cenes is a new column here at Stylus, applying the idea behind the long-running Seconds: Perfect Moments in Pop series to the world of cinema. In each piece, a writer will tackle a particular scene—or even a shot—much in the same way Seconds attempts to dissect a significant moment within a song. The approach is up to the writer. They may analyze the scene from a technical standpoint, discuss the dramatic elements in play, talk about what it may mean to them personally, or take the concept in another direction entirely. Enjoy.
About halfway through David O. Russell’s frenetic Gulf War manifesto Three Kings, the briskly funny, frankly violent exposition subsides for a short sequence that could stand in thematically for the entire film. Captured away from the other two thirds of the titular clan (filled out by George Clooney, and Ice Cube—in some of the best work of their screen careers), Sfc. Troy Barlow (Mark Wahlberg) is taken to an underground bunker by a quasi-hostile Iraqi man and fitted with ominous-looking wire around his head, with apparent intentions that do not bode well for the sergeant’s imminent return home.
Since the opening credits inform the audience with plain-spoken text that the war has just ended, it seems the Iraqi man has no military interests, and so the situation feels all the more grim. For a film so intensely stylized with color filters and fast-motion flourishes that the disc carries a disclaimer warning that “There is Nothing Wrong With Your DVD Player,” the scene’s aesthetic is uncharacteristically stripped down, bleakly colored with a hint of yellow and framed closely on its subjects with very few cuts away from their back-and-forth gazes.
As we firmly prepare for the violent, sadistic screaming match Hollywood convention would dictate, the Iraqi man turns to Barlow and asks, “What is the problem with Michael Jackson?” “What do you mean?” Barlow tentatively replies, followed by an increasingly uncomfortable repetition of the same question. Eventually the man offers a hint: “Your country make him chop off his face.”
Barlow is bewildered. “He did that to himself,” he offers. Not quite: “Your sick country made him hate himself, just like you hate Arabs.” This explains Jackson’s Caucasian appearance, the man reasons, because he was only trying to escape the same racism he believes fuels the American presence in his country. With this revelation comes the inevitable back story, from which we learn in rare flashbacks that the man’s young son was killed by an American bomb while sleeping in his bed. Barlow’s attempt at empathy is telling the man that he, too, has a young daughter, which leads to the scene’s central exchange:
“(Your daughter) is safe in Arizona, without a bomb and concrete.”
“I’m not from Arizona.”
But he may as well be. The scene, spoken entirely (and tellingly) in English, goes to the heart of the film’s storyline, which is essentially an adventure story of three disillusioned Army brats who want to take something back after fighting in a war that never really made sense to any of them. They plan to steal gold that was stolen itself, get caught up on the way—some would say by their consciences, others inconvenience—and decide to help a group of anti-Sadaam rebels make it out of the country. In the process, they jive with the local culture, running into about as many likenesses as they do divergences, and come to realize the human cost of the war.
The scene, set aside distinctly from the rest of the film’s more easygoing tone, highlights this dynamic in more personal terms in a movie that is otherwise chiefly a comedy. (There is no attempt to find a corollary with recent developments in the region, as the film was first released more than three years before the war in Iraq as we know it today—a fact that might seem obvious, but is worth a second mention, because watching the movie today suggests preternatural foresight on the part of the filmmakers.) The emotional friction is undeniable, with an intensity that zeroes in on the psychological duel between the two men, even as one wields more physical power with an electrocution device (to no apparent end). There’s an inescapable culture barrier, two men from worlds impossible to reconcile from the perspectives each have been exposed to, and it comes to the point where the only thing they have in common is the fact that they both have families. But even then: “I’m not a father anymore,” the Iraqi curtly reminds Barlow.
Three Kings doesn’t purport to be pro-war or anti-war, nor is it short-sighted enough to moralize with why-can’t-we-all-get-along schlock. With this scene, the most indicative of Russell’s lofty intentions, the film is vital because it deftly cuts away from traditional cinematic views of this or any other war, and lays itself on the line with risky moments where characters on both sides speak frankly and articulately about the war’s practical repercussions. It’s perhaps an easy gesture, even a slightly naïve one in this case, but it’s also singular, an honest attempt to explore the cultural issues that defined the conflict. It’s a conflict, Russell suggests, that goes beyond the military war, most evident in another scene in which Barlow sneaks a short phone call to his wife and newborn daughter back home. “I thought the war was over?” she asks him, puzzled why she hears gunshots in the background. “Well,” he replies, “it is and it isn’t.”