Tears of the Sun

March, 2003, Drama

Directed by:Antoine Fuqua

Starring:Bruce Willis, Monica Bellucci, and Cole Hauser

Tears Of The Sun

Timing is everything.


Who could have predicted that this Bruce Willis opus about Navy Seals helping rescue innocents in the midst of an African civil war would open around the country with such exquisite timing for its financial backers? Here we are, on the brink of an invasion of Iraq, and director Antoine Fuqua presents a sharply divided American public with a piece of jingoistic, cinematic colonialism reminiscent of John Wayne's Back To Bataan. If contemporary audiences are as uneasy with the subtext of this film as I was, it's not likely to show at the box-office; Tears seems destined to sell a lot of theater tickets despite its dubious moral and curious, directorial bifurcation.

Willis plays Lt. A. K. Walters, commander of a small, elite group of Navy Seals who specialize in rescue missions. In response to the outbreak of civil war in Nigeria and the massacre of the members its minority tribe, the Seal team is dispatched from an American aircraft carrier in the Indian Ocean to parachute into the jungle and rescue Dr. Lena Hendricks, a widowed French physician operating a small clinic with the assistance of a priest and two nuns. As the doctor is an American citizen by virtue of her marriage to an American physician, her safety is the only objective; the European religious personnel are to be offered assistance, which they are free to reject if they wish, but Nigerian nationals are not. Her extraction, along with Willis and his team, will come via helicopter from a clearing a few miles from the doctor's field hospital.

Dr. Hendricks, (played by the stunning Italian actress Monica Bellucci with a curious tendency towards combat décolletage) refuses to leave without the walking wounded and Willis tricks her into believing he'll rescue them as well. But when she's forcibly put on one of two rescue helicopters and airlifted over the remains of her clinic, now brutally destroyed by the new government's military, Willis has a change of heart and returns to the abandoned civilians with the aim of escorting the entire group, on foot, to the safety of a neighboring country. But the doctor has a hidden agenda underscoring her concern for these refugees, now mysteriously pursued with mounting urgency by the approaching soldiers who slaughtered the badly injured she was forced to leave behind. The ensuing flight to safety towards a friendly border allows Fuqua to use his Hawaiian locations to vividly convey the claustrophobic effect of jungle combat; but the motivations for it, which form the crux of the plot's subsequent action, produce a disappointingly macho resolution to the story's basic premise.   

Fugua hit the directorial big leagues with Training Day, which starred Denzel Washington as an attractive but corrupt cop in complex and overheated police thriller. In that film, Fuqua shrewdly deployed Washington's skills against type, extracting a performance of such volcanic intensity it garnered him the 2001 Oscar as Best Actor. In Tears, the director reverses field with Willis's performance to equal, if surprising, effectiveness; as a terse, stoic career warrior, Willis exudes a quiet mixture of command competence and battle-weary fatigue. The members of his small squad, ably led by a suitably understated Cole Hauser, are also effective in conveying their muddled reactions to the about-face decision of their leader. Driven as much by concern for each other and loyalty to their military code as they are sympathy for the plight of their charges, each supports his new orders by effectively contributing to the team's dangerously altered goals. 

Willis' decision to disobey the narrow scope of his orders neatly, if implausibly, sets the stage for what could have been an interesting study of the conflict between military goals and the necessity for humanitarian ones and the age-old debate about the substitution of personal judgment in situations where the command to "just follow orders" contradicts the impulse to do what's right. Fuqua deploys his script with feints in the direction of these far more important issues, but sadly allows his film to slide back into the kind of gung-ho point of view better suited to military recruiting films. In doing so, he steals shamelessly from the kind of heroics popularized by WW 2 movies in the 40's and 50's.  What began as an exciting action film with the potential to examine the troubling but important issues that surfaced during the Rwandan genocide a few years ago degenerates into a standard Hollywood study in pyrotechnics that trades serious questions for a high body count.

But even more troubling than this retreat from real issues is the offhand way in which the movie reeks with post-colonialist attitudes about its African characters. They are portrayed as either bloodthirsty savages capable of the most horrible brutality, or as mere weaklings, bewildered by the world in which they live, and incapable of caring for themselves without the wise, steadying hand of 1st World, Anglo-Saxon intervention on their behalf. What begins as an intriguing exploration of military responsibility degenerates into a Kipling-esque examination of the White Man's Burden. U.S. movies treated Native Americans in this shameful manner for decades, and until only recently, subjected African-Americans to the same condescending cinematic attitudes.  Hollywood has done it time and again with the peoples of other countries and cultures as well, feeding a seemingly endless domestic appetite for stories which simultaneously portray us as well-intentioned and "the other" as ignorant, craven or suspiciously opposed to our way of seeing things. If the box office results for this movie are as huge as I think they're going to be, Hollywood will have once again demonstrated its unerring ability to give the public what it wants; propaganda masquerading as serious drama. 


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