The premise is simple, the film anything but. Iraq, 2007. The war is coming to an end, but maybe someone should have told that to the “bad guys.” Two American soldiers. Not just any American soldiers, but a sniper team, Aaron Johnson (Sergeant Issaic) the guy who played Kickass and John Cena (Staff Sergeant Matthews) a guy who actually kicks ass. Routine mission. Something goes wrong (or else we probably wouldn’t be watching a film, and if we were, it’d be called A Walk in the Park, not The Wall). Simple, yes? Not really. Director Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity, Mr. & Mrs. Smith, and The Edge of Tomorrow) does an awful lot with what I suspect was not very much. How he did it bears commenting on and some appreciation. The Wall is not just another war movie, and despite its lack of a massive marketing blitz deserves your attention. One might guess that if the timing were a little different or the atmosphere in America one that hardly wants to focus more on Iraq or Afghanistan, the film might be garnering much more attention. It’s an understated, yet carefully constructed singular piece of intensity that carries weight and tension from start to end, nearly.
Director: Doug Liman
Release Date: May 12, 2017
Reading into some production notes for The Wall, I learned that the filmmakers had explored shooting locations around the world, but had settled on shooting in California, in their ‘own backyard’ to replicate the look and feel of Coalition forces-occupied Iraq, circa 2007. Their military consultants assured them that it felt authentic. As the film began, I found myself questioning whether I would have suspected California for the true backdrop, and the answer, of course, was no. What I did suspect, however, was that production costs also factored into the decision, as they nearly always do, in moviemaking. Extrapolating here, and considering other evidence from the film (which we’ll get to soon enough), the budget can reasonably be assumed to be modest and predominantly spent on talent (i.e. stars, director, etc.). There are only two actors; a few extras appear at one point, but assume their cost to be minimum. There’s a single voice actor. Special effects are also relatively limited, largely missing the CGI aspects of many films. There is no score (more on this). And there’s only one location and it’s a desert nothingness.
There’s no underselling here: this movie was tightly constructed from it’s plotting to it’s production schedule; I’ve little doubt. Much as pennies were counted, every action has a purpose. There’s no fluff and little extra. It’s all narrative. And it needs to be: as I’ve alluded to, the film takes place in a single location with little room to move. An easy comparison to make would be to 2010’s 127 Hours starring James Franco as a man stuck in a crevasse with his arm pinned beneath a boulder. Both films are tales of men stuck between literal rocks and hard places with difficult decisions, decisions most of us will never have to face, before them. Audiences can get acquainted with the location and settle in, as it’s not changing. But while 127 Hours reveled in unique camera angles and moves and cuts to tell a story that might otherwise be dreary, if not bleak, if not depressing, The Wall uses shot selection to strain the bonds of tension that tie your hands to the arms of your chair. When your protagonist will essentially be huddled in one place for the duration of a movie, one is forced to get creative. And in this instance one succeeds.
The Wall takes another tac at the man vs. rock and a hard place angle, too. Rather than just pitting Johnson against his enemy (rock) and his mental anguish and struggles (the hard place), they incorporate Cena to give the film a buddy element. Don’t expect witty banter throughout; it’s true, we get one testicular allusion rather quickly, but the well runs dry and from here on out, expect SPOILERS.
Johnson and Cena are a sniper team responding to a radio call to incident. A team of contractors working on an oil pipeline (subplot or hastily referenced point of contention without a clear resolution, we’ll return to) has come under attack, and the troops sent to defend them have also come under attack, all by a suspected sniper. This action has passed. We join Johnson and Cena after they’ve already been onsite, camouflaged, waiting, for twenty plus hours. Waiting for what? For the perchance enemy sniper to reveal themselves. After twenty hours of waiting with no sign of an enemy sniper, let alone an enemy, our protagonists come to a divergence of opinions: Cena thinks there is no sniper, while Johnson believes everybody on the ground, and there are many, has a headshot wound, concluding that not only is there a sniper, but that the sniper could be ‘a pro,’ i.e. very good. Guess which one of our heroes gets shot first? Let’s leave it at this: the buddy element doesn’t survive long—at least not in the way that you might suspect going into a viewing. What develops in its place is an unfolding narrative voice that drives action, suspense, and revelation vis-à-visthe voice of the unseen and unknown enemy sniper and his discourse with Johnson over the radio.
The dialog is not Shakespearean, nor even perhaps even better than an average exchange between agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully during peak X-Files success. But it reveals emotion, character motivation, and helps drive action and drama; action and drama which might otherwise be missing from a battle of two men hiding behind rubble waiting for the other to die / starve / stick their head out for a clean shot first. Much of the action-driving nature comes through a series of clever revelations that reveal scheme where none was thought present and apparent happenstance for careful, deliberate skill.
It’s one of the cleverer bits in the film, the creation of a ‘jaws’ to our Chief Brody, always off-screen, but it’s dorsal fin (or high-powered rifle bullets) slicing through the water to send little waves creating actions and reactions. In fact, the architecture hinted at, then suggested, and finally revealed as truth is so Machiavellian it’s almost god-like. At least to the point that when the climactic final battle ensues, the sense of unease that has built and suggest something off is perhaps warranted. After everything we’ve learned, could it really go down like this? Director Liman rewards your carefully crafted doubting nature (thanks all Hollywood movies ever—more on this in a moment too) with a nice twist that makes me satisfied that not every bit of storytelling is completely formulaic or so easily attributable to another predecessor: how often did Jaws eat Brody to close out the film? I’m being vague with pure intent: the movie deserves to be seen, and by you, and you deserve at least an opportunity to see it with certain suspense in place.
Speaking of suspense, while I’m a huge fan of movie scores, and scoring movies in general, and believe that music selection is paramount to successful filmmaking in a great many instances, here, Liman uses the absence of music to resounding success. There’s nary a hint at non-environmental sound until the credits roll—and then it’s jarring, discordant, and hits the wrong note, almost celebrating its own inappropriateness. The sound production is so on point that when, during one key action sequence, you hear first the wet splatter of brain upon the ground only to be followed by the delayed crack of a supersonic bullet being fired by high-powered rifle the effect is beyond dramatic: it’s haunting. The lack of music, so often used to direct pacing and tone, allows the audience to be suckered at just the right moments. You know things will happen, but smart directing and craftsmanship allow you to be strung along in the silence until you forget that you should be expecting what’s happening just then. It’s beautiful.
Beauty abounds. The presence of super slow crawls towards Johnson as he is alone with fight for life. Composing him, wounded, terrified, and waiting from above, then intercut from beneath, then from the side, or framing a single eye through a gap in the eponymous wall, fits with emotional resonance and perfection. Miss en scène cutaways to tumbleweed, shot from the ground, where Johnson would be not across a hokey western town street. It’s man versus man, with wit, limited resources, and blissfully absent the usual martial arts cacophony of harsh cuts and suggested physical prowess. This is a subtler, but infinitely more appropriate approach and I applaud the light touch as much as I can.
The skillful filmmaking also allowed me to suspend most of my own Hollywood doubt; those questions that raise their hissing snake heads in your mind thanks to having witnessed too much bad writing on screen. It’s not until now, several days later, and during intense reflection that I wonder why Johnson doesn’t make a point of all the victims having headshot wounds until he and Cena are twenty hours deep into their ordeal; surely skilled snipers would have observed this sooner, if not simply for the fact that their eyes and minds would have been sharper.
But like I said, I wasn’t bothered by these thoughts during which says and means much.
John Cena fans will appreciate the role and his performance in it; it’s probably Cena at his most serious yet; John Cena detractors, will have nothing to gripe about. Johnson does what he can with the role; I’m not sure the accent—one I can’t place entirely—was necessary to the film; it more than anything, feels perhaps forced and there to demonstrate his breadth of acting skill; yet, it too worked.
Finally, we come to the titular wall. Yes, clearly the film is title for the debris that Johnson finds refuge behind. But, much like with The Abyss, it’s also a reference to the mental struggles that human beings go through when faced with mortality, their own, and that of others: it’s a point you come to and can be dashed against, or struggle to surmount and overcome. Or in this instance, is the wall an insurmountable leviathan that lives up to its daunting nature. Let’s hope no one attributes the release of this film in any way to have anything to do with our current president or his aspirations for our southern border—though it is timely in that sense.
Blissfully, and intelligently, Liman deftly fails to pass judgement through storytelling. You’re presented with protagonists and antagonists each with a point of view and narrative actions to support that point of view. Are the Americans there to free a country, stop terrorism, and do their jobs? Are they their as an imperialist entity feeding off a glut of crude oil and oppressing the local population? Who’s in the right? Usually, this question matters when viewing a film. With The Wall, I don’t think it does and I think we can all relate to that being a relief, sit back, enjoy the popcorn, and the movie.