In the Bedroom
Produced by Good Machine and GreeneStreet Films Inc.
Directed by Todd Field
Screenplay by Robert Festinger from a story by Andre Dubus
Released by Good Machine and Miramax Films

Blackhawk Down
Produced by Columbia Pictures Corporation and Jerry Bruckheimer Films
Directed by Ridley Scott
Screenplay by Ken Nolan and Mark Bowden
Released by Columbia Pictures and Sony Pictures Entertainment

In the Bedroom is first-time director Todd Field’s adaptation of Andre Dubus’ short story “Killings.”  Although the film has received almost universal praise, I found it oddly purblind to Dubus’ intentions and, consequently, unconvincing.

Dubus wrote his narrative from the point of view of Matt Fowler, a village storekeeper, whose life unravels when his 21-year-old son is murdered.  Without overtly moralizing, the story considers the lives of ordinary people who slip into disaster by doing and permitting what comes all too naturally.

While home for the summer between college and graduate school, Matt’s son Frank falls in with Natalie, a woman four years his elder.  Separated from her abusive husband, she has two sons to rear and finds in Frank a man patient and gentle enough both to romance and to comfort her.  He even helps her take care of the tykes.  The estranged husband, a layabout bully given to drink and brawling, shows up one evening and, in a jealous rage, shoots Frank in front of Natalie and her children.  Following the slaying, he is arrested and indicted.  A few days later, however, he is released on bail.  Furthermore, to the dismay of the grieving parents, the facts of the case are such that he will be charged with manslaughter rather than murder and, perhaps, spend no more than five years in prison.  On top of their loss, this information torments the parents unendurably.  Finally, Matt can stand it no longer and decides that he will try to set things right himself, putting in motion a surprisingly cold-blooded denouement.  It is Greek tragedy played out in lower-middle-class suburbia.

While covering the same ground, Field has made changes that seriously compromise Dubus’ story.  In the film, Matt (Tom Wilkinson) is transformed into a village physician.  This gives him a position and influence that do not comport with the decisions he makes.  Curiouser still, the age difference between the lovers has widened.  As played by Nick Stahl, Frank is merely a month out of high school.  The young wife becomes 37-year-old Marisa Tomei.  This gives their romance an entirely different cast.  In the original text, Matt is half amused by his son’s dalliance, assuming it will end when the boy departs for graduate school.  While his reaction might lack the moral probity expected from a 54-year-old father, it is not implausible.  In the film, however, his attitude seems willfully stupid.  There’s nothing amusing about the lovers’ nearly 19-year age difference.  Nevertheless, Matt tolerates their May-December relationship, apparently unable to work up any suspicions about Natalie’s motives.  Coming home unexpectedly early one afternoon, he finds his boy and his lover guiltily creeping downstairs from his bedroom.  Instead of telling them what’s what, he seeks to smooth over their embarrassment by inviting them to have lunch with him.  Moreover, he welcomes Natalie to a family barbecue with neighbors in attendance.  Blithely untroubled about giving scandal, he even feels free to appraise her shapely posterior as he mans the outdoor grill.  When she detects his ogling, she flounces haughtily away with a display of a modesty her actions have long since forfeited.

The behavior on parade throughout the first third of the film resembles that of the moral imbeciles who show up on the television circuses run by Jerry Springer.  Imagine finding your teenage son in sexual thrall to a woman approaching 40.  Would you hold your peace?  Since Wilkinson plays Matt as an eminently reasonable man with high hopes for his son’s advancement in life, one wonders why he does not send the strumpet packing and ground the kid for hormonal waywardness.  The only answer the film gives is spoken by Matt’s wife (Sissy Spacek).  In a fit of recrimination following the murder, she accuses Matt of abetting the relationship and, worse, enjoying it vicariously.  “You wanted what he had—her,” she hisses.  This is meant to be a searing moment of fatal revelation akin to the awful discoveries in Phaedra and Oedipus Rex, but I was not convinced.  Wilkinson’s Matt seems far too self-aware and rational to be long misled by secondhand lust.  He is a careful man whose one abiding sin is his middle-class prudence.  Early in his marriage, he resisted his wife’s desire to have more children, arguing they would retard advancement his career.  There’s no headlong hubris in this fellow.  He is certifiably not a tragic hero.  Consequently, we can only judge his tolerance of his son’s behavior as a sign of moral weakness.  Yet Wilkinson does not play the character this way.  Instead, he makes him a sturdy, decent man who finds within himself the resources necessary to face an extraordinary catastrophe.  While Wilkinson does this masterfully in the second half of the film, the first half so seriously undercuts his character’s credibility that I found myself unable to feel what is supposed to be the pathos of his situation.  Instead of heroically tragic, he merely seems foolishly derelict.  Polonius rather than Lear, he is a middle-aged man who has become so complacently civilized that he has forgotten how dangerous unruly passions can be.  Had Wilkinson played it this way, the film might have worked.

Ridley Scott’s filming of Mark Bowden’s Blackhawk Down is another misconceived adaptation.  Bowden, a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer, interviewed numerous combatants, both American and Somali, to construct a minute-by-minute account of the Task Force Ranger battle in Mogadishu on October 3, 1993, in which we lost 18 men.  He also took pains to give some idea of the political dynamics that led to this event.  The film, on the other hand, contents itself with a nonstop, in-your-face depiction of the “fog of war,” witnessed at ground level.  Scott’s staging is utterly convincing and undeniably powerful; but during two-and-half hours of shooting, shelling, grenading, bleeding, and screaming, I longed to hit the pause button now and again.  If only the action would stop, the cameras pull back, and someone—anyone—provide some perspective on the carnage we were watching.  But perspective is precisely what Scott has decided to erase.  Using extreme close-ups, jouncing handheld cameras, and whiplash montage, he has made it nearly impossible to distinguish one actor from another in their standard-issue uniforms.  The Somalis are even less distinguishable.  They come at us as a mass of gun-toting rioters who unaccountably want to shoot down our helicopters and kill our boys.  Those in the audience—and I suspect their number is legion—who do not know much about our misguided humanitarian and nation-building efforts in Somalia will be at a loss to make sense of what they are seeing.  True, there are a few explanatory notes on the screen as the film begins, but they hardly suffice.  We are told of warlord and clan leader Mohamed Farrah Aidid, who had been grabbing U.N. food shipments meant for starving Somalis.  By some accounts, he deliberately engineered a famine that killed more than 300,000.  We are given a scene in which Sam Shepherd, playing Maj. Gen. William F. Garrison, the Task Force commander, confronts Osman Atto, a captured Somali arms dealer, with this statistic.  This is “not war; it’s genocide,” he charges.  Atto, who was also Aidid’s banker, is not impressed.  He points out with a shrug that famine is a longstanding weapon of war.

This film is most remarkable for what it does not say.  Somalia is not a nation but, at best, a loose coalition of fractious clans living on land that was once under British, and then Italian, control.  As the leader of the Habr Gidr clan, Aidid had led the campaign that ousted the Soviet-supported dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991 and expected he would be made top dog for his pains rather than be asked to share power with other tribes weaker but no less ruthless than his.  Nor are we told that Aidid’s 14 children have lived in America and that one, Hussein Aidid, became a Marine reservist in California and has since returned to his homeland, where he is now offering to help America win her war against the Al Qaeda terrorists.

For most of the film, the Somali point of view is simply ignored.  Bowden, on the other hand, goes out of his way to help us understand these people.  It is, after all, of some interest that thousands of them—men, women, and children—risked their lives to repel our assault on Aidid’s headquarters.  They were going up against helicopters equipped with machine guns and missiles and ground troops armed with the most sophisticated handheld weaponry the world has ever known.  The resulting body count speaks for itself: We lost 18; they lost between 500 and 1,000.  When a people are willing to suffer such losses, something more than obstinate savagery motivates them.  While many Somalis had, at first, welcomed U.N. and U.S. aid, they turned hostile when we allowed Aidid’s ruthless machinations to draw us into their civil war.  There had been six gunship raids before the one on October 3, one of which was especially bloody.  Trying to capture Aidid, our forces had acted on faulty intelligence and attacked a Habr Gidr meeting at which he was not present.  The meeting had been called by the clan’s elders and intellectuals who disagreed with Aidid’s rabid policies and wanted to work with U.N. and American forces to restore peace.  We managed to kill 50 to 70 of these people, including some women and children.  After this, we increased our helicopter surveillance.  Bowden reports that the terrific updraft of the Blackhawks often tore the tin roofs off the Somalis’ homes, plucked their women’s loose robes from their backs, and, far worse, ripped infants from their arms.

Our mission may have begun with humanitarian goals, but the Somalis, with the prompting of Aidid’s vicious radio propaganda, soon came to see us as emissaries of high-tech evil.  We can protest all we want about their barbarity, their insane fratricidal clan warfare, their leaders’ willingness to starve women and children to get their way.  What good does it do?  This is their world, and, horrible as it is, we should remember ours has not been especially enlightened over the centuries either, particularly during the 20th, when over 50 million were sacrificed to brutal ideologies and the wars they provoked.

Blackhawk Down tries to put as brave a face as possible on our role in Somalia and to make us feel that we showed our stuff on Mogadishu’s dusty streets.  A Delta Force operative briefly explains his warrior philosophy.  “People ask me, why do you do it; you some kind of war junkie?  They don’t understand it’s about the man next to you, that’s all it is.”  It takes nothing away from the nobility of this sentiment to say that this is not enough.  While we can be grateful that there are such men in the world, heroes ready to hurl themselves into danger to defend us, their code offers no guide, and certainly no justification, for our conduct on the world stage.

The scene that I will remember most from this film is the one in which Somali boys on hills and rooftops outside Mogadishu hold up their right hands toward our advancing helicopters.  At first, I thought the kids were pointing guns at them.  But, no, they were aiming cell phones to catch the sound of the rotor blades from their different locations and transmit it to their fathers and older brothers in the city.  They created an early-warning network complete with a homemade global-positioning system.  We should keep this image in mind the next time we are tempted to conduct a little nation-building among people we do not understand.

Scott’s film does have one virtue: It is gaining wider readership for Bowden’s fair-minded account of how brave American soldiers sacrificed themselves for ill-considered policies hatched in Washington.