Review of “War Inc.”

Cusack and Co. keep this satirical war film earnest rather than cynical

By Armond White

“Smart” has become a bad word. It’s next to ìhotî as the appellation most easily given to what’s shallow—yet obvious—in our culture. War, Inc. starts with an ominously “smart” prologue: “In the 21st century, great corporations will bestride the earth, replacing nations as the true creators of history, amassing powerful private armies to do their bidding. But in delicate situations they need matters adjudicated on a single day a solitary man.” This is Michael Moore–level smartness, but director Joshua Seftel and co-screenwriters Mark Leyner, Jeremy Pikser and John Cusack go farther than sarcasm.

Better than smart, War, Inc. has heart. Cusack’s performance as Hauser, a globe-spanning hitman ordered to assassinate a Middle Eastern oil magnate in the fictitious oligarchy Turaqistan, displays a sardonic weariness that cuts through the cynicism of the film’s Borat/Children of Men/Syriana dystopia. Hauser’s bemused demeanor—his caring humor—saves the movie, but it is also a sign of his humanity. Because he’s been spiritually wounded, he kills. And he kills in order to push back at the world that betrays everything he used to believe in. Few political satires are motivated by such quality of feeling.

Consider the plot: An intrepid globetrotter enters foreign territory where he must combat rapacious conspirators. He discovers a new sense of personal and national obligation, gathers a fatherless child into his care, falls in love and winds up reconstituting his broken nuclear family. That synopsis describes War, Inc. as well as Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Crystal Skull. These films complement each other; one reflects the deeper meanings of an action extravaganza, the other clarifies the ideas and feelings inside an arcane, complicated satire.

Watching War, Inc. brought back the Crystal Skull image of Indiana Jones witnessing a nuclear mushroom cloud—a sign of the terrifying immensity of modern knowledge that crushes human will. Indy’s attempt to reconcile dread experience with ongoing life parallels Hauser’s adventure. Both films are comedies, but they are politically earnest. Neither offers the typically “smart” cynical approach to political awareness.

Cusack and Co. don’t settle for congratulating today’s fashionable sense of futility (recently cited by Frank Rich as, “80-plus percent of Americans believ[ing] their country is in a ditch”). Instead, they show us why. Hauser’s Indy-like sense of kick-ass survival (that is, hope) is pro-active in the face of corporate-sponsored madness. Logos suffuse this war-torn milieu, recalling what the The B-52s’ new album calls “misery in the funplex”) yet the hyper-awareness of consumerism isn’t dismissive like Mike Judge’s overly ironic Idiocracy.

Hauser’s a cynic whose encounters with crusading journalist Natalie (Marisa Tomei) and debased pop star Yonica Babyeah (Hilary Duff) revive buried emotions. Some of the best acting on screen this year happens between these three stars. Cusack with Tomei’s swift temperaments usually outpace the movies they’re in; but here—with equals—they achieve the excitingly contentious political rapport of righteous bedfellows. (She says, “It’s hard not to feel I’m always on the losing side.” He answers, “You are.”) And Duff finally finds a role perfect for her Dolly Parton–prodigy face: a teen star poignantly experienced beyond her years.

This trio belongs to red and blue state America as much as to some surreal apocalyptic elsewhere, and that makes War, Inc. more than smart; it’s useful. Director Seftel’s madhouse of comically conflicting motivations among political operatives, observers and civilian pawns suggests one of Alex Cox’s socially conscious fantasias. Too bad Seftel doesn’t have a cult following already, because War, Inc. is a clearer, funnier and deeper prophecy than Richard Kelley’s exasperating Southland Tales. This non-nihilistic film is a vision of our political complicity and humane potential.

Natalie tells Hauser, “Everyone has politics, even if they don’t know it.” War, Inc. doesn’t pander. It is worth discovering. If you see it back-to-back with Crystal Skull, you’ll know there’s a lot more to say about both.


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