Periscope Depth

when you're a boy, you can wear a uniform

Valkyrie: Diverting but not moving. A Bryan Singer film about a plot to kill Hitler, starring Tom Cruise, should keep me on the edge of my seat for its entire run. But right when Col. Stauffenberg (Cruise) implemented the plan to isolate Berlin from the SS, I got a text inviting me out drinking. Five minutes later I was out the door.

Why didn’t this work? Perhaps knowing the source material – not just the fact that Hitler survived, but the details of this particular attempt, explicated by Jack Palance on an old episode of “Ripley’s Believe It or Not.” Perhaps Tom Cruise lacked the usual psychotic magnetism that draws viewers in, having only one eye to play out of. Ultimately, though, I came at the movie with a small amount of cynicism.

Cruise's stance on cults of personality is well documented.

Cruise's stance on cults of personality is well documented.

For the supposedly true story of men fighting against fascism, the plot bludgeons us with the theme that indecisive politicians can’t save us in a moment of crisis. Only the bold men of action (a/k/a, the military) can. Stauffenberg gets inducted into the conspiracy and immediately starts bossing the civilians around. Stern men in crisp uniforms lean over desks and shout about the need to ACT being pressing, and the time to ACT being now, etc. This technocratic love of action over deliberation, of Doing Something vs. Figuring Something Out, has been a hallmark of terror states for centuries. One wonders if Stauffenberg et al abhorred Hitler because he crushed Germany in the grip of fascism, or because he was so bad at it.

My historical revisionism aside, if the director of X-Men can’t make a moving film about men giving their lives to free a country that hates them, or make an exciting film about men maneuvering their way around thousands of soldiers, then the director has failed. Given the budget thrown at Valkyrie, the caliber of actors involved – Cruise, Branagh, Wilkinson, Nighy – and the sheer audacity of the visual spectacle, it’s actually not bad. But it’s still a rental, not a purchase, at best.

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Generation Kill: Some movies glorify war. Some movies vilify it. And some productions – like HBO’s miniseries Generation Kill, created by the producers of the greatest thing which the medium of television has yet to produce – treat war just as it is. War is thousands of men with hundreds of different agendas running around the desert with guns. Generation Kill is the result.

Hey!  Rolling Stone!  Know what this war is really about?

Hey! Rolling Stone! Know what this war is really about?

Generation Kill follows Bravo Company in the 1st Recon Marines through the early days of the Iraq War. In true David Simon / Ed Burns fashion, we meet more people than we can possibly remember the names of in the first two episodes. We rely on snips of dialogue and brief flashes of characterization to make them stand out: that’s the gullible racist. That’s the homosexual sniper. That’s the smart-ass diet pill freak. Etc.

Eventually, after the first three episodes, our attention narrows to one Humm-Vee in particular: “Hitman 2,” driven by the wisecracking Cpl. Person (James Ransome, Ziggy of The Wire S2). The platoon’s sergeant, Brad “Iceman” Colbert (Alexander Skarsgard) rides shotgun. In the back are the naive sociopath Lance Cpl. Trombley and an embedded reporter from Rolling Stone. You could film an entire series of the conversations these four have while rattling through the Iraqi desert.

Like The Wire, Generation Kill immerses viewers so fully that it defies the term “naturalism.” No one pauses for exposition. The show doesn’t come with a glossary. You, the unschooled viewer, have to pay attention. Fortunately, the actors, the cinematography and the editing all combine to make everything clear in context. When Hitman 2 calls in a “fire mission” to “Hitman Actual,” or when an idling bunch of Humm-Vees are told to get “oscar mike” for a point forty “klicks” distant, you know what they mean. If you don’t, or if you can’t figure it out, this show is not for you.

Very important note: I’m only 3 episodes in to the 7 episode series. Please don’t spoil anything, even obliquely, in the comments.

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