Last night I watched The Wall on DVD. No, not that The Wall*, this The Wall.
When I write about something I’ve just watched, I’ll usually try to spare you, the reader, by not giving away the plot twists and endings. You may read what I write and decide to watch the movie and it wouldn’t be right to ruin the experience for you. In this case, however, I feel that in order to discuss this film, I’ve got to give away all of the plot points. So if you want to watch the film, I’d say stop and go do it, and them come back and analyze it along with me. It is a short film, only 1:21 minutes, so I don’t mind waiting.
Alternatively, if you figure that you’ll never really want to watch the film at all, you might go to this site and read a plot-blowing synopsis of the film. Then when I refer to the content, you at least know about what I am talking. The film has a lot of violence and a lot of profanity so clearly it is not fare for everyone.
If you are going to watch the movie first, I would also recommend you not read reviews or plot summaries. If you’re going to watch the movie, just watch the movie. That’s what I did. I knew it was something about Iraq and some American soldiers getting pinned down behind a wall. I also saw it got almost four stars in the old Netflix rating system, and so I decided to give it a try.
What I didn’t know until I started watching was that the movie was produced, in part, by Amazon. Seeing that, I wondered if it hadn’t been already available for free on Amazon Prime, which it was. As I looked at the Amazon listing I noticed that the reviews on the site were very, very low with a huge number of one star reviews. So I began reading them. That turned what was a decent, but not particularly remarkable movie into a subject for extensive analysis. Why does this movie make so many people so angry?
So watch the movie. Get angry, get bored, get entertained… whatever it does for you. Then come back here to discuss your reaction.
Here Be Nothing But Spoilers
The move could be classified in any number of ways. It is an Iraq War film. It is in that “sniper duel” subgenre of war movies. Or maybe it is none of these. For almost the entire movie, there are exactly two characters on screen, and one of them dies about halfway in. Not much of a war movie.
Perhaps it is instead a psychological thriller, and the setting in the Iraq war is incidental?
It may have more in common with some kinds of horror flick, where the enemy sniper takes the role of monster.
In many ways, the whole film needs to be digested before your can start to consider these things. I know that, for me, I watched the movie and had a fairly non-nuanced impression of it. It wasn’t until I started the reading the angry reviews that I began to think of the film on some additional levels.
This is a little bit surprising. The writer is relatively unknown and has no significant pictures to his credit. The budget was low. With the money coming from Amazon, it seems like a perhaps a fairly low-investment attempt to pad the availability of movies for Amazon Prime streaming customers. Granted the director is well known for his Borne movies, but that doesn’t exactly create expectations for a movie containing hidden meaning.
So while we need to start our analysis at the end to get the “big picture,” let us still start with the story as it begins. Opening shot has an American sniper team observing the site of an ambush. We learn they are trying to determine whether any of the enemies are still present in the area and have, so far, waited some 22 hours without seeing any hint of activity. The sniper thinks what he is looking at is an attack that is long since over, a feels they are being overly cautious by waiting and watching. The spotter, on the other hand, feels something is off. He throws out the name “Juba,” which the sniper quickly dismisses.
This casual reference will come back later and will be significant both in the plot and in why the film has elicited the reaction that it has. The Iraqi sniper named Juba is real – or at least was claimed to be real. Iraqi propaganda claimed that such a super sniper was loose in Iraq, and claimed he was responsible for a large number of American forces killed. Several videos were released apparently showing the sniper at work.
American intelligence figures it is more likely that the Iraqis were combining unrelated attacks into a single “Juba” story and that there was no such person, and the videos were pure propaganda. Likely the absolute truth can never be known. But for servicemen worried about sniper attacks, the possibility of a master sniper out there and gunning for them would certainly have been unnerving.
The mere inclusion of the reference to Juba at the beginning of the film combined with a jab at George Bush is probably a large part of what accounted for the extreme reactions against the film as anti-American. The idea being that the Iraqis, in their own low-budget, low-tech way tried to create this sniper myth (perhaps not so successfully), but here is “Hollywood” doing their work for them with Amazon’s deep pockets to make it look good.
I can understand the sentiment, but given the years that have passed been the existence and non-existence of Juba, it is hard to attach malice to making him part of the story line. The cut at Bush was a little gratuitous, but it may also have just been an attempt to establish the mindset of the soldiers. They are fighting in a war that is essentially over. That means that the risks, whatever they once were, have really dropped off. If a scene looks like it is non-threatening, it probably is, especially after 22 hours of staring.
Having decided that if something hasn’t moved in 22 hours, there is probably nothing out there to move, the sniper moves down to the scene of the attack, with his spotter remaining hidden. Once he gets close, he realizes that the spotters fears were right; the attack was very different then what he thought it was. He then comes under sniper fire himself and is disabled. The spotter rushes down to rescue him and gets pinned down, himself, behind “the wall.”
This scene provoked further ire in the reviews. First, the gap between actual operational procedure of American troops (who try to use their depth of support to the best advantage) and two lone soldiers walking into the ambush. The second is the skill of Juba who, as we are soon to find out, struck our main characters water bottle and radio antenna precisely from a range of a about a mile. It is seen as evidence of movie that emphasizes American lack of competence against a impossibly skilled Iraqi enemy and, therefore, is a fundamentally anti-American message.
To the first, I again point out why the setup is important. The mission is believed to be low risk. Is there any situation imaginable where a sniper team would be called to walk in, alone and without backup, into a scene of a firefight? I don’t know, but the setup seems to say if it could happen, well, here is that situation. By the end of the film we are to learn that Juba has complete control over the friendly communication network and could have set up pretty much any back story necessary. By not making that back story explicit the authors are allowing us room to suspend our disbelief, should be we inclined to do so.
But, as I ask at the beginning, is this a war movie or just a psychological thriller set with the Iraq War as its background? Should Juba even be thought of as a man, an adversary like our main characters? Or is he the boogeyman? His he like the slasher movie villain who manages, time after time, to do the impossible and keeping coming back no matter what the heroes manage to throw at him? In the film, there was some discussion of the rifle Juba might be using and more angry, on-line discussion developed over the unsuitability of the .308 cartridge to mile-long shots. Yes, shooting a radio antennae at one mile is impossible for perhaps even the world’s best snipers from any nation. But for the bogeyman, it may just be a possibility.
The nature of Juba then begins to come clear to both the main character and to the audience. First Juba pretends to be part of a friendly unit coming to the rescue, but suspicion catches him in that lie. Juba then reverts to himself and discusses a few details about his life while eliciting information from the main character. Again, the suspicious mind starts to see holes between the backstory of Juba and his superhuman skill set.
But consider this; Juba is constantly lying in an attempt to trick information out of his victim. We don’t see the full scope of it until the end, but once we do, why should be believe that anything Juba has said at any time is true. Maybe he is actual a Soviet sniper posing as a Iraqi? Maybe he’s Iranian? The fact is, nothing we may have assumed was true may in fact be true and when the movie is finally over we are left to wonder what, if anything, we really knew while we were watching.
In this latter part of the film the final piece of “anti-American” plot comes to the fore. Throughout the film, we see there is something going on with his spotting scope and its former owner. Under pressure from Juba, he admits that he killed his former partner in a friendly fire incident and then covered it up. Once again, one might read into this the insinuation that Americans are the type to not only shoot one of their own (although this, at least, sounds like a genuine accident) but lie and cheat to get away with it. It is also an indictment against an American military that can’t, in an investigation, tell the difference between friendly fire and an enemy kill.
The importance of this particular plot point is less obvious to me than the others, but still on its own I just don’t see it as an attempt to sully America. I suspect it was just a way to add depth and drama to the story and wasn’t meant to have a secret meaning. But if you’re already seeing bad intent in this movie, I’m sure this is another brick in that wall.
Interesting to me, the ending of the movie was not the original. In the first ending, our main character is successfully rescued and is choppered away. After screening this for a test audience the director decided to re-shoot and end with Juba bringing down the rescue helicopters. This is interesting to me, because it is hard for me to see the film working any other way.
Of course, this might be one last nail in that anti-American coffin. We’re used to movies where the “good guy” prevails, so if Juba has won doesn’t that make him the “good guy?”
Well, no. In those slasher movies, however close the heroes think they have come to defeating the monster and saving themselves, just before the final credits we see that the monster is still out there. So is Juba.
With that final scene, it all comes together. This was part of a chain of events that Juba, with his tap into the American communications, has been orchestrating from the get-go. Some pipeline workers call in support from a contractor team. The contractor team asks for sniper support. Helicopters fly in to back up the snipers, and then… One can criticize that, having seen a dozen people already killed, the military would stop sending in folks to be killed piecemeal. But what we are missing – what we’ve just realized we’ve been missing all along – is that Juba is controlling the story of what happened. He can describe the situation to downplay the danger and set up the next ambush. We don’t know how, but if we’re willing to suspend our disbelief for a short hour and 21 minutes, one might imagine there is a way to make it all work.
I’d never claim that I’m looking at the next Godfather here, but there does seem quite a bit more to it than initially met the eye.
*Although I haven’t watched Pink Floyd: The Wall in quite some time, I also (last night) just happened to view a bit of a Swedish documentary where Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters is a guest. The title of the You Tube video is revealing in that in comes from an underlying assumption about the “Trump voter.” Watch, if you care to, how the assembled discuss “Trump voters” as a sort of mythical beast. Surely nobody here is friends with one of the creatures, but have you perhaps seen one in the wild? Knowing that they exist, can you see them as fellow human beings? Can you empathize with them?
Roger Waters does get a few points for using Comfortably Numb lyrics within his talking points, but that aside, am I wrong to find this disturbing? When people can sit in full public view and dehumanize a significant fraction of the population, how can this ever end except in rivers of blood?