Produced by Warner Brothers and Plan B Films
Directed by Wolfgang Petersen
Screenplay by David Benioff
Distributed by Warner Bros
Produced by Andrew Rossi, Hani Salama, and Rosadel Varela
Directed by Jehane Noujaim
Distributed by Magnolia Pictures
“Inspired by the Iliad.” These helpful words appear on-screen just before the final credits roll on director Wolfgang Petersen’s brazenly silly Troy. I was thankful for the heads up. Without it, I might have mistaken the nearly three-hour saga I had just endured for a splendidly impartial retelling of The Charge of the Light Brigade, or, more au courant, a forecast of The Iraqiad, the wretchedly sad epic in the early stages of its chronicling as I write.
OK, I’m kidding. All those names I had been hearing throughout the film—Agamemnon, Menelaus, Odysseus, Gus, and such—were perfectly Greek to me, so I knew that Petersen and his screenwriter David Benioff had Homer in mind, if not at heart. Besides, the film begins with another on-screen nudge. Against an Aegean seascape, a legend informs us that it is “3200 Years Ago,” while an unseen narrator intones that this is an age in which “men are haunted by the vastness of eternity.”
With this invocation of metaphysical angst, the film adroitly sidesteps the conventional appeal to the muse. And, by substituting 3,200 years ago for 1200 B.C., it smoothly avoids a certain narrow-mindedness. It wouldn’t do to remind the audience that Christ’s birth was once considered the pivot around which our culture took its shape and meaning. From the first, we are to understand that this is a thoroughly modernized telling of the fall of Troy. Hence that bunk about being “haunted by the vastness of eternity.” The ancient world was a much smaller place than ours, and its modest reaches were filled with all manner of gods who kept men and women company on their way to Hades. Life’s brevity may have been a grim prospect, but haunting does not seem the word to describe how the ancients felt about it. They believed it noble to give the immortals their due and to accept the limits of human fate. To feel haunted by eternity is more a contemporary attitude, entertained by those likely to date such events as Agamemnon’s petulant raid on Ilium at 3,200 years ago. On their calendar, the cosmos cannot but seem immeasurably vast, incalculably cold, and irredeemably pointless.
Troy would be a decent enough Hollywood adventure of beefy men in leather skirts and lissome women in diaphanous togas if its script did not pretend to be about the Iliad. Benioff has no feeling for the poem. He gives us characters who speak as though they have been blessed with 3,200 years of cultural foresight. They mock the gods, express serious antiwar notions, and suffer the pangs of romantic love. Some, including the swift Achilles (Brad Pitt), dutifully observe a 21st-century appreciation of women’s rights. Fortunately, Peter O’Toole playing King Priam has the wit to give the anachronistic game away. Assuring his errant son Paris (Orlando Bloom) that he doesn’t fault him for having stolen Helen from Menelaus, he quaveringly asks, “Do you really lo-ove her?” When the boy says he does, the old goat gazes meaningfully into middle distance. “I’ve fought wars for land and power,” he continues after a marvelous pause, “I suppose fighting for lo-ove makes more sense.” It’s a delight to hear the rascally O’Toole hit these lines. I only hope he was paid sumptuously for this bit of camp relief.
Benioff further enforces his modern sensibility by stripping the narrative of its divine dimension. In interviews, he has explained that this was necessary to streamline the story. Without the gods, however, a retelling of the epic can hardly be called inspired. The pantheon is crucial to a narrative in which the principal characters, Achilles and Helen, are the issue of humans and gods and events are driven by Olympian intervention at every turn. Why leave them out? Could there be a better occasion for computer-generated effects? Did this interaction between the divine and human seem embarrassing, too much a parallel to what was happening further south in Palestine during the same period? For however violent and clownish, the myths of the ancient Greeks shadow forth the same human longing for salvation that was taking a different shape in the minds and hearts of Abraham’s children. Resolutely secular, the film excludes the merest suggestion that human consciousness has been, from all time, innately encoded with intimations of the Incarnation.
Thus, instead of a flawed demigod, Benioff has made his Achilles a defiantly existential mortal. Alone with his lovely captive Briseis (a priestess of Apollo in this telling), the warrior asks her why she would love a god. “You’ll find the relationship one-sided,” he gently counsels. Then, evidently calling upon his acquaintance with the works of Albert Camus, he sums up the human condition, Gallic style: “The gods envy us because we’re mortal. Everything is lovelier because we’re doomed.” Clearly, this Achilles has embraced his Sisyphean fate despite his immunizing bath in the River Styx.
In the film’s conclusion, as Troy burns and the Greeks rampage, Aeneas shows up for the first time, escorting his withered father to safety through the flaming wreckage. Is this walk-on Benioff’s way of demonstrating that he did his research and knows that there’s another epic in the wings? More to the point, will we have to watch a film “Inspired by the Aeneid”?
Made by Egyptian-American filmmaker Jehane Noujaim, Control Room is a different view of war. This unsettling documentary details the coverage of the U.S. invasion of Iraq by the Qatar-based Arab television network Al Jazeera.
The film begins on March 17, 2003, with a rooftop montage of Baghdad punctuated by zooming close-ups of a wild variety of homemade television aerials, some of them little more than twisted coat hangers. The message is clear. The Arab world is watching, closely. The camera then drops into a barbershop, where six or seven men watch a wall-mounted T.V. When George W. Bush comes on the screen, they watch incredulously as he gives Saddam Hussein 48 hours to get out of town. Talk about East meeting West—it’s a showdown on the Tigris. Some of the men quietly scoff, while others smile enigmatically. One is simply angry. Does America think she can ride rough-shod over his country? By way of an answer, 80 minutes later Noujaim shows a clip of President Bush landing triumphantly on the USS Abraham Lincoln in his flight suit on May 1, 2003, declaring, “Mission accomplished!” In between these moments, she has compiled an assortment of visuals for our contemplation: Al Jazeera news clips; archival footage from other news outlets; interviews with Arab and American journalists; and seemingly impromptu editorials by various broadcasters, Arab, American, and British. The results are arresting, to say the least.
Especially troubling is the constant refrain we hear from the Arab commentators. America, they unanimously declare, serves Israel’s interests, exclusively and indescriminately. They are convinced that this is an insuperable impediment to our reaching any genuine accord with the Islamic world.
With the exception of remote feeds from the battlefronts in Baghdad, Mosul, and Basra, the film takes place at Al Jazeera’s headquarters in Qatar alongside America’s media center, Central Command, infelicitously shortened to CentCom. (I confess to wincing when an American journalist wonders at the name: “It sounds like sitcom, doesn’t it?”) As hostilities proceed, an Al Jazeera journalist, an Iraqi himself, jokes that everyone in his homeland should be issued an American passport. He is sure that most would flee to the states and thus restore peace to his land. His mockery is at once ironic and plaintive, a species of grief management. How else can he live with the horror and humiliation being unleashed on his countrymen? Later, a Jordanian journalist, Samir Khadar, smiles into the camera and confides that, “if I’m offered a job at Fox (News), I’ll take it. I’ll exchange the Arab nightmare for the American dream.” At first, he seems merely sardonic, but then he adds that he wants his children educated in the United States and hopes they will stay there after they graduate. Behind his ironic smile, the poignancy of his aspiration is palpable.
Control Room is not as documentary as Noujaim pretends or, perhaps, believes. It seems selectively edited to make Americans look naively optimistic in contrast with their sophisticated, world-weary Arab counterparts. More than this, it trades almost exclusively in disquieting images. We watch with growing repugnance G.I.’s screaming nonstop vulgarities as they hector Iraqi women, many of them stumbling, some fainting as they rush confusedly from their homes in their floor-length robes. We never learn what occasions these roustings. Not surprisingly, the film specializes in T.V. footage of wounded children bleeding through gore-sopped bandages. An angry man in a blood-soaked white shirt shouts at the camera: Is this America’s idea of liberation? We watch captured American soldiers nervously face the camera and assure their Sunni jailers that they were only following orders when they came to Iraq. There is no doubt that Noujaim’s selectivity is biased. There are, after all, sunnier images she might have shown. But she seems content to let CentCom handle that side of the propaganda war. As Lt. Josh Rushing, a CentCom press officer, puts it in a conversation with an Arab journalist, Al Jazeera is the Arab Fox News. (What’s most encouraging about this film is the way American and Arab journalists are shown talking, arguing, and sometimes agreeing with one another.)
On one subject, Noujaim’s film is manifestly balanced. She includes Al Jazeera’s footage of Iraqi and American corpses in roughly equal numbers. When CentCom complains that airing these images breaches journalistic etiquette, the Arab broadcasters respond that it is essential to show people what is happening so they can make up their own minds. Fair enough, but this response underscores the need to recognize what Noujaim has carefully left out of her film: an honest statement of her intentions.
An Al Jazeera journalist named Hassan Ibrahim, formerly of the BBC and married to a British correspondent, is franker about what Al Jazeera is up to. He says he believes in America and her people, and, because he does, he is convinced Americans will finally stop their government’s cruel folly in Iraq once they clearly see the suffering it is causing. He is probably right. Unlike earlier conquerors, we do not have the stomach to prosecute our imperial will. We might want the rest of the world to submit to our vision of the good life, but we are not ready to gaze on the carnage necessary to enforce such compliance. It is the lesson of Vietnam. In the age of television—and now the internet—the discomfiting images are going to get through no matter who controls the media control rooms.
I wonder how the homebodies in 12th-century-B.C. Sparta and Athens would have felt about the Trojan War had they been able to watch Agamemnon and Achilles slaughtering Priam’s sons on television. Perhaps their warrior code and their penchant for dismissing womanish alarms would have defended them from squeamish second thoughts. Perhaps they could have watched with equanimity all that blood drench the ringing plains of windy Troy in the cause of honor, booty, and Zeus’s errant daughter. We, on the other hand, have no martial fortitude. We quake and quiver at the first sight of shattered limbs, scorched corpses, and wailing children. If the new Iraqi government that we are supporting does not take hold quickly, I am afraid Ibrahim’s forecast will prove true. The American vox populi will force our stalwart leaders to withdraw our troops. This will happen slowly and ignominiously, leaving behind an Arab warrior culture encouraged to plot ever-more-glorious jihads against an America they perceive to be weak and irresolute.