April 9, 2000 -- "Rules of Engagement" goes deep into the heart of darkness that is battle. It reminded me of a quote by Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, "I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can, only as one who has seen its brutality, its futility, its stupidity." Battle is utterly chaotic, yet soldiers are bound by rules, in this case, the rules of engagement. One of those rules is that you don't kill unarmed civilians.
This film asks this question: If you could pick the leader of your platoon, would you want someone who would follow those rules to the letter, even if it means your death, or would you pick someone who would break the rules under extreme circumstances so that you and the rest of the platoon could live? The film raises the kinds of questions that ethicists and moralists have been debating for millenia, but how many of those ethicists and moralists have been in battle?
The two main characters, Colonel Hayes Hodges (played by Tommy Lee Jones of "Double Jeopardy"), a retired U.S. Marine, and Colonel Terry L. Childers (Samuel L. Jackson of "The Negotiator"), another Marine, had been through some tough battles together in Vietnam. That's why Childers asks Hodges to represent him in a court martial in which Childers is accused of violating the rules of engagement. Hodges can work his way through the rules and the propaganda and get to the truth.
Childers had been sent on a rescue mission when the U.S. Embassy in Yemen came under attack by demonstrators. Childers finds the situation much worse than he was told. The embassy is under heavy fire and Ambassador Mourain (Ben Kingsley of "Schindler's List") and his family are in mortal danger. After evacuating the ambassador and his family. Three of Childers' men are killed by heavy gunfire. Pinned down, Childers orders his men to fire into the crowd, killing 83 men, women and children. Childers said people in the crowd were armed and shooting at his men, but no one else saw the weapons. No one can back up his story.
The killings cause an international crisis between the U.S. and the Arab world. William Sokal (Bruce Greenwood), the National Security Advisor, decides that Childers should be the scapegoat for the incident and orders a crack team of lawyers to nail Childers for the killings. Childers is charged with murder and given less than two weeks to prepare his defense.
Childers is playing against a stacked deck. Hodges is not a good lawyer, while arrayed against him is a crack military legal staff led by Major Mark Biggs (Guy Pearce of "L.A. Confidential"), a very tough lawyer. The press is also against Childers and he is presumed guilty before the court martial. Hodges is fighting an uphill battle against public opinion, a very tough opponent, and against his own alcoholism.
Veteran director William Friedkin knows how to crank up the suspense and the emotion and he also paces the film well. He portrays a corrupt and mendacious power elite willing to sacrifice a good man for geopolitical advantage. On the other side, you have two honorable men fighting a clean, honest fight. You'd sure like to think they can win.
Tommy Lee Jones plays the hard-drinking, haunted Childers to perfection. His final argument brings the house down. Jackson is also quite good as the man who has made the military his life and he knows that even if he wins, he'll lose the only family he has ever known, the U.S. Marines. Jackson seems to sag under the sorrow of his betrayal. Guy Pearce is good as the honorable prosecutor who is unwittingly being used by higher authorities.
The film is also one of those that pits one generation against another, in this case, the Baby Boomers against the Generation X types. There is a good deal of hinting that the boomers were the last generation to fight in a real war, the one in Vietnam. The later generations, not having had that experience, are really not entitled to sit in judgement on those who did. It is sort of like the idea of the Cider House Rules. Those who write the rules and enforce the rules should have to live by those same rules in battle to see if they are just rules. In this case, the prosecutor and some of the people behind the scenes pulling the strings, haven't had that experience.
The corn content of the story is pretty high as Jackson tears up a couple of times too often and there is a very improbable salute at the end of the movie. There are a few too many shots of Old Glory as well, but I'll tell you, I was ready to go out and sign up for the U.S. Marines when the film was over. It is pretty powerful. It rates a B.
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