Tag Archives: Saving Private Ryan

Coward in the Crucible of Battle — “Edge of Tomorrow”

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I kept trying to come up with what movie Edge of Tomorrow feels like. Its beach-landing scenes evoke the D-Day of Saving Private Ryan. Its aliens remind you of the squidlike robots in The Matrix, though they hunt more like the evolving machines in Screamers. Its version of mechanized infantry keeps the banter of Aliens but trades in the oversized guns for mechanical suits that seem like a redux of the clunky, earliest version of Iron Man.

It’s not a knock on Edge of Tomorrow to say it’s reminiscent of so many other movies. The more familiar we are with the basics, the more Edge can get on with the story. Aliens have crash-landed on Earth, as they are often wont to do. Tom Cruise plays William Cage, an advertising exec who’s commissioned into the army because he’s so gosh darn charming in front of cameras and the Army needs to sell a war. He’s never seen a real fight, though. In the very first scene, he’s told that he’ll be embedded with the troops in a major assault. Cage’s response? To beg, cajole, and eventually blackmail his way out of seeing combat. This is not your typical Cruise character – Cage is a coward when we meet him.

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He finds himself shipped to the front anyway. It’s a disaster – the army is crushed and Cage knows so little about his mechanized armor that he spends most of the battle figuring out how to take the safety off his weapons. He is killed, and wakes up at the beginning of the previous day. He’s hijacked the alien’s ability to rewind time – key to their predicting humanity’s every move. Now, every time Cage dies, he restarts the day before the battle.

Cage tries to convince others of this, and the extent to which his commanding officers (especially an off-kilter Sergeant played by Bill Paxton) find ways to shut him up is one of the movie’s many sources of humor. So is Cruise’s trial-and-error approach to escaping his unit and tracking down Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), a legendary soldier who once endured a time loop similar to Cage’s. No one else will believe the two of them, so she takes it upon herself to brutally train Cage. If she breaks him, she shoots him and resets the day, Cage taking his accumulated knowledge into every next attempt. That beach invasion stops looking like an invasion and becomes an elegant choreography – Cage learns every step and move Rita and he must take to survive.

Director Doug Liman has made some solid films, The Bourne Identity and Mr. and Mrs. Smith chief among them. He’s always been great at beginnings, and he knows how to tell an ending, but he’s never had any idea what to do with a movie’s middle, when the characters have to talk to each other. It’s a perfect fit here. Edge has no middle, just countless beginnings. Cage makes attempts to get to know Rita – after hundreds of the same day relived, he’s desperate for a human connection – but for her, it’s always the first time they’ve met, and there just isn’t the time for chit-chat. It’s refreshing to see Cruise as a needy coward who must become more out of desperation, while Blunt gets to play the calculated, relentless warrior.

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As an action movie, Edge is neck-and-neck with the Captain America sequel as this year’s best. It doesn’t hold as much meaning as the superhero film, but it has an old-fashioned mentality for adventure storytelling – it puts enough puzzles and meaningful obstacles in our heroes’ way that the action isn’t just our reward, but theirs, too.

This is also the best use of 3-D this year. 3-D has been killing movie experiences lately. Maleficent was blurry and motion sick. The 300 sequel was hazy and blearily lit. Good as the movie was, the shallow focus cinematography of the latest X-Men strained eyes. Directors are still learning how to implement 3-D well. Not all movies are worth the extra price of admission for it, which is why I always highlight its use.

It’s clear Liman made the commitment to pre-plan and choreograph his 3-D ahead of time. It’s striking how crisp and natural the 3-D in Edge of Tomorrow is. When shrapnel and dirt flew toward the camera, I blinked as if expecting to find something in my eye. Even dialogue scenes make you feel as if you’re a fly on the wall. It’s one of the few movies this year that absolutely demands to be seen in the theater.

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Edge of Tomorrow is rated PG-13 for violence and language.

Brutal, Heartfelt “Lone Survivor”

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I’ve had the privilege of interviewing soldiers who served at Iwo Jima. They told tales of a naval bombardment that made them feel like the world was shattering itself into pieces. I have a friend who served as a medic in Iraq, and suffers blackouts and PTSD from “having my hands in guts up to my elbows day after day.” I spoke to a marine who served as a guard in Iraq. He told me about having to stay on his side of an invisible ethical boundary, witnessing but being unable to intervene even when children were abused in front of him, lest he start an international incident. What those who face war as combatants must undergo defies the imagination.

We can imagine horrors, we can even imagine facing our own deaths. We can imagine a gunfight. We can begin to imagine explosions, being trapped, seeing a friend violently die, being wounded. We can imagine those things. What those of us who have not been in or around combat cannot imagine are the ethical quandaries faced, the second-guessing of split-second decisions, the evolution one’s mind takes just to survive and stay sane in a reality encompassing all of this for years on end.

Lone Survivor is a story about men who have undergone that evolution. It follows Operation Red Wings, a 2005 counter-insurgency operation in Afghanistan. It’s been compared to Saving Private Ryan, which is inaccurate. While both are superb films, you’ll find no Tom Hanks monologue about what these men are fighting for. The battle at the film’s center is not artistically inclined. The action isn’t about bullets or explosions, tactics or heroics. It contains these things, yes, but combat here is presented as the whittling down of men, piece by piece. One man shoots, another gets shot, until one of them is dead. Repeat. The cinematic sheen we’re so used to seeing accompany war violence, that makes it digestible and popcorn-friendly, has been largely removed.

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Even before this, during their free time, the Navy SEAL team we’ll later see in action talks about an upcoming wedding, whether one can afford a horse for his fiancee, and what color one’s wife is repainting the house. They peer over breakfast at a palette of rose tints and disagree with her choice. They talk about finding a weekend to clear brush for a stables when they get home. They don’t act like they’re in a movie, as if they have dramatic fates, or like any of them is a metaphor for something greater. They act like people taking a load off from a hard job.

The film boasts an excellent cast – Mark Wahlberg (Shooter), Taylor Kitsch (John Carter), Emile Hirsch (Into the Wild), and Ben Foster (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) play the SEAL team inserted into the mountains of Afghanistan in order to kill a Taliban leader. If you’ve read the title of the film, you know things don’t go well. Foster’s turn as Matt “Axe” Axelson is particularly memorable.

Lone Survivor is very good, but it is not a masterpiece of storytelling. Another twenty minutes of running time to expand on later moments would have been welcome. It is, however, a masterpiece of heart. It’s directed by Peter Berg, who also helmed Friday Night Lights and The Kingdom. Like those, Lone Survivor exudes emotion. Everything it feels is on that screen. Rather than communicating the geography of a battle, an approach I usually champion, Berg chooses to stay close to his actors. He focuses on the experience of the fight instead of its procedure. It’s a choice that makes the emotion feel quick and organic rather than heavy and scripted.

At the end of these kinds of war films, before the credits roll, photos are shown of the real-life soldiers whom you’ve watched actors portray for the past two hours. Inevitably, a few audience members get up to beat the crowd to the parking lot. Mine was a packed house. There were multiple photos and home videos for all 19 men who died in Operation Red Wings. Not a soul rose to leave. Not a single soul. And, at the end, I joined the loudest round of applause I’ve heard for a movie in years. Lone Survivor is rated R for strong violence and language.

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