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Wednesday, February 02, 2005

"Will you kindly explain to me why the Sartres are always born on the other side?"

That line, spoken by Col. Mathieu (played by Jean Martin) is the one bit of blatant humor that I can remember a half-hour after finally getting to watch The Battle of Algiers.

I haven't been this stunned by a movie since The Passion of the Christ came out last year.

No, I didn't watch the State of the Union address by President Bush: he's just going to waste more of our money that we don't really have to begin with. And when was the last time that "the state of the union" was REALLY addressed by one of these speeches? It's become a guaranteed spot of television time where whoever's the current occupant of the Oval Office can suggest something, say anything and spend everything, and he'll still hear nothing but applause from members of Congress. The President isn't even required to make a State of the Union speech at all anyway: the Constitution only mandates that the President "shall from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient." That could mean a speech or a simple letter to Congress. And how long was this year's shopping spree anyway? I've no idea but I'm sure it had far less brevity than George Washington's first State of the Union address. No, tonight's event has become just like everything else about American politics: a farce. Why the Hell should I waste a moment watching this crap? I'm not even gonna touch how worthless the Democrat response was going to be.

So after spending an hour watching American Idol with the lovely Spousal Overunit, I went looking for something with more meat to it than a fake speech about fake realities by a fake president. It caught my eye while fast-scanning through the channel guide and I had to make sure it was really on: Lo and behold, the first moments of The Battle of Algiers were just starting on the Sundance Channel. This has been something I've been wanting to see for some months now, ever since hearing nothing but good about it following a theatrical release and coming out on DVD. No place around here had it for rental, so after getting permission from my dear wife (it's her TV too ya know) I kicked back to take it in. And I didn't dare move from the sofa for the next two hours.

Damn. Just... damn, man.

This is one of the most brutal movies I can recall ever being made. It's one of the most human films about war ever attempted. It also boasts some of the most convincing special effects - like explosions, and there's lots of 'em - done for a single movie, considering how many there are. It proudly notes that it contains "not a single frame of documentary or news footage".

And The Battle of Algiers (originally titled La Battaglia di Algeri) was first released in 1965.

But if there's any other movie that fits today's situations, I'm hard-pressed to think of what it might be. The Battle of Algiers is practically a two-hour crash course on both staging a violent revolution and then putting it down: U.S. military planners would rapidly wipe out resistance in Iraq if they studied the strategies of the French in this movie more closely (indeed, top brass watched it at the Pentagon in 2003). Likewise, the Iraqi insurgents would handily defeat the American forces if they emulated the tactics of the Algerian underground.

But I don't think that's really possible, because more important than emulating tactics is what kind of motivation is there to begin with. The Battle of Algiers made me realize that it's not a free Iraq that these guys are wanting at all: "Acts of violence don't win wars," the resistance leader tells Ali La Pointe (Brahim Haggiag), "Neither wars nor revolutions. Terrorism is useful as a start. But then, the people themselves must act." In fact, the freedom fighters come across as acting on desperation, on the level of barbarians even, for using it so wantonly. Even if President Bush pulled all our troops out of Iraq tomorrow, terrorism would still go on in that country (and it might be even worse in our absence... darn this movie made me feel conflicted about some things!) because independence isn't the goal. What that goal is, I don't know, but I wonder if the Iraqi insurgents even understand what it is that they want exactly.

But if The Battle of Algiers condemns terrorism, it's equally unkind to military occupation. The torture of Algerian prisoners (many obviously innocent) by French paratroopers brings to mind far too much of the accounts and photographs of abuse done to Iraqi prisoners by members of our own military. It was enough to make me VERY uncomfortable: my jaw literally dropped throughout this one extended show of pain. But even here, there is some rationale offered that comes the closest I've ever heard about how such torture is not only allowable, but warranted by circumstance. Col. Mathieu tells the press that "The word 'torture' doesn't appear in our orders. We've always spoken of interrogation as the only valid method in a police operation directed against unknown enemies." But he promptly follows that up with this observation: that as a soldier, he cannot set policy, but can only follow the orders given him. Those orders must come from authorities outside of the military, and it is they who are ultimately responsible: "Should we remain in Algeria? If you answer 'yes,' then you must accept all the necessary consequences."

In other words, if a nation's armed forces are being used for the wrong reasons in another land, it falls to the people of the country that sent them to put a stop to it. Our soldiers and officers are only so free to act as what we've authorized them to do. And if they commit wrongdoing while under orders, we are the ones who must answer for it somehow.

It's almost impossible to find a movie about armed conflict that not only doesn't take sides, but goes out of its way to give a fair and honest portrayal of the ideals that are driving each faction. The Battle of Algiers doesn't make you root and cheer for either side in this revolution, not really. But it does make you weep for a lot of people, no matter where it is that they figure in this fight. No "good guys" or "bad guys" here: nothing but a muddle of gray that leaves you the viewer to think things through on your own.

Yeah, I'll call it a "must see" movie. It's got my recommendation bigtime.

(Oh yeah, watch the trailer for The Battle of Algiers in Quicktime format here.)