Although the new movie Tears of the Sun describes a fictional incident, its plot resembles some actual events from recent history closely enough to exhibit a certain degree of contemporary relevance. Like Behind Enemy Lines and Black Hawk Down, it deals with a small, discrete military engagement within the context of a larger series of actions in one of those wars that, despite its terrible cost to the people involved, takes place at a comfortable distance from the United States. More important, since the story concerns an incursion by a unit of the armed forces of the United States into a Third World nation embroiled in chaotic violence, it roughly matches the conditions and suits the mood of jingoism fostered by the present administration and its allies in the media.
The picture also demonstrates Hollywood's continuing love for war movies, which the American film industry has produced in great numbers, and with considerable artistic success, throughout its history. The common tendency of popular film to reflect the often unspoken thoughts and feelings of its time and place partially explains the appearance of such films, but other considerations may operate, as well. The film industry responds not only to the Zeitgeist, but also to pressure and persuasion from the government. (All those propaganda flicks of World War II dramatizing the actions of a variety of military units, from the Coast Guard to the glider pilots, didn't spontaneously emerge from the collective imagination of the studios, but were, in fact, often inspired by the public affairs offices of the armed services.)
Tears of the Sun deals with the ostensibly simple mission of a unit of Navy SEALs, led by Lieutenant A.K. Waters (Bruce Willis) into a remote settlement in Nigeria that is being threatened by soldiers who have overthrown a democratically elected government. Waters and his men must rescue a group of people that the military, with its usual flair for eloquence, terms "non-indigenous personnel," from an advancing army bent on slaughter. The personnel in question --- a priest; two nuns; and an Italian physician, Dr. Lena Kendricks (Monica Bellucci), an American by marriage --- who operate a hospital, resist cooperating with Waters' mission, which turns the straightforward business of a helicopter extraction into a dangerous trek through the jungle, in flight from the pursuing army.
The doctor refuses to leave without her patients, and the priest and nuns decide to stay with those who cannot travel, which means Waters finds himself shepherding a few dozen civilians through the jungle to the helicopters. After hustling the doctor into a chopper, he and his men take off, abandoning the civilians he has promised to rescue. When they fly over the settlement, however, and he sees that the rebel army has butchered the priests, the nuns, and all the patients, Waters orders the helicopters to return so that he and his men can lead the people he left behind out of the country to the border with Cameroon.
From that point, the movie turns into a relatively familiar action flick, with a basic, essentially linear plot moving from skirmish to skirmish that dates at least as far back as Xenophon's Anabasis, the story of an outnumbered group of soldiers fighting their way through hostile territory to some place of safety.
Although the notion of idealism and compassion inspiring independence of thought in a military leader should create a certain emotional engagement, the movie practically cries out for some back story, some knowledge of Waters that explains his character before his grand transformation. Instead, the viewer must rely on the frequently uttered statement that he works by the book and only wants to accomplish his mission. Beyond that, the movie employs the inadequate material of Willis' impassive countenance, shown in constant close-ups; his whispery monotone; and his relentlessly unimpassioned delivery as a substitute for emotional and intellectual content. Even the possibility of a relationship between Waters and Bellucci, who conveniently displays a considerable amount of cleavage throughout, never develops beyond the most perfunctory gestures.
The real value, if any, of Tears of the Sun derives from its heartbreaking reflection of some of the characteristic images of our time, fresh and real as the morning newspaperor television news program: the burning village, the slaughtered innocents, the maimed children, the crying babies, the weeping women, the column of refugees carrying their few possessions, fleeing the horror of war. Those sadly familiar sights haunting the contemporary imagination, so common that by now few even remember to grieve, precisely summarize the condition of far too much of the world.
Now that we can experience and impose suffering on a scale never before imagined, and with an apparent relish previously unthinkable, those images may provide the most complete and appropriate legacy of this corrupt and brutal moment in our history. Hurray for Hollywood.
Tears of the Sun, starring Bruce Willis, Monica Bellucci, Cole Hauser, Tom Skerritt, Eamonn Walker, Nick Chinlund, Fionnula Flanagan, Johnny Messner, Paul Francis, Malick Bowens, Chad Smith, Peter Mensah, Charles Ingram, Akosua Busia; written by Alex Lasker and Patrick Cirillo; directed by Antoine Fuqua. Cinemark Imax; Cinemark Tinseltown; Hoyts Greece Ridge; Loews Webster; Pittsford Plaza Cinema; Regal Culver Ridge; Regal Eastview; Regal Henrietta.
You can hear George and his movie reviews on WXXI-FM 91.5 Fridays at 7:15 a.m., rerun on Saturdays at 11:15 a.m.