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Jewish World Review Oct. 10, 2000 / 11 Tishrei, 5761

Julia Gorin

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If the world is watching the fighting in the Middle East, let it also watch "Rules of Engagement" --
LAST WEEK the United Nations gleefully passed a resolution condemning Israeli actions against Palestinians. In a further departure from its once unyielding support of Israel, the U.S. didn't veto. Before the people of the world follow suit in their hearts, taking the uneven casualty figures at face value, they should rent "Rules of Engagement," starring Samuel L. Jackson and Tommy Lee Jones and hitting the video shelves today. This work of fiction more accurate than media "truth" will demonstrate to anyone in doubt that the incident at Temple Mount, which has now spread to the rest of the region, went down according to plan.

In the film, when a protest at the U.S. embassy in Yemen starts to get out of hand, Marine Col. Terry Childers (Jackson) is sent on a rescue mission to extract the U.S. ambassador (Ben Kingsley) and his family and bring them to safety. The mission goes awry when the demonstrators, originally armed only with rocks, open gunfire on the U.S. crew. It becomes clear that the protest didn’t just "turn" ugly, but was a planned riot, the "protesters" there in response to a call for holy war. Childers has to make a tough call, and ultimately orders his troops to fire into the crowd. At the end of the day, one or two American soldiers and 83 Yemenese are dead. The mission is labeled a massacre, and the international uproar is deafening. Childers becomes the fall guy.

"Rules," penned by former Navy Secretary James Webb III, reflects a reality which the press often does not. From children with machine guns to baby-cradling mothers shielding snipers, this movie gives us a clue that there might be more to the story behind the recent, oft replayed footage of the Palestinian father and son in Gaza crouching to avoid Israeli bullets and then getting shot before our eyes.

But it sheds more light even than that. Far from movies like "A Few Good Men" and "The General’s Daughter," which make use of absurd and farfetched premises contrived to paint the American military and any military man in an autocratic light, "Rules of Engagement" takes its shots at spineless administrators who have little understanding of warfare but are experts at saving their own hides. Rather than representing the situation truthfully and defending U.S. actions, the Clinton administration-style National Security Adviser (Bruce Greenwood) buckles to international criticism and looks for a quick, politically popular fix, destroying the only hard evidence that could exonerate Childers--a surveillance tape proving that the civilians were indeed armed.

Without hard evidence, the colonel and his attorney, best friend Col. Hays Hodges (Jones), rest their hopes on the diplomat whose life and family Childers saved. But the diplomat, threatened by the National Security Adviser with loss of status and livelihood, betrays Childers, confirming on the witness stand that the colonel was a loose cannon who used excessive force. Between violent Arabs and Kingsley’s weasely ambassador—a true-to-life representation of the often ineffectual and unpatriotic but always self-preserving types that make up the diplomatic corps—the bold moviemakers departed from Hollywood’s limited 90s-era staple of hack targets and stale villains, tapping a reservoir of bad guys outside of church, big business, Republican leaders and, of course, the military monolith.

The film’s guts don’t end there. Early scenes are a flashback to Vietnam, where Childers, in an attempt to ascertain the position of the Vietcong who were in the process of slaughtering the other half of his company, kills a POW when a reticent group of prisoners call his bluff. Thirty years later, the commander among these POWs is called in to testify against Childers’ character. But this prosecution witness turns defense when, to the military court’s amazement, he says he would have done the same thing. In a final scene, the Vietnamese commander surprises us again when he offers a tearfully triumphant salute to his American counterpart.

It’s a wonder this script made it past the censors—what with recent military cinema fare like "The Siege" and "Thin Red Line," the latter in which soldiers compose poetry on the battlefield while visualizing a spouse on a tree swing. And it wouldn’t have passed, had a black actor not signed on to play the embattled hero—a prototype that normally resonates with audiences only if he’s brought down in the end, unconditioned as they are to respond to anything other than an errant military and a victimized Arab world.

But writer James Webb is conditioned to reality. A Purple Heart and Navy Cross veteran of the Fifth Marine Regiment in Vietnam, where he served as a platoon and company commander in the infamous An Hoa Basin west of Danang, Webb was the first-ever Naval Academy graduate to serve in the military and then become Navy Secretary. While earning his J.D. at Georgetown University, he began a six-year pro bono representation of a Marine convicted of war crimes in Vietnam. Webb finally succeeded in clearing his client’s name, but only three years after the man’s suicide.

"Rules of Engagement" will be too much for some who, not having been previously exposed by Hollywood to international realities, will find it offensive and prefer to stick to non-offensive subject matter like a homophobic marine colonel stealing a kiss from Kevin Spacey in "American Beauty."

But others after viewing this film may find themselves asking how a young boy came to be in the middle of a planned riot, as contrasting reports compete for the mutable truth issuing from his family.

Overtaking us with the feeling of powerlessness that comes from knowing the truth that could set a man free, "Rules" forces us into the idle position of watching as the court of international opinion threatens to destroy him, and with him our values. Not unlike the frustrating position which some observers around the world find themselves in today, watching helplessly as CNN and its print and wire counterparts once again keep the larger body of evidence from world view, and wondering if a country will ever be set free.

JWR contributor Julia Gorin is a straight, happily-married journalist and stand-up comic residing in Manhattan. Send your comments by clicking here.


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© 2000, Julia Gorin