Tears of the Sun
by Del Harvey
Director Antoine Fuqua’s personal statements get lost in the translation, but Tears remains a powerful bit of filmmaking.
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I debated whether or not to see this film. Knowing the high level of propaganda that went into war films during World War II, I doubted I could take the film all that seriously. Then I heard two radio programs on NPR and my mind was made up. What were the programs that helped me decide? First, I heard President Bush’s speech/pro-war publicity session. Then I heard an interview with director Antoine Fuqua, wherein he explained the reasons for and the details and background involved in making the film. So I had to see for myself why so many critics were panning the film. Now that I’ve seen the film, I can’t honestly say that it is entirely defensible, but it is far better than most critics give credit.
Superstar/action hero Bruce Willis stars as Lt. A.K. Waters, the leader of a Navy SEAL unit sent to a remote section of war-stricken Nigeria to save four American nationals, including Dr. Lena Kendricks (Monica Bellucci - Irreversible), who runs the local mission. When Waters arrives, he finds that Kendricks won’t leave unless he can escort the refugees she cares for out of the country with her. At first Waters sets out to fulfill his mission as directed, even though it will require subterfuge and deceit against Dr. Kendricks. Somewhere along the way he and his men are overwhelmed by the atrocities they witness and they go against orders and their own code and decide to help the good doctor and her people.
In the NPR interview, director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, The Replacement Killers) states that he wanted to make this film because of the atrocities that occur in these small, remote areas, and because of the heroism and uncommon courage of the Navy SEALS who were charged with going into these horrible areas. What comes across, without that knowledge, is a heartrending story of horror and bravery in unspeakable situations, but which ultimately seems overly melodramatic and possibly, to a small extent, even manipulative. I can only add that, to my limited knowledge, this was unintended by the director. As always, it is difficult to tell what transpired after the studios looked at the director’s cut, which Fuqua says was much stronger and much more violent.
Yes, there is a bit of the Hollywood glamour to the film, but that is inevitable when you have a big budget picture such as this one. Yes, Bruce Willis is a big star and he looks tough as nails; but that’s his job, and he’s not exactly the pretty boy type (i.e.: George Clooney, Richard Gere, etc.). Yes, Ms. Bellucci is heart-breakingly beautiful; Hollywood doesn’t put many common-looking women in lead roles - get over it. Yes, there is a happy ending, of sorts; and no, there is no happy ending, either. The U.S. last went into a publicly announced war when? Exactly. So if there is no war that the U.S. is publicly involved with, then you will only hear of small military actions, if you hear anything at all. And Fuqua’s original point was that the Special Ops forces, such as the SEALS, are experts at their craft; a trained militia properly armed will typically overcome an opposing force.
Have I given anything away? Maybe. Maybe not. See the film and decide for yourself.
Among the supporting actors are several notable faces, including Eamonn Walker of HBO’s Oz, Finnoula Flanagan of Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood and Ulysses, and Tom Skerritt of Texas Rangers and TV’s Picket Fences. The lush cinematography is by Mauro Fiore, who shot Highway, Training Day, and Center of the World. The original soundtrack, by Hans Zimmer, was appropriately stirring.
Tears of the Sun is one of the better war films out there, certainly far better than last year’s Black Hawk Down. Will you come away with any answers to the questions of war which weigh so heavily on all our minds today? No. Will you be swayed by the subtle message that the United States is the world’s superpower, right or wrong? That is for you to decide. Either way, it is a heavy mantel to wear, and the answer for any viewer must remain a personal conclusion. And perhaps that is ultimately the message director Fuqua sought in making Tears of the Sun.
Del Harvey is a writer and founder of Film Monthly. He is a devout Chicago Bears fan, loves Grant Park in any season, and recently taught screenwriting at Columbia College Chicago.
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