Tag Archives: vietnam

Route Irish (2010)

10 Sep

Ken Loach has doggedly ploughed his own furrow since ‘Cathy Come Home’ (1966) shamed a nation; though he continues to be more highly regarded amongst cineastes in the rest of Europe than on his home soil. Whether you agree with his ideological leanings or not, the sheer breadth of Loach’s oeuvre has to be admired: his work encompasses subjects as diffuse as the Irish war of independence – ‘The Wind That Shakes the Barley’ (2006) – the present-day troubles – ‘Hidden Agenda’ (1990) – the machinations of rail privatisation – ‘The Navigators’ (2001) – and the plight of undocumented workers – ‘Bread and Roses’ (2000) – as well as raft of films that deal with the struggles of everyday people. For better or worse, there is a political bent to everything Loach does.

Which makes it all the more surprising that ‘Route Irish’ is Loach’s first feature to address the ‘War on Terror’ – he provided the British segment for the film ‘11’09’’01 September 11’ (2002) – though he comes at the subject from an oblique angle here, delving into the murky world of ‘private security contractors’ and their role in the Great Game.

Fergus (Mark Womack) is one such contractor; he returns home for the funeral of his old friend and fellow contractor, Frankie (John Bishop), with whom he was as close as a brother. Frankie was killed in Iraq on the infamous Route Irish – the ‘most dangerous road in the world’ from Baghdad airport to the heavily fortified Green Zone – in the employ of a contractor who lauds him and his kind as ‘unsung heroes of our time’, ‘patriots’ and ‘soldiers of peace’. Fergus, who recruited Frankie, isn’t convinced by the contractor’s explanation of how Frankie met his death. He comes into possession of Frankie’s mobile, which unearths a video that contradicts the official story and forces him to investigate further.

‘Route Irish’ is shot with the subtle, egalitarian élan for which Loach is rightly lauded, pulled off with the easy assurance of a master. Once again working with cinematographer Chris Menges and writer Paul Laverty, Loach has fashioned a gritty conspiracy thriller that lies somewhere between Alan J. Pakula and Roberto Rossellini. Loach’s camera hovers in the middle distance throughout, this unfussy approach ceding centre stage to the story and its message.

Actual footage of the carnage in Iraq is used to ground events in reality: bodies dragged from buildings and pulled from rubble, ripped apart by gunfire from above and brutalized on the street. Menges’ photography brings home the horror of the mercenaries’ activities and strips the violence of its rhetorical power, while Laverty’s screenplay is typically well crafted, strenuously researched and brimming with angry insight; the dialogue has a firm grasp of the argot but lays down an informal pitch, the narrative pregnant with cumulative presentiment.

Loach has never had much use for stars – unless you count Eric Cantona – preferring instead to cast actors who fit the roles. Womack is a familiar face to British TV viewers, appearing in many long-running series, and his gutsy performance here hints at greater things to come. Fergus was the facilitator of Frankie’s happiness and pain, and Womack devastatingly conveys the weight of remorse and recrimination Fergus must carry; living in a sparse, unfurnished apartment that is a perfect metaphor for his desolation. Stand-up comedy’s current flavour-of-the-month Bishop brings his everyman charm, and surprising intensity, to a brief role, and Andrea Lowe provides impressive support as his widow, her grief quickly transitioning to anger.

‘Route Irish’ articulates the toll of PTSD on military personnel, and the difficulty its sufferers have in readjusting to civilian society, with greater lucidity than ‘The Hurt Locker’ (2009); which, for all its acclaim, veers towards bathos at times. There is a danger of the Iraq/Afghanistan paradigm being reduced to a handful of hackneyed tropes, its survivors reduced to sitcom stereotypes like the ‘Vietnam Vet’: there are a lot of essentially good men trapped in impossible situations, their sense of duty exploited, which makes this and the ever-dwindling number of films like it crucial to our understanding.

‘Route Irish’ is an important story, well told; something in increasingly short supply, positing that our kneejerk, strong-arm strategies to curtail extremism are guaranteed to lose hearts and minds, mutually assured destruction. Iraq is shown to be a Wild West where cowboys of all stripes operate with impunity, blinded by the spoils of occupation; the Cradle of Civilisation debased by an efficient, quotidian death machine. Much to the chagrin of his detractors, Loach has lost none of his fire, and long may he continue to hold power to account.

 

Route Irish Premiere, Cannes, 2010

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F.T.A. (1972)

5 Jan

Before she hawked cosmetics, became a workout queen or married a billionaire media mogul, Jane Fonda was ‘Hanoi Jane’, a Hollywood radical whose heated polemics against the Vietnam war made her a bête noire of the right and propelled her to the upper echelons of Richard Nixon’s ‘enemies’ list, joining Paul Newman, Barbra Streisand, Gregory Peck and Bill Cosby. She was branded a traitor for visiting Hanoi as the conflict’s endgame was unfolding, resulting in ‘F.T.A.’ being withdrawn from theatres after just a week.

Keen to escape the dynastic shadow of their famous name, the Fonda siblings actively engaged with the burgeoning counterculture and developed a social conscience which informed the work they did. Such flagrant partisanship was anathema to their venerable father, a small-l liberal who condemned his errant progeny for their extremism. The more they became associated with their activism, the more it was conflated with their onscreen personae.

‘F.T.A.’ – standing for Free the Army, or Fuck the Army – is probably the clearest expression of this synthesis. The film follows Fonda, Donald Sutherland et al. on a tour of military bases on the Pacific Rim, performing ‘political vaudeville’ for the dejected GIs fighting a protracted and increasingly unpopular war – sound familiar? Satirical skits and politically charged balladry from the likes of folk singer Len Chandler are interspersed with testimony from the ‘grunts’.

Depending on your political leanings, you’ll either find ‘F.T.A.’ an inspirational reminder of a time when dissidence was deemed the only moral recourse, or an infuriating example of privileged dilettantes jumping on the bandwagon and feigning solidarity with small sections of the military for career gain. Nevertheless, ‘F.T.A.’ is a valuable social document, capturing the disenchantment of those soldiers who believed the ‘red menace’ to be a flimsy pretext for an imperialist intervention, and that in their desire to escape poverty and/or serve their country, they had been exploited.

Much of the content of the show relates to the daily lives of the troops, which no doubt articulated their frustrations but obviously mitigates its impact and appeal to those on the outside looking in. Granted, these shows were never intended for a mass audience, but it does feel like listening to a string on in-jokes one isn’t privy to. Some of the most affecting moments in ‘F.T.A.’ are those involving the soldiers themselves, ranging from militant inner city blacks who feel a kinship with the Vietnamese to small-town Southern boys whose eyes have been opened by the grisly realities of war. The film would have been more coherent if it had focused on these interviews, rather than using them as a bridging device for the travelogue segments.

The trip to the US base in Okinawa provides a wider perspective for the political landscape in South-East Asia. Much like Vietnam, the strategically important island is a pawn in a wider struggle, passing from one sphere of influence to the next. The scenes in the Philippines are a powerful allegory for US economic imperialism, capturing slum dwellings in the shadow of a Coca-Cola hoarding and a totemic giant Coke bottle planted by the roadside. ‘F.T.A.’ is at its best when it is documenting the interaction between the bases and the life surrounding them.

Sutherland is a brooding, ornery presence, highlighting what a perfect fit he was for Hawkeye Pierce in ‘MASH’ (1970). Reciting passages from Dalton Trumbo’s classic anti-war novel ‘Johnny Got His Gun’ (1939) in his sonorous, lyrical timbre, Sutherland brings a sombre air to the merriment, lending gravitas to the revelry. One of the more paradoxical moments occurs when a group of hecklers interrupts Sutherland – it struck me as bizarre and left a sour taste that rather than engage these dissenting voices, they are swiftly ejected for presenting an opposing viewpoint.

‘F.T.A.’ has much to say about the double standards of the military hierarchy and how the prejudices and iniquities of wider society are writ large on the chain of command. There are tales of racist invective being used with impunity, female soldiers being told that they are there solely to provide entertainment for their male counterparts and officers living in conspicuous opulence. This polarity is a microcosm for the upheavals occurring at home, where opposition to the war dovetailed into class, racial and generational tension.

Whatever the intentions of those involved, the F.T.A. tour serves to remind us how timid and cosseted today’s young entertainers are, shying away from using their influence to stand up to injustice. After all, dissent is a bad career move.

Hanoi Jane in full revolutionary mode. Don't worry, she's a born-again Christian now.