Tears of the Sun
review by Cynthia
Fuchs, 7 March 2003
Navy SEAL Lieutenant A.K. Waters (Bruce Willis) doesn't talk much.
He's one of those durable military types who tend to show up in U.S.
war movies, duty-bound, descended from John Wayne. Or better,
descended from a pervasive idea of John Wayne, the one where he's
uncomplicated and grandly heroic (which, in fact, he hardly ever
was). Waters believes he is unmovable, able to handle whatever comes
his way. And, at least at first, he appears to be right.
Waters initially appears in Antoine Fuqua's Tears
of the Sun returning from an especially tough mission. You can
tell this because, as he strides across the deck of the USS Harry S.
Truman ("somewhere off the coast of Africa"), he looks the slightest
bit weary in his super-uprightness. Striding beside him, his loyal
and rugged men -- Red (Cole Hauser), Zee (Eamonn Walker), and Lake
(Johnny Messner) among them -- look equally square-jawed, primed,
and begrimed from their time in the field. And then they get the
order they most fear and desire: Captain Rhodes (Tom Skerritt) sends
them on another perilous mission, of some utmost importance.
Their "priority task" is the extraction of U.S.
citizen/French-born Doctors Without Walls physician Lena Hendricks
(Monica Bellucci). It seems that, in a fictional echo of the Biafran-Nigerian
civil war, her patch of Nigerian jungle has recently turned
particularly dangerous, as the introductory voiceover has already
told you. Muslim rebels have assassinated the President and his
family, and are now rampaging through the country, killing all
Christians they can find. The Muslim rebels are indeed horrific --
as quick to take a machete to a priest's neck as to burn down the
"house of god" he begs them to respect. Their eyes are hard; they
wear red berets and green uniforms; they hiss when they speak. And
they're led by the ominous Colonel Idris Sadick (played by
poet-activist turned actor Malick Bowens), a brutal, taciturn
Lena can't know that all this is headed her way.
Waters, the green-face-painted soldier who would also be a
terminator, informs her. When he first sees her, she's angelic, in
mid-operation, covered in blood, her staunch assistant, Patience (Akosua
Busia), close by her side. Told she has to go, she refuses; she
won't leave, she says, without "my people," that is, the Nigerians
she's tending. Waters is momentarily stumped by stubbornness. But,
ever determined and on task, he figures out a way to get his job
done: he lies. That is, he agrees to move her people with her. They
traipse through the jungle with his men on guard, to the LZ. Only
then does she realize that there aren't enough helicopters to take
all the refugees. And only then does Waters' inured capacity for
cruelty become crystal: he hoists her on his shoulder, deposits her
in the waiting bird, and they take off. Below them, wailing men,
women, and children.
Spectacular and heartbreaking, this chopper shot is
all too familiar in recent U.S. war films. (And, for that matter, in
recent U.S. urban movies.) Hovering, roaring, the whirly-monster
grants a poignant bird's eye view of panic: the Nigerians know
exactly what's headed their way. And the view belongs to the
interlopers, the SEALS and the doctor, those who leave, who can
leave. Their dramatic departure makes their perspective small (or
maybe vast): the refugees recede, the blades' thrumming overwhelms.
Lena shoots Waters a horrified look. Scrunch-faced, suddenly, he's
This sort of moment, as Tears of the Sun tells
it, is the repeated tragedy of "surgical" U.S. interventions:
swooping in, swooping out, never understanding the lives they've
disrupted and deaths they've brought on. Heroic as they may see
themselves, U.S. troops tend to look different to those communities
they circle, observe, penetrate, and leave. Waters can't think about
doing the right thing (as if there is one right thing to be done).
He has orders. He has somewhere else to be.
Of course, this isn't quite the end: the story takes
turns, illuminating rising tensions between understanding and
rigidity, sympathy and stoicism. During a long hump through the
jungle, Lena is almost waylaid by a rebel at night. She's saved by
Waters, who slides in like the stealth killer he is, slices the
would-be way-layer's throat, then wipes the blood off his knife.
Cold, he repulses but also moves Lena: he's saved her life after
all. But he's frightening, adept at maintaining pain (but it's not a
tumah!). Lena's passion proves instructive, and soon, Waters is
making decisions in the field that controvert his military orders.
Back on the ship, the captain yells into his phone, mad like he's
Perry White slamming Waters' Clark Kent.
Alex Lasker and Patrick Cirillo's script has Waters
going through his own unlikely fast change, turning all moral and
empathetic after spending a few days with Lena and "her people." He
goes so far as to engage his men despite their strict "rules of
engagement" edict -- no shooting unless you're shot at. One of the
film's most distressing sequences occurs when Waters and crew
discover a band of revels raping, torturing, and slaughtering a
village full of people. The SEALs take out target after target (as
each target is assailing a helpless victim). They perform expertly,
viciously, and righteously. Their violence is justified by the
violence of the barbarians (who, Patience says, cut off nursing
mothers' breasts so they cannot feed their children). Surely,
killing these fiends is morally sound.
Still, and to its credit, the film's action here is
somber rather than thrilling; you can root for the SEALs, but the
toll on them is visible. Waters' decision to go off-mission ("We
have a new mission") dooms him and his men to a no-return of
complete engagement: they must follow through, they can't extract
and leave. But while they might wonder about his motives ("What are
you doing!?"), they mostly go along because they are loyal soldiers,
and earnestly want to do good work.
When he finally asks for their feelings on the
matter, the surviving black team member holds out the longest in
granting his approval. But then he takes his LT aside and reassures
him: "These are my people too. For all those years we've had to
stand down or stand by, you're doing the right thing." And for all
the violence and frustration in the movie, this moment -- the grave
and reluctant Zee's full-on engagement with the cause Waters has
redefined -- is what Waters (and the film, apparently) has been
waiting for. How odd (and familiar) is this scenario? The white guy
will save the grateful, black oppressed, when he finally "gets it."
Tears of the Sun
was conceived before 9-11 (its original title, Man of War,
was changed following the attacks), but here and now, it's morphed
into Black Hawk Down without the skeeddaddly camerawork and
with a bizarrely "happier" ending, following elaborate and rousing
action: explosions, firefights, rushing about. Given the current
moment, this moral lesson (do something for real people, rather than
follow orders that have no sense of the world they're affecting)
reads like an endorsement of "preemptive" striking... especially if
you're willing to hump through the jungles to Cameroon and leave out
R - Restricted.
Under 17 requires
parent or adult