No guts, no glory
It begins with a simple request. "Do you want anything to drink?" asks the Warner Bros. publicist, a lanky young man outfitted in a pressed green shirt, a businessman's tie, and dark slacks. "Some water maybe?" The visiting journalist, ushered into the Crescent Court Hotel suite to interview Three Kings writer-director David O. Russell, asks whether there is any Dr Pepper.
"Dr Pepper?" asks Russell's friend, a New Yorker named Seth, who's in town marketing his soy sauce infused with chili peppers. "Man, we must be in the South."
Russell, sitting behind a room-service platter consisting of a sandwich and fries, wonders, "Do you like Dr Pepper?" He asks the question with deep sincerity, as though it actually means something.
"Sure," he is told, "especially the real stuff -- with cane sugar, not artificial sweetener." Russell puts down his fork. The man who made his debut with a small film about an incestuous relationship between a mother and her son, 1994's Spanking the Monkey, cocks his head slightly.
"Get the camera," Russell excitedly tells his friend, motioning toward a tiny digital video camera sitting on the glass-topped coffee table. At this moment, he resembles a better-looking version of Ben Stiller, who starred in Russell's 1996 film Flirting With Disaster. "Talk about the difference between real Dr Pepper and the fake stuff." He then goes to the phone and dials the concierge, requesting Dr Pepper from Dublin, Texas, where the real shit is manufactured in perfect, tiny bottles. A few minutes later, room service arrives with small bottles of plain old Dr Pepper.
"Here," Russell says, pouring a glass. "Drink this. I want to film your reaction when you taste it."
Nearly an hour later -- an hour spent watching videos and talking about soft drinks and barbecue -- Russell claps his hands together and smiles broadly. "So, that's the interview," he says, before it has even begun. He begins to stand. "Thanks for coming by. No, wait -- did you have any questions for me?"
You get the feeling this is how the 40-year-old Russell lives his regular life -- through the lens of a camera, documenting and preserving the mundane details and recording other people's stories. That is why the video camera never leaves his side. He is afraid he might miss something that he can use later or just play and replay again for his own entertainment. He would prefer to ask others personal questions than answer any lobbed at him. During interviews for Flirting With Disaster, which deals with a man trying to find his real parents, he would only hint that it was exaggerated autobiography without revealing anything too personal. Such, perhaps, is the life of the voyeur.
The man is obsessed with the little details, which is why he made a film about four soldiers stealing Saddam Hussein's stash of gold bullion and then dropped the heist into the background early on. The early trailers for Three Kings made the film look like a cross between Kelly's Heroes and The Magnificent Seven: soldiers out to steal a bounty of gold stop long enough to save innocent villagers.
But Three Kings -- which stars George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Ice Cube, and music-video-turned-feature director Spike Jonze -- is a far bigger, and somehow smaller, film than its commercials suggest. The theft, which takes place early, is simply a prelude to a different, better story that deals with the consequences of war. In the end, Russell makes heroes out of four ordinary men who realize, once the Gulf War has ended, that victory means only leaving the Iraqis to be massacred by Hussein's Republican Guard. "Bush told the people to rise up against Saddam," says Clooney's character, the wearied Maj. Archie Gates, a Special Forces veteran short-timing his way through the Gulf War. "Now, they're being slaughtered."
Russell spent 18 months fleshing out a story by John Ridley, researching the Gulf War like a student writing a thesis. His idea was to make a film that began the moment the American public and the media stopped paying attention -- during those moments when Iraq was ruled by cowboy soldiers cruising around in Humvees, looking for the action they never saw during the war. He imagined Three Kings as a spaghetti Western crossed with Robert Altman's M*A*S*H -- with violence as the punch line to a grim joke. You can feel the slugs as they puncture flesh; you can almost taste the lead and blood during one slow-motion, surreal shootout, during which bullets impact with a muted, fleshy thud. The last thing Russell wanted was to "Bruce Willis-ize" war.
"That's why, instead of having 500 bullets, like The Matrix or Saving Private Ryan, we just have 15 bullets," Russell says. "It's more of a Sergio Leone approach, where every bullet resonates in a bigger way."
The best moments of the film are so small, they barely exist; they whiz by like blinks of an eye. They're the sort of details often overlooked in action films, the moments that render celluloid characters flesh, blood, and broken bone. There's the occasion when Ice Cube, as Staff Sgt. Chief Elgin, sees Rodney King being beaten on an Iraqi soldier's television, and he stops just long enough to blink at the violence. It's easy to miss if you aren't watching closely -- the look of anger, disgust, and confusion that flashes across his stern face. The dude looks pissed, but he never says anything; he hasn't the time.
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.
"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.
"That was the endeavor for George as an actor coming off Out of Sight, which I thought was some of his strongest work -- to give him a deeper authority as a character and more directness," Russell says. "You can't just be a rock. You have to let people into your heart a little bit. He has a way of acting that is more evasive. You can see the pain on his face when Spike says, 'Where the hell is Troy?' He had a hard choice to make, and he gets how everything is now so fucked-up, but he wouldn't change his decision, which is why he says to him, 'I had no choice.'"
There is a scene early during the film, when Archie explains to Troy how a bullet causes damage -- by releasing bacteria into the bloodstream, causing a fatal infection. Most directors would leave it at that, as a conversation. But Russell literally takes the audience inside Troy's chest; we see, we savor, the heart beating, the lungs expanding and contracting, green bile coating every organ until they appear to shut down. Russell wrote that moment, and much of the film, in the apartment of a friend, a doctor who explained to him the several ways a bullet could penetrate a man without killing him.
The studio at first resisted showing the moment, then thought better of it. Russell demanded it remain in the movie -- shown not once, but twice. He simply felt that in a film about the consequences of violence, it was necessary to show it -- not just the blood on the outside, but the ruination wrought inside. That, in the end, is what his extraordinary movie is ultimately about.
"That's why I conceived of the film after the war is over -- you don't have to look at a barrage of bullets," he says. "It's that gray area, like in Spanking the Monkey or Flirting With Disaster, where you're thinking, 'You gonna have sex, or are you not gonna have sex?' Here, it's, 'Are we shooting or not shooting?' It's more like you and me hanging out here, and suddenly one of us has a gun. I'm not using the gun; I'm just leaving it here. But there's suddenly a different energy there. I like that gray area. I don't know why. There's something more intense. It feels more unpredictable, and the only thing that interested me was the human texture. I was never sure what was going to work. I was only sure it would."
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