We had to wait quite a while, after the last chopper lifted off the roof of the American embassy in Saigon, before the first great Vietnam War film appeared. That was "The Deer Hunter" in 1978, fully five years after the war's end. That epic was followed by Coppola's "Apocalypse Now" a year later and Stone's "Platoon" in 1986.
All three films predate the Internet age, and perhaps it's a sign of our fast-paced times that we already have two outstanding films about the war in Iraq, while American troops remain in large numbers on the ground there.
Saints be praised this St. Patrick's Day week that "The Hurt Locker," which tells the story of an Army demolition team, won the Oscar for Best Picture. The millions who missed this little gem in 2009 now get a second chance, as it is re-released - and not just to the local art theaters - and also crowds the shelves in the video stores and the Net-flicks cue.
And, as if that was not enough luck for any Irishman, we have the added treat of Matt Damon in "The Green Zone," which opened last Friday. This new release is "The Hurt Locker" on steroids and amphetamines. Damon plays an Army warrant officer leading a team in search of WMDs in the immediate aftermath of the spring 2003 invasion. Apparently filmed mostly with hand-held cameras and edited with a hacksaw, "The Green Zone" is nearly two hours of frenetic action.
Pacing is not the only, or even the most striking, contrast between the two films. In "The Green Zone" Damon's Warrant Officer Miller learns a lesson in "real politik." As he pursues a top Iraqi general, who supposedly knows where Saddam's WMDs are hidden, he discovers that the American people have been sold a bill of goods. Not only are there no WMDs in Iraq, but the Bush administration knew that when we went in. The film's suspense is generated by his attempt to bring the general, who knows the truth and will tell it, back alive. Simultaneously, diplomat Greg Kinnear's mercenaries are laboring with equal zeal to kill his quarry, before he can talk.
"The Hurt Locker" picks up the Iraqi debacle some years along. Jeremy Renner's Staff Sergeant William James and his bomb squad aren't hunting WMDs, sir, no, sir. They are experiencing Baghdad post George W's premature declaration of victory, famously made on board the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln. Their job is to disarm the IEDs (improvised explosive devices) used with such deadly effect by the Iraqi insurgency that followed our easy "conquest" of the country.
The two films have in common an intensity generated by their brilliantly effective depiction of war, as seen through the eyes of the men on the ground. War historian John Keegan tried to accomplish this with his classic "The Face of Battle," a book in which he painted in words a picture of combat, as the combatants may have seen and experienced it. Keegan, I think, would approve of both "The Hurt Locker" and "the Green Zone." If a picture is indeed worth a thousand words, then these films grasp what Keegan reached for, and splash it all over the big screen.
One last point: we never get to know much about Damon's Miller. We gather that he cares about why America went to war. Once he learns the hard truth - the WMDs were nothing more than a myth to justify the invasion - he risks everything to get the truth out. Beyond this, he remains the same cipher at the film's end that he was at its start.
By contrast, Renner's William James is a complex character. Weaving its way through the suspense about who on the team will live to complete the one-year tour and who will die is Sergeant James's enigmatic, devil-may-care behavior. Does he have a death wish? Only after he returns home and tries to readjust to family life do we understand the movie's major premise: war can become an addiction… an obsession… a man's only true love.
Although the makers of the two films in no way collaborated, so far as I know, students of the War on Terror can benefit from seeing both… in close proximity, starting with "The Green Zone," followed by "The Hurt Locker." In the former, you will see an optimistic Army, flushed with victory, seeking the WMDs that were the supposed point of the invasion. In the latter, you'll share the harrowing daily life of a less enthusiastic Army unit hunting down and disarming the primitive IEDs that, ironically, are now the weapons of choice in this drawn-out engagement.
(Jim Castagnera, a former Times-News columnist, is the author of Al Qaeda Goes to College (2009) and Handbook for Student Law (2010)).