American Sniper, a movie I loved, tried to do everything. It explored the hell of war and the essence of brotherhood. It followed the book by the Texas super sniper Chris Kyle, told a love story, and drew attention to the veterans we are neglecting.
It succeeded. Some critics had trouble appreciating the film — too patriotic? — but Sniper made more than half a billion dollars, half of it in the United States; the highest grossing film by Clint Eastwood. Its powerful story about heroism and the commitment to country and family spoke to millions, especially in the middle of America. They were the people fighting and supporting the wars that many all too comfortable others were protesting.
The Wall tries to do just one thing. A tense battle scene unfolds more or less in real time. This film features snipers too — a couple of Americans (John Cena and Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and an unseen Iraqi (Laith Nakli) holding them hostage from afar with his long rifle.
Exhausted and dehydrated, the U.S. Rangers walk into a trap when they examine a horrific scene in the Absolute Middle of Nowhere, Iraq. Amidst the dead bodies of American soldiers and security forces they become victims too of the invisible shooter who has killed everyone they came to rescue.
Cena’s character, Matthews, is soon shot and wounded. This gives Golden Globe winner Taylor-Johnson a chance to shine, just as he did brilliantly in Nocturnal Animals. As Isaac, he is dirty, thirsty, frightened and occasionally creatively courageous while he hides behind a crumbling wall.
At some point the Iraqi sniper played by the British actor Nakli manages to get on his radio frequency. As the two talk, Isaac tries to stay alive and take out his nemesis. The Iraqi just wants to chat when he isn’t shooting. With sarcasm and anger in his voice he lists the wrongs of the Americans active in Iraq and other Muslim-majority countries. An intelligent way to give a voice to the rationale behind the deadly insurgent campaign against the “occupation”; the campaign that eventually grew into ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
Is this an anti-war film? Hardly. It does lack the overt heroism and patriotism of American Sniper. But like Eastwood, director Doug Liman and writer Dwain Worrell seem to have an objective more important than rehashing the old Iraq War argument. Instead they attempt to get into the worlds, into the minds of these forgotten fighters.
A former Ranger named Nicholas Irving — nickname: The Reaper — served as an advisor on the film. He must be good at his former and current jobs. The dialogue and action feel real, lean, even claustrophobic. That quality makes The Wall was both hard and thrilling to watch. Of course, Liman’s films are always thrilling. Just think of The Bourne Identity, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, and Edge of Tomorrow.
The compact intensity of this film reminded me of Fury. While that was a tale about the biggest topic imaginable — World War II — Fury also stayed small by getting into the heads of a bunch of fighters led by Brad Pitt’s character. The brotherhood inside that tank battalion was as tangible as the bond between Matthews and Isaac in The Wall.
The debate about Iraq remains a touchstone in the debate about interventionism versus isolationism, about engagement by the “indispensable nation” (George W. Bush) versus “leading from behind” (Barack Obama), which meant the withdrawal of troops from Iraq just when the war seemed winnable. I’m not sure Liman means it this way, but the guys in The Wall become the collateral damage of the poorly timed retreat. With no chance to win they are left to fend for themselves, unable to reach anyone for backup.
Through their despair we sense that this is a symbol for America turning its back on allies and its own soldiers, the forgotten men and women trying to stay alive, risking everything while their contemporaries worry about safe spaces.
We can’t know what would have happened if the surge and the Iraqi uprising had been given a chance under Obama. Perhaps the characters in The Wall would not have ended up abandoned in the desert. Maybe the Iraqi sniper would have become a school teacher helping to rebuild his country.
But as moviegoers we would not have been able to enjoy The Wall.
We may not like the outcome of this film and what it says about American power in the Middle East. But as war movies go, this compact thriller deserves a spot up there with other strong, recent war films: Fury, Zero Dark Thirty, and American Sniper.