No guts, no glory

David O. Russell gets to the heart of the matter, down to the last detail

A little later, an Iraqi soldier tries to buy off Clooney's character with a Cuisinart, telling him he should take it for his wife. Gates shrugs off the offer, saying only, "I'm divorced" after he knocks the appliance to the ground. During one astonishing, wrenching sequence, Wahlberg's Troy Barlow, who signed up for combat only to make a little extra money for his wife and new baby, shares intimate details of his home life with his Iraqi captor, trying desperately to make him understand how much they are alike -- soldiers sent to do a job, fathers trying to raise children in a violent world. He discovers how dissimilar they truly are moments before he is tortured.

Then there are the truly throwaway moments, such as a long discussion about black quarterbacks in the NFL, an argument between Cube and Jonze about Judas Priest, or a series of scenes explaining each soldier's day job. At one point, Jonze's yee-haw homeboy Conrad Vig says that one solid-gold Rolex from Hussein's treasure chest would be enough to buy himself a nice split-level in Garland. It's a detail so precise, it almost feels too real, a random fact dropped in the middle of nowhere. In any other film filled with explosions, gunfights, and gruesome death scenes, these moments would be specks of sand swirling in the desert. In Three Kings, they are the movie. Never do the characters get swallowed whole by a situation that's far bigger than they are. Like Russell's earlier films, Three Kings is an intimate character study. The only difference is, shit blows up every now and then.

"You're always talking to the actors about who they are," Russell says. The man takes long pauses before answering questions -- so long, you think that perhaps you've somehow offended him. "You're always keeping them aware of who they are, and you're always stoking those details and making sure those details breathe. One of the producers may want to trim something because it's not, you know, essential. You have to fight for those things every step of the way in a big movie, because that level of detail can be nudged out by the big trucks.

David O. Russell and George Clooney, presumably when neither man wanted a piece of the other
Scott M. Nelson
David O. Russell and George Clooney, presumably when neither man wanted a piece of the other

"One of my favorite scenes is when they enter the second bunker [containing the gold] -- there are 10 things happening at once. On the page, that's half a page, so the producers go, 'We can be done with this by lunch -- look, they just kick the door in.' Then you get in there, and there's a soldier on the Nordic Track, the guy listening to the Eddie Murphy song, the Cuisinart guy, the guy watching Rodney King, then there's a guy being tortured. When we started rehearsing it, the producers stopped and said, 'Whoa. There's a whole day here. We can't do this.' And I'm like, 'We gotta do this. This is the whole texture of the movie. They can't kick it in and just show one detail.' But for those who understand, no explanation is necessary. For those who don't, no explanation will suffice. Cube used to have that line in the movie, but it got cut out."

Three Kings is far more stylized than Spanking the Monkey or Flirting With Disaster, which were made by a young man still tentative with a camera. By comparison, those films look like a series of snapshots -- or a flip book. "I'm more willing to take risks now," Russell says. "I'm more confident." Three Kings doesn't take a breath during its exhausting, exhilarating first half hour. The camera is in constant motion, traveling down the barrel of a gun during shootouts or burrowing through skin to reveal the guts and gory details wrought by a single bullet wound.

Russell also switched film stocks several times during the film: Early on, he used Ektachrome, a stock normally used for still photographs, to render the desert scenery in washed-out, grainy tones. The point, Russell says, was to capture the soldiers' fear and disillusionment; they thought they had come to Iraq to do the right thing, only to discover the repercussions of their alleged heroics. But as their mission changes, when they decide to risk court martial in order to take the refugees to safety on the Iranian border, the film becomes sharper, warmer, richer; it's almost the difference between black-and-white and Technicolor. At the end, the image is crisp enough to allow one more detail that makes the film complete: Pay attention, and you can see tears welling up in Clooney's eyes.

Russell notes that Clooney was not the first choice for Archie Gates. Originally, the studio wanted Mel Gibson in the role; Russell wanted Nicolas Cage, who was too busy filming Martin Scorsese's upcoming Bringing Out the Dead. Though Clooney and Russell were said to have clashed on the set -- a cover story in Esquire reveals that the actor told Russell, "Come on, pussy, want a piece of me?" after Clooney stopped the director from picking on a crew member -- only Clooney could have played the role. He's reserved enough to play father figure to these three young men, yet forthright enough to allow for genuinely touching moments.

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