Monday, July 27, 2009

Monday Movie Day Reviews

The Iron Giant (1999): Where was I when this film came out? How did I miss it for all these years? And how is it that one of my new favorite films stars Vin Diesel?

The premise for filmmaker Brad Bird's first feature (The Incredibles, Ratatouille) sounds admittedly ridiculous: a giant alien robot befriends a fatherless boy in small-town 1950s Maine while paranoid government officials seek to destroy it. Yet it's these kind of imaginative premises that can foster some of the greatest stories ever told on film. The entire film is a parable about the triumph of sacrificial love over violence. In fact, I'd go as far to say as this is one of the most spiritually uplifting and Christ-honoring films I've seen in a long time.

The parallels between the iron giant and Christ are remarkable. Both are powerful persons who entered our world from another realm. Both showed up in unique and unexpected ways, revealing themselves to the marginalized (the iron giant befriends a dorky kid and a beatnik in small-town Maine; Jesus befriends fishermen, tax collectors, and various sinners in Israel). Both were misunderstood by the authorities and seen as a threat. Both offer hope to the widow and orphan. More than anything else, both have the capacity to do great harm to their enemies but instead choose to love them. The final scene (spoiler alert!) where the giant chooses to give himself up to save the town from an incoming nuclear bomb--a destructive end that they brought upon themselves!--brought me to tears. The giant has no obligation to these people. They've done nothing but shun or attack him. Yet with a single word on his metallic lips--"Superman..."--he opens his arms and sacrifices himself out of love.

There are other themes in the film too, mostly about the value of family and a commentary about nuclear weapons. This is not really a kiddie animated film. It's a simply a great film, filled with imagination, excellent voice acting (Vin Diesel voices the iron giant, and he's remarkably good), and an uplifting theme about sacrificial love. It's one of my new favorites.

Standard Operating Procedure (2008): Errol Morris's most recent documentary is about the horrors that happened in Abu Ghraib prison during the Iraq war. It doesn't pull any punches. It made me squirm and hold my hand over my mouth in shock. Morris simply allows the soldiers involved to tell their story in a surprisingly candid manner. Their story stems from being stationed at Abu Ghraib as military prison guards and taking pictures of themselves posing with prisoners they were humiliating, beating, or had recently been killed. The soldiers forced prisoners to strip naked, put underwear over their faces, handcuffed them to prison bars in stretched positions, and made them do sexually humiliating poses. The most famous picture is the one below, with female prison guard Lynndie England holding a leash tied around a naked Iraqi man's neck.

It's difficult to make a film about the Iraq war that doesn't come across as overly political or preachy (though Kathryn Bigelow's masterpiece The Hurt Locker is about as apolitical as films come). Standard Operating Procedure digs deep into one of the worst aspects of the war--Americans torturing people. The soldiers involved are all quite honest about their experience, including their participation in the photographs and the humiliation of prisoners. It begs the question, what would cause a person to do this to another person? It sounds like the conditions were perfect to degrade into an order a la Lord of the Flies. The soldiers were very young and inexperienced (Lynndie England was only 20); the prison was constantly under attack by mortars and gun shots, putting anyone on edge; the Iraqi prison guards weren't trustworthy and smuggled weapons to the prisoners; many of the prisoners had harmed or killed American soldiers; and perhaps the most chilling, the soldiers were given orders to do some of the horrible things they did. Prisoners being interrogated in the nude seems to have been the norm. All of these factors likely play a role. If a young inexperienced soldier was put in these kinds of conditions, the pressure and stress would make anyone crack.

Rather than elicit a political response in me--i.e. the Iraq war is a terrible thing--I was gripped with the atrocities of sin. Perhaps the most alarming part of the interviews is the sincere lack of emotion or regret from any of the soldiers directly involved. They even smirk or laugh when recalling certain events, like they're remembering a fun weekend with friends. They don't seem to regret their actions--Lynndie even admits as much--but only regret that the photos were released. It's like a child who is upset not about their wrongdoing, but about getting caught. One particular soldier didn't even seem to understand why she was punished. She claims she was just taking the photos, that she wasn't really doing anything. It's a sin of omission, of not standing up for what is right even when you know you should.

Standard Operating Procedure is not for the faint of heart. The pictures the soldiers took are quite graphic, including a lot of male nudity and blood, and the soldiers are pretty foul-mouthed at times. Yet Morris has done a fantastic job of capturing the story of Abu Ghraib with clarity, candor, and a sense of urgency. He is a phenomenal documentary filmmaker, and I'm eager to see his other films. Morris wants us to know that this should have never happened. Let's hope it never happens again.


  1. Man...isn't Iron Giant sad? I've always heard it's amazing, but I hate being sad.

  2. When I get sad, I just stop being sad and be awesome instead. True story.

    -Barney, from "How I Met Your Mother"

  3. I'm completely shocked that neither you and Brian had seen it. It's a masterpiece! Glad to see that you liked it.