Year Released: 2000
Directed by: William Friedkin
Starring: Tommy Lee Jones, Samuel L. Jackson, Guy Pearce, Ben Kingsley, Bruce Greenwood
This film hits so many of the right notes about the Middle East, Marine courage, bureaucratic bungling, and diplomatic spinelessness that it is hard to believe it was produced prior to 9-11, the 2001 version as well as the 2012 one.
An American embassy in the Middle East under siege, a group of protestors turning violent, rules of engagement that second guess a soldier trying to protect his own men. Seems like these events have been ripped from the headlines, but they are actually the brainchild of Jim Webb way back in 2000. Webb, a retiring United States Senator from Virginia as well as former Secretary of the Navy, is also the recipient of the Navy Cross, the Silver Star, two Bronze Stars, and two purple hearts from his service in Viet Nam.
No wonder the early Viet Nam fighting sequences that begin the film pull no punches. The film is told through the perspective of a fighting man who knows that his enemies are not just the soldiers on the other side who may be trying to shoot him, but the many self-serving politicians and diplomats who would rather throw him under the bus than risk controversy.
While rescuing the American Ambassador to Yemen, whom he finds hiding under his desk, Colonel Terry Childers (Samuel L. Jackson) loses two of his men under fire. He notes the fire is coming from the crowd of protestors and orders his men to return it, which they do in a lethal display. But it seems Childers is the only one who has seen the guns hidden under the civilian clothes, and the tape that monitors the courtyard has conveniently disappeared. It is up to his old friend and Viet Nam cohort, played by Tommy Lee Jones, now a marine lawyer, to defend Childers in his court martial.
Two of the most telling scenes involve Ben Kingsley as Ambassador Mourain. With bullets raining down on his battered embassy, the cowed statesman has nothing on his mind except a prompt exit. He even forgets to take down the American flag before boarding the exit helicopter, but Colonel Childers goes back under heavy fire to retrieve the bullet-pocked banner. The ambassador’s heartfelt, “I’ll never forget what you have done for me and my family,” farewell to Childers is abandoned just as easily as his country’s flag when Childers’ actions threaten the State Department. It is an entirely different picture he paints in the military courtroom where the ambassador recalls being whisked away and not being allowed to calm the non violent protestors below.
Tommy Lee Jones is pitch perfect as the battered soldier, taken off active duty after an early injury in Viet Nam. This final case comes near the end of his desk job career in the courtroom, which we gather has been a poor substitute for the battle field. Settlements out of court are his specialty, but because of friendship this battered marine decides to put his all into this one last fight.
As Colonel Hays Hodges, Tommy Lee Jones brings that special blend of steely determination and persistence that outflank any flash or deductive brilliance, the same potent cocktail Jones has brought to all his other roles as cantankerous lawmen. As always, it is a pleasure watching his deliberately slow takedown of the craven hypocrites lined up against him.
It is Viet Nam that ties Hodges and Childers to each other. Who they are and how they think is rooted in those 1960s jungles as well. Let's toast them with this drink from Viet Nam, the Sleeping Buddha Cocktail.