Welcome to another Reviewing Movies Like it’s 1999 column where we are really stepping in it and tackling two of the most retroactively controversial films from the “best year in movies”. Or what the kids today would call “problematic”. But for better or worse these films are (very) representative of America and all its flaws (perhaps to an uncomfortable degree). So yeah, good times.
Three Kings (released September 27 ’99) is potentially the first “modern” war movie of the 9/11 generation. Though obviously coming a couple years before the terrorist attacks and dealing with Bush Sr. (and not Jr.) and the Iraq War (you know, the first one) the film does seem prescient with its criticisms of American foreign policy in regards to the Middle East (which would only get super charged following 9/11). The film shows (mostly) well meaning soldiers in a hazily defined mission being given to them by disingenuous “powers that be” that results in some far worse abuses being suffered by innocents (the very people the soldiers were supposed to be helping). It’s a cynical- frustrating- and depressing assessment of our militaristic role in the world and is all the more gut wrenching following the Afghanistan (sprint-for-the-exits) Withdrawal.
Coming from a pre yelling-at-Lily-Tomlin-and-calling-her-a-“cunt” David O Russell, the film is an interesting stew of war and heist movies (with some political commentary sprinkled in for extra flavor) about some AWOL soldiers searching for hidden Kuwaiti gold. The style of the movie proved to be influential with its hand-held camerawork and “bleach bypass” color grading, which was the “go to” aesthetic choice for any number of thrillers taking place in the Middle East (or “foreign land”) and action films in general (especially of the Jason Bourne/ Paul Greengrass variety). The movie is anchored by George Clooney in an early lead role after blowing up on TV with ER (in an era where there was still a stigma with TV actors crossing over to feature films). I read “on the webs” that Russell had actually wanted Nicolas Cage for the part and apparently that led to some of the animosity between the director and Clooney (…and also Russell’s reported abusive behavior towards the cast/ crew). Now usually I would be all in for an eccentric Cage performance and could see that making the movie memorable in its own way. But in this case, I think it’s better to have Clooney’s solid and stabilizing movie star presence- especially for guiding the soldiers’ “change of heart” from their self-serving goals and desire to “see some action” (i.e. kill people) into actually doing what they came there to do… helping the Kuwaiti people.
Ice Cube and Mark Wahlberg play the other two titular kings. Also coming fairly early in their careers, the “rappers turned actors” put in some of their best performances (maybe even their best) in this film. Now I generally enjoy both of their movies but they have definitely settled into a “movie star groove” and you kind of know what you’re getting with a new Cube or Marky Mark flick. But I’m not sure they’ve ever been more conflicted or as emotionally vulnerable as they are in Three Kings, so it’s nice to be reminded that they have that “spark” in them. But for my money, the MVP of the film is Spike Jonze, playing the unbilled “fourth king” who is by all accounts a simple minded jingoistic goober, but as the film evolves he reveals more layers and humanity, and in the end is the true beating heart of the film. In a rare acting role, Jonze delivers such a committed and memorable performance that it makes one wish he did more substantial roles in front of the camera. Either way, Jonze had a hell of a ’99 because a month later a movie he directed, the trippy Being John Malkovich, would come out and really turn some heads (and we’ll be talking about it in a future column of course).
As mentioned, Russell’s film is a cynical portrait of America’s role in the Middle East, but at the end it’s almost too optimistic. He seems to be saying that Americans will do the right thing if they could just open their eyes a little. But now with twenty plus years of our Middle East escapades later, I think the harsh reality is that we were never able to do the right thing. Our sheltered and narrow minded hubris was always destined to do more harm than good. Today Three Kings represents the beginning of a self-inflicted disaster with a depressingly predictable outcome that was staring us all in the face. And as far as Russell goes, a lot of his movies I haven’t really enjoyed (Silver Linings Playbook, et al) and with this era of accountability it becomes increasingly hard to “separate the art from the artist.” We can’t “really” know what people have in their hearts or what the situations were that lead to being “caught on camera”. And honestly I can empathise that making movies is damn hard and can truly be one of the more mentally and emotionally taxing endeavors one can engage in. But it doesn’t really give us the right to be abusive and tyrannical dicks- no matter the circumstances. But at the end of the day, Three Kings is a good film and has only become more resonant and thought provoking especially given present events.
And speaking of separating the art from the artist….
American Beauty (released September 17, 1999) swept nearly all the major Oscars categories including Best Picture- Best Director- Best Actor- and Best Original Screenplay. By all accounts it was the “best” and most representative American film of the year… it’s even in the title for peet’s sake. It was well reviewed, a box office hit, and I (and everyone I knew) just seemed to accept that it was a good film. But the vehement backlash for American Beauty came hard, even before the whole Kevin Spacey implosion, as the concept of 1999 being the “best year in movies” was taking hold. Usually people would be singing the praises of Fight Club, Matrix, Magnolia, Election, et al. and then curse that their cherished film lost Best Picture to the pretentious/ shallow/ and undeserving American Beauty. It became the poster child along with Shakespeare in Love and (more recently) Green Book for falling into the so-called “Oscar backlash” trap. A phenomenon whereby critics/ film nerds decry the Academy for being “out of touch” for (among other things) not actually picking the best film of the year (which breaks new ground or has a distinctive “voice” and/ or “point of view”) and instead go with the “safe” and/ or blandest option. Or are accused of being unduly influenced by a Weinstein-esque “Oscar campaign”. In fact, it is believed that after Saving Private Ryan lost the big prize the previous year to Miramax’s Shakepeare in Love then the studio Dreamworks mounted a similarly aggressive campaign for American Beauty. Thus effectively “buying” the Best Picture Oscar like Miramax, actual merits of the films be damned.
So the legacy of American Beauty was already diminished before we found out that Spacey is (probably) an unmitigated monster and duly became one of the first Hollywood elites to be taken down by the #MeToo era. But all awfulness aside… Spacy was good. I enjoyed seeing him popping up in any movie where he was (usually) playing a dickish southern Lawyer or Senator. For me he was one of the best added value elements you could have in a film (well, not now of course). And his Best Actor win for American Beauty was almost inevitable as he was parlaying off two very memorable (and star making) supporting roles in Seven and The Usual Suspects. But today anything with Spacey is going to be a tough sit. Especially with the narrative of American Beauty involving him lusting after and seducing an underage high school child which in the film plays out more predatorial and graphic than I remembered.
Which brings up another uncomfortable theme of late 90s era (as reflected in music and movies) which was the oversexualization of young girls/ women- often weirdly contorted into personal liberation and/or empowering justifications- to the point where it was almost becoming acceptable to victimize females (as detailed in the recent documentary Woodstock ’99: Peace Love and Rage). And then there are other elements of American Beauty. The Chris Cooper character fetishizing Nazi paraphernalia (and authoritarianism in general) and who is simultaneously a closeted and a self hating homosexual who eventually kills our “hero”. And then our “hero” (Spacey) being a “privileged white male” who despite being given all the breaks and having the system set up in his favor is still disaffected. And in order to become “free” he skirts his responsibilities to his family and even faults them for his predicament. All the while, the women in the cast (Annette Bening, Thora Birch, Mena Suvari, and Allison Janney) are varying degrees of neurotic, repressed, self absorbed, insecure, and voids that react to whatever the males in their lives desire or want.
Now I think there’s an interpretation of American Beauty where it’s actually a subversive portrait of the idyllic American way of life showing how the veneer of “accepted normalcy” hides the underlying patriarchal, racist, sexist, pedophilic, and white supremacy roots. And I think all the elements are there in the film to support that point but I’m not sure if director Sam Mendes realized that’s what it was saying… (for the record, Mendes has made some great movies since this one). The ending of American Beauty where Spacey says that there’s “so much beauty in the world” (i.e. America) could have been delivered with biting irony (or as an unreliable narrator) because really what the film has shown us is that America is anything but beautiful. Instead audiences at the time (and for the most part) took the whole sentiment as sincere and profound. Which I think says more about America during 1999 (and now) than any of us would care to admit. We are American Beauty… and we’re not as “great” as we’d like to think we are.