William Friedkin's Rules of Engagement arrives freighted with political controversy. From the outset, the case might seem, to some, closed.
The spectacle of a Marine Colonel, Childers (Samuel L. Jackson), ordering his men to fire into a crowd of angry, Arabic citizens protesting outside an American embassy: can this be anything but the demonising of an entire people as villainous, even sub-human?
The war film, as a genre, is an easy target for ideological abuse. Since it is virtually a defining element of a war movie that only one side in a conflict is observed in depth, this necessarily means that the enemy is often rendered faceless and shadowy, a mere attack force characterised by ruthlessness and brutality.
Even films hailed for their more charitable and humanist views of war, such as Samuel Fuller's The Big Red One (1980) or Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line (1998), tend only to give pointed cameos of the enemy side as a team of individuals who are flawed, manipulated or desperate just like American soldiers.
Almost every war film is about what it means and how it feels to be lost and dazed within the field of combat – relying on wits, shouted orders and instinct. It is only when soldiers leave such chaos that they begin to ask themselves about the true identity and character of their appointed enemy. Many films in the genre (such as De Palma's Casualties of War, 1989) dramatise this double-take of combat followed by a painful process of reflection.
Rules of Engagement offers the possibility of such a structure. Its early scenes evoke the madness of a flashpoint conflict and the difficulty for anyone in charge to make considered, rational opinions. When Childers orders his men to open fire on the crowd by yelling "waste the motherfuckers!", the film is not condoning his rash choice of words, or glorifying him as some unholy, African-American Rambo.
There is an ambiguity, at this early stage of the film, as to what really happened at the embassy in Yemen. And when, back home, Childers asks his old friend Hodges (Tommy Lee Jones) to defend him in court, the film allows an opportunity to investigate both the incident and the national culture in which it took place.
There is another past connection between the men that asks begs for retrospection: in Vietnam, in the midst of a particularly ugly combat episode, Childers saved Hodges' life.
Friedkin is an old master at dramatising knotty issues of moral ambiguity, especially where male violence is concerned, as he has shown in films including The Birthday Party (1968), Cruising (1980) and Rampage (1992). If anything, the problems with his work have been a tendency to hysteria and an excess of ambiguity, as if no clear stand can possibly be taken on any social crisis.
Alas, Rules of Engagement is not a model Friedkin film. Although there are fitful, fleeting attempts to fill in the context of Arabic culture, and the exposure of a 'bad apple' in the American government, Stephen Gaghan's script is ultimately interested only in establishing and reaffirming an American soldier's code of honour.
All other issues fall away as the story drives desperately towards unveiling a single truth, and winning our sympathy, at all costs, for the beleaguered Childers. It is not an especially offensive film – merely a disappointing and slightly distasteful one.
© Adrian Martin August 2000