Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Deus ex Machina: A FILM REVIEW of "Little Gods" by Robert P. Young

Robert P. Young

I recall seeing a post from a Facebook friend regarding the ubiquitous Hitler meme culled from the gripping movie Der Untergang. This scene is in Hitler’s bunker, where all is lost, and Hitler’s generals are reluctantly telling him that the cavalry will not arrive. Hitler characteristically explodes and blames everyone and everything but himself for losing the war.

It is powerfully acted by Bruno Ganz, but when it is subverted for use as a meme, Hitler dutifully rants about everything from losing at Xbox to hating the controversial revamp of Star Trek to expressing disgust at LeBron James’ “decision.”

Technology now allows us to alter what was once sobering into something incongruously mundane.

What if soldiers—and I hope non-Axis ones—had iPhones back in the 1940’s? Despite the politics of the leaders, average soldiers are pretty similar. Young. Full of bravado. Ball-busting constantly. Fearful. Unintentionally poignant.

Gods’ lead character, Private Doss (Matthew Schlichter) is no John Wayne as a soldier. (Doubly so—Doss actually served.) Wide-eyed, youthful, it’s surprising that he’s married, rather than playing the field with girls his age. But then again, he’s in the military, a world in which men take on responsibility earlier than the average man-child Kay Hymowitz writes about.

Where does Doss come from? We see his family about halfway into the film. His wife is pleasant enough. But Doss’s blood relatives have the real spark—dysfunctional even as they send their video messages of love. His mother is overbearing, physically dominating the screen by standing too close to the camera. She casually embarrasses her older son, Danny, by claiming that her late husband would be proud only of the son in Afghanistan. Like a good suburban mother, her suspicions about why her thirty-five year old son “with a good job” still lives with a male “roommate” are only skin-deep. Did Doss join the military to get away from this dynamic, or because there weren’t other good jobs like his brother’s? The film doesn’t answer those questions, but having them in the back of my mind deepened my interest.

Back in Afghanistan, each of the soldiers gets a chance to mug for the camera, and it seems like this will be a spring break video in “camo” gear. Then we are reminded that this is war. Doss’s best friend, a smart-mouthed, resourceful black man nicknamed “Trench,” is ignominiously killed while defecating in the open air.

Immediately after, Doss’s traumatized eye fills the frame, unblinking, almost as if it is as dead as his friend’s. Though overused later, this is a strong choice.

Back in the barracks, the soldiers’ superior officer expresses his regret that not all of his men will return home. Trench’s sleeping bag is rolled up and his effects surround his cot. Seeing the space, for the first time without the man, was striking—it made me feel his death far more powerfully than seeing a corpse. The real pain of death is what you leave behind.

Doss descends into depression and anti-social behavior. The line readings, which previously played out as 100% spontaneous and improvisational, seemed a little less convincing after this turning point, a side-effect of what I suspect was the need to adhere somewhat more closely to the script. Despite this slight lessening of the fly-on-the-wall/ documentary feeling, it is not to the detriment of the film overall. In fact, Schlichter's charisma easily, as well as that of the entire cast overpowers any shortcomings in the shooting technique.

Spear’s unflinching choice to show the unpleasant side of the iPhone, a voyeuristic device at the most inappropriate times--especially when a maimed (and possibly dying) soldier pleads with Doss not to film him in his condition—is quite impressive. True, Doss is capturing a powerful moment, much like a photographer would have captured Pulitzer-prize winning images from 9/11 or Katrina, but it begs the question, where is your humanity, your decency, when you choose to film rather than to help?

The soldiers are fascinatingly vulnerable human beings. This is where I believe the film is most successful, in depicting our soldiers as people we would—and do—have a beer with, rather than as statistics, victims, or killers. Yet these ordinary men have volunteered to put themselves into extraordinary circumstances. They are demigods—little gods—with their courage.

When future generations look back at our generation’s wars, they will not be separated from their ancestors like we were with the barriers of black and white footage and stagecraft from the media and the government. They will have great gifts like Ms. Spear’s Little Gods, which will illustrate the unfiltered horrors of war along with the triumphs of survival. Little Gods will not only reduce you to tears, it will get your blood boiling. Little Gods is a triumph as a film, and doubtlessly it will do more for today's soldiers than any recruiting ad will.

Don’t ignore this iPhone call.

Film: "Little Gods"
Director: Elizabeth Spear
Film's website: www.littlegodsfilm.com
Screening at Reel Fest, March 15th, 2011 www.reelfest.org

Review written by Robert P. Young III
Editor: Rod Webber
Published by Reel Zine
© Reel Zine 2011

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