Film Review: The Wall (dir by Doug Liman)


The Wall tells a very simple story.

Opening with a title card that informs us that “President Bush has declared victory,” The Wall takes place in Iraq in 2007.  Two soldiers — a sniper named Matthews (John Cena) and a spotter named Isaac (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) — have responded to a call for help that came from a pipeline construction site.  When they arrive, they see only dead contractors.  Matthews and Isaac spend a day watching the site, finally determining that it is safe to investigate.

Of course, as soon as Matthews approaches the site, shots ring out as a sniper opens fire on him.  Matthews falls while Isaac finds himself trapped behind a crumbling wall, shot in the right knee and slowly bleeding out.  As Isaac tends to his wound and tries to determine whether Matthews is alive or dead, his radio comes to life.  The voice, on the other end, initially claims to be an American soldier but Isaac eventually figures out that the voice actually belongs to the man who just shot him.  The sniper is an Iraqi who calls himself Juba.  He may or may not be a legendary and feared sniper that Matthews and Isaac were discussing mere minutes before being attacked.

And that’s pretty much the entire film right there.  For 81 minutes, Isaac tries not to die while Juba alternates between taunting him and demanding to know why he and the American forces have yet to leave Iraq.  Isaac claims that America is rebuilding Iraq.  Juba claims that the wall that Isaac is hiding behind used to be a part of a school.  Isaac tells Juba to fuck off.  Juba replies, “We are not so different, you and me,” revealing that, if nothing else, Al Qaeda snipers apparently appreciate a good cliché.  If anything, it reminded me a bit of The Shallows, except Blake Lively was now a soldier and the shark refused to stop talking.

I have to admit that I have mixed feelings about The Wall.

On the one hand, it’s a very well-made film.  Visually, the film captures the deadly heat of the desert and it makes good use of its limited setting.  It’s far more watchable than any movie that exclusively takes place behind a crumbling wall has any right to be.  From what I’ve read, it appears that The Wall‘s depiction of both combat and dying is fairly accurate and the film does a good job of putting you in Isaac’s boots, forcing you to try to desperately figure out where Juba could be hiding.

Also, Aaron Taylor-Johnson actually gives a good performance.  Since, with a few notable exceptions, Aaron Taylor-Johnon usually bores me to tears, I was shocked to see how good of a performance he gave as the country-accented Isaac.  It’s especially impressive since he’s on screen for almost the entire film.  It was hard for me to believe that the same actor who was so unbearably dull in Savages was suddenly so watchable in The Wall.  However, he definitely was.

And yet, The Wall is also one of the most thoroughly unpleasant films that I’ve ever sat through.  Admittedly, that’s probably the way it should be.  War films shouldn’t be pleasant and I don’t think anyone could ever accuse The Wall of romanticizing combat.  At the same time, the film itself doesn’t seem to be quite sure what it wants to say about war.  Juba and Isaac do briefly debate America’s role in the Middle East but their discussion has all the depth of a twitter fight between Bernie Sanders supporter and a Donald Trump voter.  Neither Isaac nor Juba are particularly deep thinkers.  They’re both fighting and potentially dying for the benefit of others.  Maybe that’s the point.  The problem is that the film itself doesn’t seem to be quite sure.

The Wall is one of those films where I respect the craftsmanship behind it while, at the same time, having no desire to ever sit through it again.

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