Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
Director David O. Russell is waist-deep in the big muddy of geopolitics.
The day after the Washington premiere of his new film, Three Kings, was attended by State Department officials, representatives of anti-Saddam Hussein Iraqi groups, and “a gaggle of people” from the National Security Agency, Russell has settled into—where else?—the Watergate Hotel for a round of interviews. The journalists want to talk about politics, and the 41-year-old filmmaker is obliging. Yet the comic-film director—who’s intense, slightly prickly, and not notably humorous in person—wants it known that his Operation Desert Storm romp is “an entertainment that’s really different. To me, it’s not so much a film about the Gulf War. I think it’s bad to set out with an agenda.”
Still, Russell’s third feature has attracted attention as much for its critique of the quickly forgotten war as for its antic energy and self-conscious style. While the soldiers played by George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Ice Cube, and Spike Jonze rush to steal some of the booty Saddam’s troops collected in Kuwait, the film vigorously denounces American policy—and a certain former president—for betraying the Iraqi resistance in the conflict’s aftermath.
“The movie starts when America stopped paying attention,” Russell explains. “The U.S. troops were celebrating the end of the war, and 60 miles away there’s a democratic insurrection going on.
“The movie is satirical, but a lot of details are true,” he adds. “There were joyrides by American soldiers. Some guys did go souvenir hunting and looting the bunkers. The military advisers told me about seeing an Iraqi uprising. I think that is the reality of March 4, 1991.”
Before the film opened, neither George Bush nor his presidential-candidate son had seen it, but “I’d be happy to show it to them,” Russell says.
If they do watch it, the Bushes might question the director’s claim that he had no agenda, especially because Three Kings addresses issues that have been on Russell’s mind for nearly two decades. After graduating from Amherst College in the early ’80s, Russell has told many interviewers recently, he went to Central America for a while. Only when discussion of this period in his life goes deeper, however, does he reveal which country he visited: Nicaragua.
“They’d just had a revolution down there,” he says, “and I thought it would fun to live there.” It was fun, he decided, but also alarming. “You’re drinking beer and watching American baseball, and suddenly you hear gunshots. There were a lot of guns around.”
That familiarity with weapons of war—and the stories of a friend who works in a hospital emergency room—led to Russell’s decision to take gunfire very seriously in the movie, which features a visual essay on the damage a bullet does to a human body. The potential to misleadingly downplay the impact of gun violence is “why we only had 10 to 15 bullets in the whole movie.”
Three Kings features a TV-news clip of the Rodney King beating, suggesting that violence is just another American export, along with luxury cars and the music of the racially conflicted Michael Jackson. Living in Nicaragua, Russell found the Third World to be “a giant mirror of American culture, everything we put into the world. It’s really interesting to see it filter back to us. It’s somewhat comic, somewhat tragic.”
These ideas were reawakened for the director by a script he suspects isn’t any good. He found a summary of John Ridley’s screenplay in Warner Bros.’ “log lines,” which offer capsule descriptions of available projects. “They had a script, but I never read it,” says Russell. “It’s a pretty generic idea.”
Hollywood rules require that Ridley gets a “story by” credit on the film, but Russell was determined not to do something generic. The basic idea “unlocked a lot of stuff,” he says. “I was feeling more confident as a filmmaker.”
Russell proceeded to confidently break a lot of rules: mixing action, drama, satire, and social comment; casting his friend Jonze, a Bethesda native who’s directed and appeared in music videos but never acted in a movie role, and experimenting with visuals so bleached-out that the film looks as if it were shot with the digital-video camera that Russell used to document every aspect of making it (including the publicity tour). “I would love to shoot a movie on that,” he says of the camera.
The cinematography was actually done with Ektachrome, in homage to one of the director’s principal inspirations, a Los Angeles Times book that recounted the Gulf War day by day. “It was the first war that had color photos in the newspaper,” Russell says. The film stock “made the colors look sort of surreal. I wanted the movie to have a very documentary feel and a very chaotic feel.”
Shot principally in Arizona and Mexico, Three Kings marks a significant change from Russell’s previous films, Spanking the Monkey and Flirting With Disaster, in which most of the scenes were interiors. “It’s actually more fun,” says the director of the new film’s more demanding locations. “It’s this wide-open space with so much depth in it. It was fun that you could have two people talking in the foreground and 500 Iraqi prisoners in the background. You can’t do that in a room.”
One of the things that distinguishes the movie is that the Iraqis are not always in the background. During the Gulf War’s brief run as a hit miniseries, Russell remembers, “There was no face on the enemies. Here you get to meet the enemy. All the extras are people from the Iraqi communities in Dearborn, Mich., and Phoenix. They did graffiti in Arabic on our murals and banners. They brought the authentic South Iraq dialect.” The director also gave some significant roles to Arab actors, including Hate’s Said Taghmaoui, who plays an Iraqi interrogator.
“I was intrigued by the fact that the Iraqis were trained by the U.S.,” the director says. “It had to occur to them that we didn’t seem to value Iraqi life very much.”
That sounds more like politics than entertainment, but Russell says he’s not worried that filmgoers will be put off by his movie’s various modes and shifting tones. “I like to believe that audiences are smarter than we give them credit for,” he says. “I think audiences are demonstrating that they want things that are different.”
Then, just for a moment, Russell finds himself back in Hollywood. “It tested well,” he says, without a note of irony.—Mark Jenkins