and it seems from interviews that it is), then why make the centerpiece of the film a “horrors of war” sequence that could just as easily have come at the end of Full Metal Jacket? In the end, the only way to enjoy War, Inc. (and I did enjoy it) is to forget the satirical side completely and think of it as a romantic comedy with an unusual number of explosions.

James Agee panned the 1941 Gregory Peck vehicle Keys of the Kingdom because, as he put it, “it seems a little weak to spend most of your two hours in China in order that those who can’t take their moral conflicts, such as they are, neat can always chase them with something pleasantly exotic.”  By losing track of his political message and turning in a film that’s less Dr. Strangelove and more Grosse Pointe Blank II: Escape to Baghdad, Cusack has fallen into the same trap.

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