When David O. Russell made Three Kings in 1999, he thought he was shedding new light on the first Gulf War, a conflict that went by so quickly few journalists, let alone artists, stopped to see what our swift military victory had won. Eight years later and the movie not only survives as a sardonic adventure comparable in tone and scale to Catch-22, but as the sanest, funniest and most relevant American fiction-feature yet about American involvement in the Middle East.
Today's opening of The Kingdom presents a stirring, idealistic paradigm of how international police work could function to curtail terrorism. But Three Kings conveys the volatile mix of neglect, laziness and lack of comprehension that put Americans in the perilous mix they are in today. (Three Kings was my best picture pick of 1999; my No. 2 was The Insider, made by one of Three Kings' producers, Michael Mann.)
Three Kings is no knee-jerk left-wing anti-war tract. To summarize brutally, it's both anti-Saddam and anti-Bush. It views the U.S. military without illusions and without rancor.
Actually, it's about four kings, American soldiers all, including the grizzled vet George Clooney, the intelligent, green Mark Wahlberg, the fiercely Christian Ice Cube and the ignorant, goodhearted Spike Jonze. At the end of the war, Wahlberg and Jonze find an Iraqi treasure map hidden up the posterior of a prisoner. Clooney muscles into their discovery. He has the know-how to mount a private expedition to retrieve stolen Kuwaiti gold. (Think of Clooney, Wahlberg and Cube as three musketeers and Jonze as an unlikely D'Artagnan.) The chaos of the first President Bush's immediate postwar policy - encouraging Iraqi freedom fighters without aiding them - makes the soldiers' initial success possible. It also rouses their conscience. They face the dangers of a ground war while they come to understand Iraqi fury and disappointment. They risk their hides to do some good. The master stroke of the movie is to put four guys, after the first Gulf War, into the kind of horrific episodes that the prewar propaganda said the coalition's conquest would contain - and that the postwar propaganda papered over with computer images of smart bombs.
Russell never got credit for re-invigorating the hand-held techniques that directors like Paul Greengrass and Peter Berg have adopted to greater acclaim on similar projects. It was Russell's way of blasting through the slick official images of a lightning war.
He parodied broadcast news but also relied on print journalism for images and compositions that now seem prescient, such as Americans seizing and stripping Iraqi prisoners in the middle of nowhere. Three Kings is a you-are-there movie that takes you to a place you don't want to be - but the journey pays off in excitement and revelation.
It's a superb example of a unique movie emerging from a director who responds with all his senses and every brain cell to fresh and incendiary material. "It was the first war that had color photographs in the newspaper," Russell told me at the time. "We sought to reproduce the odd color of the newspaper images by using Ektachrome - not a movie stock, but one in which the colors are very saturated - and the bleach bypass process, which leaves a layer of silver on the film, so when the colors do pop through they get a harsh, blown-out look." The movie is full of surprises; there's something both awful and oddly reassuring about seeing that soldiers loyal to Saddam long for a nice stereo or an Infiniti convertible.
When an Iraqi interrogator begins his torture of Wahlberg, he raises the question of whether Michael Jackson turned his face into a white mask by choice, or American culture made him want to do it.
"Obviously, the guy was trained by certain American forces in the process of interrogation," said Russell. "We trained all the great dictatorships. And to intimidate or disorient the subject is a primary strategy. I thought it made a lot of sense to start with something disorientingly familiar. But then the question is also completely filled with the man's rage about what he sees as the hypocrisy of America: trying to get rid of Saddam yet bombing civilians; Michael Jackson being the King of Pop yet hating himself."
That sequence also works because this particular Iraqi has experienced the bombing death of his only child. Much of the film highlights the havoc war and gunplay wreak on children. In that way, and others, Three Kings echoes the work of Sam Peckinpah (The Wild Bunch, Cross of Irons). Three Kings even has a Wild Bunch sort of plot. But Russell found ways besides Peckinpah's slow-motion violence to express the horror of war and bloodshed, most obviously when he shows exactly what happens to human organs when a bullet pierces a body.
The movie starts with Wahlberg shooting an Iraqi who may or may not be surrendering. Then it immediately depicts the fraternal friendship between Wahlberg and Jonze. That juxtaposition of life-and-death confusion and warmth stymied some audiences and critics who complained it took them too long to figure out how they felt about the characters. But the film's strategy was to keep viewers off-kilter until they knew whether they wanted to like these guys or not.
And it's that ambiguity, most of all, that's been painfully lacking in the current run of Iraq-themed features, such as In the Valley of Elah. Variety critic Todd McCarthy has complained that he's begun to dread Iraq-based movies because they're so apt to reinforce a conventional anti-Bush, anti-war point of view without advancing the discussion or providing an imaginative experience.
That's never the case with Three Kings. You don't know exactly where this movie is heading right up to the bittersweet end. It fulfills the function of great topical art. It challenges you to train your common sense and critical intelligence on a moving target - and it makes that provocation entertaining. And that's what makes a movie like Three Kings both timely and timeless.