BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC The battlefield on which the new thriller The Wall is set in is boringly familiar, a cliché even: the beige blankness of the desert, the armored U.S. soldiers, the bent and blasted rubble, and the forbidding drone-laden soundtrack with Arab voices chanting overtop. The history of Hollywood’s war films makes for a telling window into public attitudes about national conflicts about our endless wars in the Middle East (if you begin with the Afghanistan invasion of 2001), and the public’s unthinking acceptance of them, have led this century’s war movies to be numbingly immutable. Since at least 2005’s Jarhead, it seems as if war films are always willing to admit to the hypocrisies of our military policy but they are just as readily willing to shrug them off, as if they are as unchangeable as the sunrise. Unashamed patriotism flows, well, unashamedly, and the dutiful soldiers are just guiltless pawns in the game.
As a war film, The Wall pushes back again this formula a bit, giving the soldiers Arab nemesis plenty of time to ask some serious questions of U.S. military policy but it is still, by design, unable to bestow real humanity to the Arab people on the receiving end of our military might. Nevertheless, as a thriller it’s a certifiable humdinger, a gripping little chamber piece about a man trying to stay alive while a sniper picks away at his his cover, shooting it away brick-by-brick.
The set-up is so refreshingly simple it could easily have been whittled down further to a tight little hour-long TV episode. Two soldiers, the Biblically-named Issac and Matthew (played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson and John Cena respectively), are guarding a pipeline after the Iraq War’s announced end. Approaching a pipeline facility, the solders find all the oil workers have been shot dead and before they know it they’re under fire with Matthew quickly down and unresponsive. The rest of the film has Isaac pinned down behind a twenty foot remnant of a wall, with shots firing at his feet whenever he get a clever idea.
Bringing together Bourne Identity-director Doug Liman, a script by Dwain Worrell that was recently on Hollywood’s “Black List” of great unproduced screenplays and the thrilling camerawork by Roman Vasyanov (who did vivid work on the WW2 tank film Fury in 2014) and keeping it to a taut 81 minutes gives the film the smartly-efficient punch of an old 50s B-movie.
But what makes the film most interesting is something we never see. Inside Isaac’s helmet is a built-in headset radio system. The sniper has found its frequency and can communicate back-and forth with Isaac. The sniper’s name is Juba and he’s played by Laith Nakli, a British actor who has specialized in playing ominous men of Middle Eastern descent (he’s in the latest version of the TV series 24 playing, you guessed it, a terrorist). Juba wants to have a conversation with Isaac, who is resistant to letting Juba “get into his head.” But Juba has a lot to say, not all of it easily dismissed. For starters that wall where Isaac has taken cover was once the wall of a school, bombed by U.S. forces. Juba asks why Isaac has come so far to make war in his country. Isaac tunes out these questions and instead concentrates on coming up with a plan to escape this slowly tightening noose.
The film wraps things up cleverly if not tightly. It’s fitting, I’m not sure anyone could still believe we’re one tidy battle away from ending this war. The action ends on a particularly nightmarish note, one that nullifies much of the film’s action and paints this Middle Eastern war as a Hell that we can’t escape. But if that’s how we feel, how about the people whose country is being occupied in this war?
In the film, whatever message the Iraqi people might want to give is delivered by a sniper shooting at our hero, so you can’t blame Isaac for being unsympathetic. But back in the U.S. who is a voice for these war-torn people? Although U.S. leaders made a lot of rhetorical gestures about bringing freedom to the people of foreign nations, I’m lost in thinking of a single name of an Iraqi or Afghani citizen who is a recognized voice in the U.S. media. Neither Juba nor the actor who played him have received much attention in the film’s promotion or even in the reviews despite the fact that the character might have the most lines of dialogue in The Wall. He’s a prime example of Hollywood’s idea of the Arab Everyman in that he’s mostly unseen and ultimately more an idea than a real human being.
Leaving politics aside, The Wall gets your heart racing. But once the heart-pounding subsides, you may start to wonder the deeper ramifications of leaving all politics aside while these wars and war films perpetually slog on, unchanged year after year. Maybe we won’t have a war film with new ideas until the U.S. gets some new ideas about waging war itself.