RULES OF ENGAGEMENT: A military drama scared to face its demons (2000 in Film #14)

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This year, 20 years on from the year 2000, I’m going to celebrate the first year of cinema in the 21st century by looking back at some of the films across the year at the turn of the millennium which took No #1 at the box office for their opening weekends.

This week, released on the weekend of April 7th, William Friedkin’s Rules of Engagement

My question for William Friedkin in regard to this film is quite simple: did he steal the plot of Rules of Engagement from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine?

In that series, the character of the noble Klingon Commander, Worf, is tried by an extradition hearing after, during hostilities between the Federation and the Klingon Empire, he commands a vessel that fires on and destroys a civilian transport ship which he believes is a Klingon warship. That episode is called, yes… Rules of Engagement, and it aired just three short years before Friedkin’s film came to bear. Perhaps the original writer, James Webb, saw the episode, liked the title and premise, and ported them over. Stranger things have happened! Either way, Rules of Engagement probably shares this coincidence for the simple fact it treads a well-worn story in fiction, science-fiction, and any morality-based dramatic narrative.

Friedkin’s film, eventually written by studio-hired scribe Stephen Gaghan from Webb’s original screenplay—one of two films penned by Gaghan, the other being Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic at the end of the year, for which he would win an award—directly concerns the United States military and their own, titular, rules of engagement in a combat situation. Samuel L. Jackson’s Colonel Terry Childers, while leading a Marine squadron to evacuate an American diplomat and his family from an under-siege Yemeni embassy, orders his men to fire into a crowd of protestors, some of whom appear to have opened fire on his men. 98 men women and children end up slaughtered. Images make the front page of every global newspaper. And the US government want Childers’ head on a spike, forcing him to enlist his old friend—Tommy Lee Jones’ military attorney Hayes Hodges—to defend his honour.

What ends up happening is that the subject matter, and what it wants to say about modern American imperialism, is more interesting than Rules of Engagement turns out to be in execution as a film.

William Friedkin is, of course, one of the great American directors of the late 20th century, known principally for 1973’s seminal horror movie The Exorcist, but who went on to make brawny, difficult, edgy pictures that defy categorisation: Sorceror, Cruising, err Exorcist II: The Heretic.

All of those films nevertheless felt more personal to Friedkin and his particular style than Rules of Engagement, which often wants to have that edge but feels restrained by the Hollywood realities and politics around it. The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee suggested it was “probably the most racist film ever made against Arabs in Hollywood”. Friedkin’s defence against this was typically florid from an auteur who has often been as irascible as the films he makes:

Let me state right up front, the film is not anti-Arab, is not anti-Muslim and is certainly not anti-Yemen. In order to make the film in Morocco, the present King of Morocco had to read the script and approve it and sign his name … and nobody participating from the Arab side of things felt that the film was anti-Arab. The film is anti-terrorist. It takes a strong stand against terrorism and it says that terrorism wears many faces … but we haven’t made this film to slander the government of Yemen. It’s a democracy and I don’t believe for a moment they support terrorists any more than America does.

This, in all honesty, is fair. Rules of Engagement does neither slander Yemen as a country or government, nor does it champion terrorism. Friedkin is right in challenging those accusations, and seems aware that his film is being demonised for political reasons as part of a bandwagon. Of course Arab communities would consider a film like this racist, because Rules of Engagement makes little or no effort to give Yemeni or any other culture beyond the American a voice, which is in part the point.

Friedkin’s film is not about fighting terrorism. It is about how America is at war with its own place in the world at the turn of the 21st century. That is even more apparent twenty years on, having experienced years of Middle Eastern conflict and fundamentalist strife following 9/11. Samuel L. Jackson is interesting casting as Childers, because he is an actor who, even by this point, comes with a level of baggage. Jackson is a cool cat, known for hip Tarantino dialogue, post-Blaxploitation swagger and bringing the word “motherfucker” back into popular use, thanks heavily to Pulp Fiction. That word is weaponised against him in Rules of Engagement, which casts him as a flawed American hero. This is a soldier who we see in Vietnam adopts his own rules about life and death in combat. He executes a Vietnamese captive in a breach of POW human rights. The difference with the Deep Space Nine episode is that there is no Rashomon-structure here; Childers *does* say “waste the motherfuckers” in Yemen, making his Marines slaughter many civilians in his way. He does it with a balance of military confidence and cool rigour only an actor like Jackson can get away with.

It’s why Tommy Lee Jones, as his defender, is such an interesting counterpoint, because what he’s really trying to defend is not the man, Childers, but the honour and decency of a pre-9/11 America, free of the Cold War, struggling to identify its place as defenders of the free world, policing the less civilised nations. Childers during the Yemeni set-piece (which Friedkin stages very well, probably working as the most compelling part of the film) actively delays the escape of Ben Kingsley’s corrupt diplomat and his family to bring down the bullet-ridden American flag from the embassy. As potent a symbol as you can find for America’s decaying sense of global imperialism. Rules of Engagement presents a world where the nations under their geopolitical hold are pushing back, and Childers is the staunch, defiant warrior refusing to give way. “I was not going to stand by and see another Marine die just to live by those fucking rules!” Jackson bellows in his trial when caught red handed in taking American military codes into his own hands.

Friedkin certainly seems interested in drawing parallels to Vietnam, a conflict which has cast the longest of shadows over the American psyche, given it was the first war they failed to outright win. Jones’ Hodges points out to Guy Pearce’s Major Biggs, the fair and balanced government prosecutor, that life expectancy for an American soldier dropped into Vietnam was “16 fucking minutes”. The American loss of life was incalculable, young men lost to a war without meaning, and Friedkin is concerned the same is happening in 2000. What is Childers and his men defending? Why *are* they in Yemen? It certainly presages the fury that drives Al-Qaeda to their horrific act just 18 months after Rules of Engagement airs. The script can see the writing on the wall in how American military intervention has an entitled toxicity. Childers represents that fallen idealism.

The problem Rules of Engagement has is that it ultimately lets Childers off the hook when, had it wanted truly to defy the accusations of racism and sell the broad point about the poisonous danger of American combat and conflict overseas, Gaghan’s script would have thrown the book at him. Maybe Jackson would have refused to play an already morally dubious character who is proven to be a murderer. Maybe everyone felt like it would have been too downer an ending. Maybe in the end Friedkin believed the man, and believes America, deserves a shot at redemption. The final moment has Childers rest his conscience when the Vietnamese man he spared all those years ago seems to forgive him. Bruce Greenwood’s crooked NSA advisor—who tries to conspire against the case—gets his comeuppance. The bad guys lose, but who *are* the bad guys? Rules of Engagement loses its nerve in facing up to the reality it on the one hand wants to present.

Perhaps Hollywood just wasn’t ready for a story like Rules of Engagement, which when you remove these themes ends up as a fairly staid, uneventful and average blend of haunted war picture and courtroom drama fused together, and nothing that feels devoutly Friedkin-esque in tone or texture. Had the film been made two years later, it would have no doubt ended up being far more jingoistic, determined to depict the renewal of pure American heroism in the face of their national, terrorist trauma. Rules of Engagement at least comes close to facing the dark, long-held hypocrisies of American foreign policy, even if it is too scared to confront those demons.

Who knows? Maybe Star Trek one day will do an episode which does…

Read the previous 2000 in Film pieces here:

1 – The Hurricane

2 – Next Friday

3 – Down to You

4 – Eye of the Beholder

5 – Scream 3

6 – The Beach

7 – The Whole Nine Yards

8 – Wonder Boys

9 – The Next Best Thing

10 – Mission to Mars

11 – Erin Brockovich

12 – Romeo Must Die

13 – The Road to El Dorado

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