Tears of the Sun

All that is required for Evil to triumph is that good men do nothing. -Edmond Burke

Made in 2003. Run-time 121 minutes.
Directed by: Antoine Fuqua
Produced by Bruce Willis

Bruce Willis as USN Lt. Waters
Monica Bellucci as Dr. Kendrick
Tom Skerritt as USN Capt. Bill Rhodes
Cole Hauser as James 'Red' Atkins
Eamonn Walker as Ellis 'Zee' Pettigrew
Akosua Busia as Patience

Tears of the Sun is a surprisingly restrained and workmanlike production of a moral war story, especially considering the career histories of its director Antoine Fuqua (The Replacement Killers, Training Day) and leading man Bruce Willis (Die Hard trilogy, The Fifth Element, Armageddon, Last Man Standing). It suffers from the conflict between commendable restraint and the desire and need to present shocking material, complicated by the abortive attempts at a plotline that Hollywood imposes on it. However, at times it rises above itself and provides a stark look at the moral dilemma faced, at times, by the developed nations of the world when confronted with the depths to which humanity can sink. Most of the sins committed in providing us with a human-scaled setpiece which allows us to appreciate this dilemma are forgivable as necessary storytelling support.

Beginning "Somewhere off Africa" aboard the United States Navy aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman, the film relegates the setup of the scene to a television reporter who explains that the West African nation of Nigeria is in the process of collapsing, with tribal and religious schisms prompting outbreaks of ethnic cleansing and armed chaos. The Presidential family has been assassinated, we are told, and refugees are fleeing the violence. Into this setting arrive helicopters evacuating Americans and other foreign nationals to the carrier. One discharges a Navy SEAL team working on the evacuation, led by Lt. A.K Waters (who, as some commentators have noticed, must be the oldest Lieutenant in Naval history). They have been in action, and it shows; minor scrapes, generally unkempt, and with the weary walk of men expecting a decent meal and some rack time. They are met by Capt. Bill Rhodes, however, who informs them that they have one more mission to accomplish - the extraction of a U.S. national (Dr. Lena Kendricks) and secondarily a foreign priest and two nuns from a mission deep inland, near the Cameroon border. They are briefed and head out again for a HALO jump into the jungle.

They reach the mission without incident and locate Dr. Kendricks and her colleagues - but things begin to go wrong when she refuses to abandon the 70 or so people she, the priest and the nuns have been sheltering at the mission. When confronted with her intransigence, Lt. Waters agrees to take all those who can walk under their own power to the extraction site; the priest and the nuns refuse to leave. Since he is instructed to retrieve Dr. Kendrick primarily, Willis and his team of SEALs leave shepherding the group of African men, women and children into the hills.

Let me note that the jarring problem of a professional commando agreeing to alter his mission goals because his target won't cooperate is indeed a problem with the setup, one only partially mitigated by Lt. Waters' actions later in the film. However, I encourage you to leave that problem behind you and watch the movie. Waters' men in fact do a better job as SEALs than he does; unencumbered by the need to carry the movie's plot on their shoulders, they are free to act the severely practical, insular and regimented soldiers confused as to why their 'boss' isn't simply 'finishing the mission.'

I won't go into further detail on the story; you'll need to watch the movie. Indeed, there isn't much more story than that. The power of the film rests not in the setup but in the denouement, or the lack of one - and the moments where Willis and his crew portray Western fighting men confronted with the stark brutality of African internecine warfare. Their dilemmas are our dilemmas as voters and citizens; their options are those actions which our nations unquestionably have the power to undertake if only they were unburdened by the complexities of the political situation. That, of course, is the main point of the film - that those political complexities are in direct conflict with the ethical ramifications of action or inaction.

The film's weaknesses are not, despite the blasting of various military action addicts on IMDB, whether or not the aircraft in the film use incorrect weapons, or whether or not Lt. Waters is portrayed with either blank woodenness or rigid control by Mr. Willis (although, having seen Mr. Willis chew the scenery in Die Hard and Hudson Hawk, I am willing to believe it is the latter). The real problems arise from the several abortive attempts to impose a Hollywood plot on the events that occur - from the classic 'rescuer/rescuee love interest' to the 'hidden agenda' to betrayal and pursuit. None of these plotlines actually gels; instead, we are left with pieces of each, enough to make us wonder what actually happened with them, but not enough to produce any benefit to the film's progress. As I mentioned before, however, they are ignorable enough that they do not detract from the central dilemma presented.

The acting is sparse, although that's what is required. Monica Bellucci (The Brotherhood of the Wolf) does well as a gone-native missionary doctor; her good looks are of the proper type to survive several days in the jungle without (props to the makeup department here) too much noticeable cosmetic assistance. Mr. Willis' lopsided, craggy stolidity is by-now legendary, and his character's few breakthroughs of emotional response are, thankfully, mostly appropriate on a man who lives as controlled an existence as a SEAL team leader must in the field.

The other central complaint of many critics is that there is very little combat in this 'war movie.' They're quite right, in that the point of the movie isn't the war. The war is just a setting - and the pace of the film sustains that. What combat there is is heroic and filthy without glorying in it. We see the SEALs in 'professional' mode - quiet, purposeful and lethal - and in 'hero' mode, their professionalism and training unbent despite their being embroiled in chaos. Best of all, the two are intermixed, in different layers, in all their scenes.

Some trivia, naturally! Fuqua has cast as extras several African natives who have survived real-life violence of the sort portrayed in the movie. Several of them survived exodus from Sudan as orphans. Also, the filming was not done in Africa but in Hawaii, which at least offers reasonable jungle - but sharp eyes will recognize the difference in surrounding terrain and vegetation. The first choice, filming in Africa, was impractical due to post-9/11 security concerns.

Bottom line - I recommend this film if you ever watch news reports of massacres or civil wars in far-off Africa and wonder what the hell living through that does to humans - good and bad. Remember, as you watch it, that you are being posed a question by the movie, and try to see it and judge it on how clearly and efficiently that question is posed to you. Pay attention to the quotes offered at the opening and closing of the film, and I think you won't be disappointed.

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