Three Kings
Produced by Village Roadshow Productions,
Atlas Entertainment, and Warner Bros.
Directed by David O. Russell
Screenplay by John Ridley and David O. Russell
Released by Warner Bros.

American Beauty
Produced by DreamWorks and Jinks/Cohen
Directed by Sam Mendes
Screenplay by Alan Ball
Released by DreamWorks

Set against the aftermath of the Gulf War in March 1991, David O. Russell’s Three Kings includes a disturbing scene in which an officer explains to his men what’s most dangerous about a bullet wound. Provided you survive the initial impact, he coolly observes, it’s what happens inside. As he speaks, the screen fills with a cutaway view of a chest cavity, exposing lungs, heart, stomach, and liver, all blithely working away. Suddenly, a bullet pierces the rib cage, puncturing this and that on its erratic course until it bursts into the liver, letting loose a viscous green syrup. Bile, the officer explains. Together with internal bleeding, it will fill the chest cavity, compressing the lungs until it’s difficult, if not impossible, to breathe.

Russell so delights in this grisly living diagram, he repeats it near the end of the film. One can see why. It speaks eloquently of his overall ballistic strategy. He wants his film to have the impact of a bullet, first bowling us over, taking our breath away, and finally leaving us with some troubling internal pressure when the lights go up. Accordingly, the first 40 minutes come at us with the force of a gunshot. We are assaulted by a swift, nonstop montage filled with rapid-fire camera panning that looks confused yet manages to deliver all we need to know to follow the plot.

We’re first introduced to three naive reservists, played by Mark Wahlberg, Ice Cube, and Spike Jonze, all surprisingly effective. Then we meet Special Forces Major Archie Gates —George Clooney in a commanding portrayal of a war-hardened soldier made cynical by his government’s addiction to military half-measures such as those employed in the Gulf War. With his organ-voiced insouciance, Clooney perfectly captures the curdled resentment of an officer whose competency has been gallingly leashed by the dictates of realpolitik.

Gates is a man shorn of his professional mission. So when a treasure map is retrieved gingerly from the backside of an Iraqi POW, he decides to pursue a personal challenge instead. The document identifies the village where Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guard has hidden millions in Kuwaiti gold bullion. Before you can say “the Mother of All Wars,” Gates is tearing across the Iraqi desert in a “borrowed” Humvee, reservists in tow. Visions of Lexuses and Infinities dance in their heads as one of the younger men sings in comic blasphemy a medley from the Christmas hymnal and Janis Joplin: “We Three Kings be stealing the gold; my friends all drive Porsches, I must make amends.” It will be an easy operation. Gates has assured them. Out at dawn, back by lunch, and they’ll never have to report to their day jobs again.

But when they arrive at the village, their larcenous adventure begins to sour. They find the people in a state of pandemonium. Men, women, and children run toward them from every direction. They’re all smiling, gesturing, and chattering inexplicably. The remorseless desert sun adds to the confusion by bleaching the scene until it’s blindingly monochromatic. The few colors that do break through are so intense and the action so hectic, they smear the screen unintelligibly. Russell’s handheld cameras take it all in with seemingly random sweeps—right, left, up, down—until we’re as thoroughly discombobulated as Gates and his men. Squinting painfully against the desert glare, the Americans find themselves bewildered by this riot of wogs. Only slowly do they begin to sort things out. Uniformed Iraqis begin to emerge from the perimeters of the village square. Other men without uniforms now appear, hunkering on rooftops.

Then, ignoring the Americans, the soldiers rush forward at the sight of an approaching tanker truck. “Nothing comes in,” they shout repeatedly, firing on the vehicle until the driver loses control and it turns over, spilling its cargo of milk, thousands of gallons worth, unleashing a white tidal wave that sweeps the villagers and die Americans off their feet. Mothers and children scramble frantically to scoop up as much of the life-sustaining liquid as possible before it seeps uselessly into the sand.

Amid this chaos, the picture comes into focus. These villagers are being starved, bullied, and tortured into submission by Saddam’s soldiers. They thought the Americans had come to defend them, a belief perversely reinforced by Gates, who reads them a statement supposedly from George Bush filled with official blather about America’s commitment to the people of Iraq. Having paid lip service to diplomacy, the Americans then do their best to ignore these unfortunates as they kick down doors and threaten their way into the soldiers’ underground quarters in search of the Kuwaiti gold.

The entire sequence distills the Gulf War to its tawdry essentials. We invaded Iraq ostensibly to drive Saddam Hussein from power and thus protect Kuwait and the Iraqi people from his ruthless ambitions. But our real reasons were quite different. We were there to stop Saddam from blocking our access to the region’s oil supplies. Once this was accomplished, we pulled out, abandoning Iraqi civilians to Saddam’s savagery and ourselves to possible terrorist attacks. It was another of those shameful adventures in which our government asks Americans to risk their lives for a policy so prudently limited that it leaves the situation it would remedy as bad or worse than before. Think Kosovo.

So far, so cynical. But then Russell surprises us. As the Americans are about to make their getaway, a woman held at gunpoint by a member of the Republican Guard begs them to stay. When she refuses to stop her clamor, the soldier kills her in front of her daughter and husband. With this, the soundtrack goes dead. Then we hear winds sighing as the clouds overhead speed weirdly across a seemingly limitless powder-blue sky. Next we see the woman falling again and again, filmed from several angles in languid slow motion. Finally, her body lands with a gracefully undulant bounce, breaking the grim spell. We hear the unnerving wail of the woman’s daughter as she rushes to the body, her father trying desperately to restrain the child lest she be shot also. This stretching of time is, of course, an old film device. Eisenstein used it powerfully in 1925 to give Potemkin its emotional resonance. But Russell has executed it so masterfully that it feels utterly new and deeply moving. We watch this horror through Gates’ eyes and can feel his cynicism crack under the pressure of conscience. Before this moment, his hard, piercing gaze looked straight ahead, seeing only what concerned him. Now his eyes widen and soften ever so slightly, taking in the awful spectacle before him. Then he winces as his heart overrules his practical judgment. He can’t drive away from this.

What follows is best left unsaid. I only want to mention how Russell visually manages the cross-cultural encounter between Americans and Iraqis. For the first half of the film, his washed out, jittery photography deliberately prevents us from seeing the Iraqis as individuals. They all blend together as the undifferentiated alien. But later, in an underground shelter’s darkened interior, shot with a steadied camera, they become identifiable persons. Many speak English. Several have lived in America. The leader of the resistance solemnly announces, “I was at B school in Bowling Green.” Rather than the towel heads and camel jockeys of GI argot, the dissident villagers turn out to be ordinary people united in their hatred of tyranny and fervent in their longing for something resembling American freedom.

How the Americans respond to this knowledge becomes the moral burden of this remarkable film. Will the four kings of the Occident have the nobility of those other kings, the three from the Orient who 2,000 years ago came bearing gifts rather than stealing them, those good wise men who risked themselves to help another Middle Eastern family escape a similarly vicious tyrant? The film puts this question not only to the protagonists but also to us in the audience, should we care to address it. This is the wound and the pressure Russell wants us to feel as we leave the theater.

Sam Mendes also raises important questions in American Beauty. Unfortunately, he tries to answer them.

We meet Lester Burnham, 42 years old, no visible scars, only internal. He’s done a 20-year stint in the soul-crushing middle class during which he’s actually had to work at an unsatisfying job to support his one-child family. “It feels like I’ve been in a coma,” he tells us. In desperate need of inspiration, he fantasizes about Angela (Mena Suvari), his 17-year-old daughter’s friend. He imagines her provocatively unzipping her sweater to reveal mounds of rose petals which fly out and tantalizingly fill the air between them. In a film so remarkably appointed with roses, this scene is clearly the centerpiece. It identifies the aptly named Angela as Lester’s personal Beatrice, sent to lead him from the dark wood of his aimless life to the luminous multifoliate rose of some secular beatification.

But first, Mendes takes us on a Dantesque tour of the American middle class, revealing it to be an inferno of avarice, treachery, fear, lust, and self-loathing. At moments, he succeeds with some strikingly original images, but in the long run he hasn’t the vision—aesthetic or moral—to sustain his conceit.

Burnham’s particular hell is his marriage. He is disgusted with the shallow ethic of success that drives his realtor wife, Carolyn (Annette Bening), a woman so committed to appearances that she color-coordinates her clogs with her gardening shears and smiles tirelessly for fear the world may think she is not unwaveringly happy. “My business is selling an image,” she explains, “and part of it is living that image.” Her happy face stops well short of the marital bed, however, which is why poor Lester lusts after the nubile Angela. Meanwhile, their sullen daughter (Thora Birch) concludes they’re both freaks.

The traditional family makes a poor showing here. Consider Lester’s neighbors. On the right, we find a home possessed of guns, paranoia, homophobic hysteria, voyeurism, and—worst of all—a penchant for Ronald Reagan films. On the left, we find exemplary decency and inexhaustible reserves of sweetness and light. Here’s the zinger. The rightward ranch quarters a retired Marine colonel, his emotionally lobotomized wife, and their voyeur son, while the leftward hacienda is home to an unfailingly charming homosexual couple.

Maybe Mendes thinks this is flattering to homosexuals, but among those I count as my friends, I don’t know any who enjoy being used as agitprop to travesty the traditional family. Mendes’s aim is clearly to expose the family as the front of repression, hypocrisy, and self-deception, an institution that perverts our better selves. What is our better self? Lester finds his through the guidance of an adolescent Virgil (Wes Bentley) who sells him pot while giving him lessons in living for the moment. He’s so taken with the lad’s do-as-you-will free spirit that he gushes, “You’ve become my personal hero.” So this is the answer! Forget those dreary middle-class blues and follow the natural wisdom of untutored youth. Liberation through sex, drugs, and rock and roll!

My, how salvation has changed since Dante sought the rose of paradise. That this film is both a critical and popular success reveals how many of us remain lost in the darker woods of America.