“The Wall” – What images immediately come to mind when you read the words, “war movie”? Human history unfortunately can provide thousands of examples in which people become mired in mass conflict and attempt to kill one another, and the big screens sometimes masterfully recapture those horrific struggles.
For me, three films immediately pop into my brain.
Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan” (1998) illustrates the murderous spectacle of war via the Allied invasion of Normandy. Stanley Kubrick’s “Paths of Glory” (1957) depicts the brutality of war, when French soldiers scurry over mud, crawl under barbed wire and dodge German gunfire and grenades in No man’s land during World War I. Lastly, “The Deer Hunter” (1978) places the enemy’s face in close-up view, as Vietnamese guards force American prisoners of war to play Russian roulette against one another, again and again and again.
All three are all-time classic war movies, among the best in cinematic history. Director Doug Liman’s “The Wall” is not an all-time classic, but it is a good film and also very different than most war pictures. It does not carry the grand spectacle of “Saving Private Ryan”, the visceral brutality of “Paths of Glory” or a close-up view of the other side like “The Deer Hunter”. Instead, it pits two American soldiers against an unknown enemy in the middle of 2007 Iraq, four years after the United States claimed “mission accomplished”.
Sgt. Isaac (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Staff Sergeant Matthews’ (WWE’s John Cena) mission is to investigate a situation. About eight American contractors lay dead – where they stood – in the middle of seemingly Nowhere, Iraq. Isaac and Matthews, very experienced through several difficult tours, believe that the person responsible is not too far away, and therefore this ordinary, partially-constructed infrastructure site is extremely dangerous.
After Isaac and Matthews become caught in a fiery exchange, the only refuge is a modest, stone wall, about 20 yards long. This wall was part of a school that the Americans destroyed during the war, and now it serves a much different purpose. “The Wall” – which runs a scant 1 hour 21 minutes – has a very small cast, but it raises big moments of anxiety in a couple of ways.
The enemy is a sniper, hiding somewhere close by, and Isaac and Matthews initially have zero clue where he or she is located. The shots could be coming from anywhere, and Liman sets a noticeably unsettling tone. Isaac and Matthews – simply standing upright in plain view and with high-powered rifles in hand – could be struck down in any second, and the beads of sweat running down their brows might also be running down ours as well. This tension-filled setting feels like an outpost from a rustic western with the sun beating down on our heroes and barren desert stretching in every direction.
They are alone, and their only occasional companions are subtle and not so subtle noises. Bits of torn plastic wrap flapping in the breeze and the crunching of dirt fall into the former, and the piercing cracks of single gunshots belong in the latter. The gunshots repeatedly surprise the men as much as they surprise us, especially since the actual crack of a fired bullet arrives about a second after it strikes its intended target.
Targeting this sniper is the most pressing problem, and with his or her unknown whereabouts, “The Wall” effectively offers a sense of isolated doom. Doom is featured in other ways too, as the film raises bigger questions about the Iraq War itself. Through creative means, Isaac and the sniper actually communicate, and they reveal their motivations within a war without an apparent purpose.
We have seen the hellish results of war in just about every such movie that I can remember, so Liman’s picture does not break any new ground in that respect. It does, however – through subtle conversation and the complications of laying in the desert behind a modest stone wall – underscore their dire circumstances, and how their lives were irrevocably changed because of decisions made at the highest political level.
Five years from now, “The Wall” will probably not enter my consciousness when I think about great war films, but individual soldiers fighting for a cloudy cause – four years after the conflict supposedly ended – could still linger.