Issue #5: War! What Is It Good For? ☮️
Edge of Tomorrow + Paths of Glory
A quick note before we get to the meat of this issue—when we decided weeks ago that issue #5 would center on war films, we couldn't have known how appropriate that would be. With the deaths of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade and the protests over the death of George Floyd—all killed at the hands of police or white citizens empowered to behave as such—today feels heavier than we could have imagined. And while the protests in Minnesota are not a war in the traditional sense, they are very much another battle in the continued war for the personhood of America's black citizens to be acknowledged. Black communities in the US have been under occupation for decades, and these latest clashes only serve to underscore how rarely they are ever afforded try justice. As journalists, we would be remiss not to affirm the rightness of #blacklivesmatter, the necessity of protest and the need for a just resolution. Our little newsletter isn't going to change the world, but it can reinforce the values we hold and the actions we know to be right. So with that, back to our regularly scheduled programming.
Hello all! If you opened this letter thinking that either of us had solved war—oof, bad news; unfortunately the two of us have not resolved many international conflicts in our time in quarantine. That being said, we did turn our eyes to two takes on battle, war, and survival. While our films span time (and timelines), we both seemed to find a little bit more than we thought we would—whether it's that damn Final Kiss™ or just the brutality of bureaucracy.
Take care of yourselves. It's been a tough week, on a tough year, with a tough road ahead. Do what you can compassionately, and take time for yourself.
Cate on Edge of Tomorrow
Screenplay by: Christopher McQuarrie, Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth
Directed by: Doug Liman
Distributed by: Universal Pictures
Edge of Tomorrow is one my all-time favourite films, but for years I've had one very specific gripe: In the end, before the final confrontation, Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt) leans in and kisses Major William Cage (Tom Cruise) before sending him off to kill the Omega, a sentient alien invader with the ability to control time. Earlier in the film, Cage had died while killing an Alpha, and its blood passed that ability on to him. When we get to this final point in the film, Cage has lived the same day over and over again, and with Vrataski's help has learned about the aliens and how to save the planet from their unfriendly arrival.
Now, The Final Kiss™ in an action film isn't really a new concept. I'm pretty sure they only started letting women be in action movies because the trope would be too gay without them. But this particular kiss always sat poorly with me. At a previous battle, Vrataski had also inherited the Alpha/Omega's ability to control time and it helped her lead her troops to victory at Verdun. But when Cage enters the picture, she no longer has that power. Every time we see Vrataski is the first time she has ever met him.
Cage watches Vrataski die again and again. He bonds with her and learns her ticks. He learns about her family, her coffee preferences, her history. He spends months, maybe years, learning about the person that she is and attaching his fate to hers. So wouldn't he be the one to kiss her? After all, she just met him.
Rewatching the film for this review I realized that even though I still don't love this scene (honestly I think we didn't need a kiss at all) it isn't nearly as incongruous as I'd originally assumed. It is the first time Vrataski is meeting Cage, but she also knows what that experience was like for her and what it means to watch someone you care about die over and over again. She couldn't have known precisely what he's been through, but she'd have known enough to realize that they shared a bond she couldn't see, and how traumatizing it would have been for Cage. Before charging to her death and helping him save the world, that kiss was an acknowledgment of the time she knew they must have spent together, and the danger they must have faced.
One of the reasons I love this film is that it is such a clear demonstration of how a character can grow. When we first meet Cage he's attempting to desert his military service because he's afraid of being killed on the front lines. But after he meets Vrataski and she teaches him everything she knows, he becomes a soldier in his own right, with his own personal dedication to the cause. It's my favourite Tom Cruise film, and it's the one that turned me around on him as an actor.
But I also really love this film because it's one that gives a woman authority and means it. After the battle at Verdun, Vrataski is dubbed the "Full Metal Bitch." The phrase is scrawled across wartime posters of her face and it's uttered in reverence whenever men see her in the flesh. But even though this movie ostensibly stars Tom Cruise and the story is about his journey, Edge of Tomorrow never undermines Vrataski by having her play second fiddle to Cage. At all points, she is the superior and she maintains her command. Even as Cage uses his powers to learn more and more about the course of the day, he still defers to her authority, even when doing so means letting her knowingly risk her life.
It's a small but significant detail that changes the tenor of that final kiss for me. Seeing it again, I'm much more convinced that it's something Vrataski initiated because of her own relationship to the war than it is a plot contrivance invented to bring two A-listers together. In the grand scheme of things, it's a wrinkle I can get behind, because it extends from Vrataski's own autonomy and sense of duty.
Edge of Tomorrow was made for me (think Happy Death Day but with aliens), but its true appeal has always been Blunt's depiction of Vrataski. The Angel of Verdun is an action heroine with the skills needed to ride into battle, but the empathy to reach out to the partner she just met. She's strong and capable and it isn't just because she knows how to fire a gun. She has depth and a history and a strong moral compass. If war were inevitable, she's exactly who I'd want on the frontlines.
Zosha on Paths of Glory
Written by: Stanley Kubrick, Calder Willingham and Jim Thompson
Directed by: Stanley Kubrick
Distributed by: United Artists
If you want to make a movie about why war can be good, you’ll turn to World War II. If you want to make something anti-war, about the madness of men, you set it in World War I.
This makes sense to us* on an intuitive level: Can you really make a case for why the whole world just decided to pop off and start killing each other (more "directly") in the early 1900s? If you can, can you really justify the utter depravity of trench warfare? World War I is the middle school of major wars, where methods of harm developed much faster than the emotionality needed to wield them.
So it’s no surprise that Stanley Kubrick starts his career of anti-war messaging with Paths of Glory, set in a Paris military base not too long after the outbreak of WWI. Eventually, he’d wind his way through a more laughable war with Dr. Strangelove and the next decade of the Cold War. But Paths of Glory — considered the penultimate installation before his full-on auteur period — certainly threads his utter indignation with the idea of battle and war and the men who govern these things. His now-trademark dry humor is on full display, as one commanding officer after another makes his own case for justice.
In the hands of Kubrick, the battle isn’t on the field — at least, not exclusively. It’s in the hearts and heads of the men who have somehow convinced themselves this is a good idea — it’s the very idea that one could convince themselves of such a thing. Which gets at a philosophy I’ve been nursing for a little while now: the best war movies, in my humble opinion, aren’t about the fighting, they’re about the war.
All Quiet on the Western Front is about the battle for the soul of a German soldier very much disabused of the notion that his side is any more inherently virtuous than those he meets on the battlefield. Bridge on the River Kwai** lets the big beats of WWII play out in the distant background; this is a film about the intimacy of war, and how the men make sense of their place in the whole thing. Even 1917 (a well-shot war movie that I don’t believe will really move the needle on anyone’s opinion of war movies either way) refuses to let any one person be the “big bad.” Sure, Schofield is shot at by faceless Germans, and he’s told to make sure he passes the retreat order in front of witnesses. But ultimately, even that commanding officer states that it’s just as likely he’ll be told to march into the same battleground tomorrow. The real enemy is the world they’ve found themselves in, filled with uncertainty and brutality.
Paths of Glory feels in line with these notions. Kubrick’s careful eye is sure to shoot the military aristocracy as uniformed blots against the grand, fanciful halls they inhabit (a far cry from the squalor of the actual soldiers’ area). Commanding officers are at once lenient and tight with their grip on their troops’ thoughts. These are not the brass of Spielberg’s films.
As much as war can be full of jingoism and bluster, the ranks of Paths of Glory are filled with a compromise that is as difficult as it is righteous. Like Seattle politics, or fighting with your partner, or debating what is or isn’t a sandwich, sometimes it’s easy to find that those you share 90% of your philosophies with can provide the biggest affront to your sensibilities. When the Venn-diagram of your goals isn’t a perfect circle it can be amazing how conflicts and cracks form with equal ease.
You could argue, I suppose, that the above philosophy for good war movies necessitates a movie be anti-war. I think in reality the answer is a bit trickier — it’s a little too easy to glorify war even when you try to condemn it; by turning your gaze to the souls of these men instead of their skills, you get a more full picture of humanity at stake.
*Americans? Idealistic pacifists? Liberals without a majorly firm grasp on the intricacies of world history and struggling to see a way forward at this moment in time?
**The lone WWII movie!
Assorted Internet Detritus
Cate: There's been a lot happening in the news this week and I have to admit that I've been pretty exhausted consuming so much pain and death. There are lots of places to find coherent information about the police brutality cases that have been in the news cycle, but I wanted to draw attention to this short tweet thread by Dr. Brittni Cooper about the difference in coverage of the cases of Breonna Taylor, Geroge Floyd and Christopher Cooper. All of their black lives matter, but it's significant that too often the women subjected to police violence are forgotten in this fight. That said, I'd also encourage anyone who is able to donate to the Minnesota Freedom Fund or the Louisville Community Bail Fund which both provide support to protestors through bail funding.
Zosha: This week I am thinking about death! I say this not cheerfully and with a deeply heavy heart, to emphasize just how important it is that we think about it, as we process 100,000 lives lost in what feels like a haze of inside-life and federal mismanagement alongside a rash of police brutality stories. There is nothing I can really say that truly feels soothing in this time, so I turned instead towards things that felt illuminating: The conditions of COVID ICUs that we as a public are largely shielded from, told beautifully by Isolde Raferty. Helping BW/DR compound a list of bailout and anti-white supremacy organizations folks can donate to (white people should read this too!). And — if, for some reason, you need to contextualize the demonstrations in Minnesota and other places this week — this Medium piece does the work of sharing the historical perspective on violent protest.
And with that we're done. For Issue #6, the beginning of our month-long Pride coverage and very first TV edition: Schitt's Creek and Vida. 🏳️🌈
Until next week,
Zosha + Cate <3