TWO STARS - Unsettling
It is difficult to portray the atrocities of war without making an offensive film. Violence, even when an intregal part of the plot, is disturbing and damaging to the human soul. “Three Kings” is one of the more creative films to display this violence, but its slow-motion images of bullets ripping into the body of a soldier and then graphically imaging its internal destruction may be technically creative and cutting-edge cinema, but its impact on our spirits is distressing.
But the latest in violent special effects is not all “Three Kings” portrays. “Three Kings” is also an insightful discussion of the real-life degradation that remains when a war has ended: the empty hearts, the ambitious leaders, the greedy opportunists, the social disturbance. The film neither glorifies war nor the victors who win it, but explores the political, personal and spiritual dynamics it yields.
Set within the desert of Iraq as the Gulf War comes to an end, the film focuses on the lives of four American soldiers who discover a map revealing the secret bunker in which Saddam Hussein has stored stolen Kuwaiti gold. They make a secret pact to steal it.
Major Archie Gates (George Clooney) is retiring in two weeks from a career in Special Forces. In an unlikely alliance with three other soldiers who are not career soldiers but reservists, he leads them on a mission deep into Iraqi territory to take the gold.
This part of the film requires us to suspend reality in an otherwise quite realistic film. The explanation Gates gives to the reservists is that the soldiers of Iraq are more concerned with stopping the uprising by Iraqis than they are of stopping them from taking millions of dollars worth of gold bullion. They believe him.
Troy Barlow (Mark Wahlberg), Chief Elgin (Ice Cube) and Conrad Vig (Spike Jonze) are not exceptional soldiers. Acting more like boys playing at war, they have not seen any action and jump at the chance to do something, even if it is an illegal mission.
When they arrive at the village, they trigger a conflict between the Iraqi soldiers and the people who think they have come to liberate them. It is then that their plan to steal the gold becomes dislodged by their own humanity. Helping them load the gold, the Iraqi soldiers are waiting for the Americans to leave before they begin to kill the civilians. This places a moral dilemma before them: will they continue on their way, not involving themselves in the evil that is about to occur so they can spend the rest of their lives in opulence, or will they stop the murders and risk their lives and fortunes?
Their answer to this question creates the dialogue, action and moral situations around which the rest of the film revolves.
In one very powerful scene in which Barlow has been captured by an Iraqi officer and taken for interrogation, the Iraqi begins with a most unlikely question. He asks, “What is wrong with Michael Jackson?”
Barlow does not understand the question. The enemy officer repeats it, and then answers it for him. He explains that Michael Jackson has tried to turn his skin white and straighten his hair because he has been taught to hate his own skin.
This judgment on our social sins is the beginning of a disturbing discussion between the two as the Iraqi officer questions the policies of our nation, not only in our treatment of those of color within our own borders, but also in our decision to bomb the families of Iraq to recover the oil fields of Kuwait. The most haunting and powerful question asked was if President Bush cared about the children of Iraq, then was he going to come and free them from the tyranny of Saddam Hussein? Barlow must answer that our nation is not going to do anything for the Iraqi children.
It must also be noted that the biblical allusion to the three kings of the east who came to worship the infant King of Bethlehem as the title of this film is only thinly supported by the spiritual experiences of these “Three Kings” on their journey in the same geographical area as the biblical ones. One of the soldiers dies and wants to be taken to a Muslim shrine in order to assure his entrance into heaven. But there is no explanation of how or why this would be a possibility.
“Three Kings” is a violent film that explores the nature of humanity following the atrocity of war. That it affirms the value of human life over gold, we applaud. That it stops short of giving the reason why people are so important, we lament.