MY UNCLE, who lives in a small mining village in southwest Zimbabwe, once admitted to me that though he was critical of American foreign policy and uneasy about the whole "new world order" concept, which positioned the American army as a kind of global policeman, he nevertheless enjoyed watching American Marines invade some small and poor country; it gave him a chance to see their new uniforms, weapons, helicopters, tanks, jeeps -- the whole spectacle of American military power. For him, the pleasure of watching an invasion was not unlike the pleasure of watching a fashion show. He wants to see what's in and out this season. I share a similar perverse pleasure, except the spectacle (or spectacles) of American military, political, and economic power that I enjoy watching are played out in the cinema rather than on CNN.

This is why when a movie is titled Rules of Engagement, I'm there. Like Clear and Present Danger, A Few Good Men, Courage under Fire, Enemy of the State, and the greatest of them all, Patriot Games, a title such as Rules of Engagement promises that the film will enter the gaudy theater of American power, that sacred and marbled zone where great men in great institutions (the executive branch, the legislative branch, and the judicial branch) play out the drama of the Romans, which is the drama of running a great civilization. Americans don't make Greek films -- that task is left for the cynical Europeans, who like to philosophize about life and its meanings. No, Americans make Roman films, about loyalty, duty, honor, betrayal, intrigue, and the convoluted art of governing. So even though I don't support military action of any kind, and I hate Tom Clancy novels, I find myself drawn to and dazzled by the spectacle of American power. It's like a nuclear blast: both terrifying and beautiful.

Rules of Engagement, directed by William Friedkin (The French Connection, The Exorcist), is about a great and dedicated solider (Samuel L. Jackson) who is sent out to rescue Americans in an embassy besieged by Arab protesters. When he and his soldiers arrive at the embassy in Yemen, the situation has deteriorated considerably, and so to protect American lives he orders his rescue squad to fire into the hostile crowd. At the end of the shoot-out, 80 civilians are dead and the American state department has an international incident on its hands. To placate their allies in the Middle East, the American government (or the executive branch of the American government) sets out to prosecute the great soldier for murder, and it is now up to another great man, a military lawyer (Tommy Lee Jones), to restore justice.

The movie has a promising start. The rescue mission into Yemen is beautiful. The bulky helicopters take off from a large aircraft carrier and fly into hostile territory. The beauty of this sequence is haunted, charged, and inspired by two famous helicopter episodes in the past. The first is Jimmy Carter's dispatch of a fleet of rescue-mission helicopters into Iran -- a mission that ended in disaster, and filled the newspapers with images of the crashed helicopters, looking like the corpses of dead elephants. The other is from Patriot Games, when Harrison Ford enters mission control in the Pentagon, and with that dumbfounded look of his, watches on a large screen as Army helicopters fly into Libya to destroy terrorist bases. The meanings and implications of these real and fictional incidents are collapsed into Rules of Engagement's long helicopter journey toward the troubled city in the desert. Great stuff!

But after the rescue mission, the film falls apart. I won't reveal the specific plot details that turn the movie into a laughingstock -- let me just say that the story's plausibility is contingent on audiences' utter ignorance of both the constructs of political power and the most basic media technology. After losing this center of plausibility, the whole movie implodes like a giant star, and the performances of the main actors (Jackson and Jones) and supporting actors (Blair Underwood, Guy Pearce, and Anne Archer) are sucked into the resulting black hole. In the end, we are left with nothing -- absolutely nothing.

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