Rules of Engagement

(William Friedkin, 2000)

If mainstream American cinema acts as any guide, the US clearly harbours a great admiration for all things military. Somewhere buried in the psychology of this nation lies a strong desire to be instructed, to seek the abrogation of responsibility to a stern, paternal force that issues orders with brusque directness and a harsh, unmitigated clarity. Despite its endless rhetoric on the defense of democracy and a rejection of anything opposed to the American ideal, the US actually seems to express a longing for a military state, a form of martial law, in direct defiance of those representatives democratically voted into parliament by the populace. William Friedkin’s film Rules of Engagement (2000) is a clear proponent of this aberrant political ideology, whilst also adopting an insidious, disturbingly racist viewpoint, swathed decoratively in the fine clothes of patriotism. Borrowing much of its Middle Eastern hysteria from films such as Not Without My Daughter (Brian Gilbert, 1991), Rules of Engagement begins in an even-handed fashion, and initially appears to be attempting to navigate its way through difficult diplomatic terrain. But such clarity and objectivity soon dissipates in the second half, as we soon realise this film is merely an exercise in propaganda, a further demonisation of difference and ethnicity, and the longing for the strict purpose and rough justice of a military solution to an international conflict.

The political perspective of Rules of Engagement seems to belong to another era altogether. It carries an almost anachronistic fondness for the war in Vietnam, and seems intent on validating America’s involvement in the conflict. Opening with a sequence that establishes a history for our protagonists and includes an incident during the Vietnam War which will hold significance for later developments, we then fast forward to the present where the enemy has changed, but the attitude remains the same. Called to aid the American Ambassador under siege in Yemen, Colonel Terry Childers (Samuel L. Jackson) finds himself in the middle of an emergency in the Middle East similar to those he has confronted in his past. Faced with the need to evacuate the American Ambassador Mourain (Ben Kingsley) and his family (including an appallingly underused Anne Archer) from a horde of chanting, rock throwing Muslims, Childers must act decisively. With his marines suddenly under attack from snipers, Childers finally gives the order to open fire upon the protesting crowd outside the embassy. The resulting carnage prompts a diplomatic outcry and an ensuing court case which acts as the focus for the film, with Childers placed on trial for murder. With fellow Vietnam veteran cum lawyer Colonel Hayes Hodges (Tommy Lee Jones) arguing his case, the stacking of such iconically American actors for the defense renders the ultimate outcome of Childers’ trial a fait accompli. Jackson and Jones are representative of a distinct American code – they are rough, obstinate and seemingly lawless, operating outside the accepted norms of society. Yet implicit in this is also their representation of the true moral code, one unblemished by the evils of politics or lawmakers – they epitomise natural justice and moral imperatives, a superior system to the corrupted rules and rule makers that currently govern us all. Essentially there is the sense of the vigilante about both of them, and their actions in this film stay true to this valorisation of instinct above law, the preference for the rule of the gut over the rule of the government.

The bland script of Rules of Engagement offers each character a clearly defined function, and an easily identifiable moral code. Hodges conforms to the cliché of the foolish, ill-prepared lawyer who makes good despite all odds. His opening address to the court is an appalling, stomach churning embarrassment where he points out to the court (and the audience) the reasons why he is unqualified, inept, and out of his depth with this case. But the point is still made by this speech that really he doesn’t need any of that book learnin’ to be successful – he represents a moral truth that defies, indeed spurns such education. Jackson, too, represents the moral law. His decisions may be difficult, and have harsh consequences, but dammit, he’s a man of the military, and therefore representative of American values, which clearly absolves him of any blame. His execution of a Vietnamese soldier during the opening sequence of the film is seen as an acceptable method of getting what he wants; indeed the surviving Vietnamese soldier that had witnessed the incident later concedes that Childers acted properly. And in the most risible scene of the film (and there are many) the surviving soldier actually salutes the very man who executed his colleague. This act of admiration and honour suggests, in fact, that although America may have lost the battle in Vietnam, they actually won the moral war, that their tactics and their attitude to combat is ultimately worthy of respect and even praise from the enemy. If you can buy this propaganda, the shocking political and moral heart of sequence after sequence in Rules of Engagement, then I guess you can believe anything.

The first half of the film suggests an attempt at some objectivity. Prosecutor Major Mark Biggs (Guy Pearce) offers some legitimate criticisms of Childers’ actions; he seems to be the voice of reason. But very soon the cracks begin to appear. The National Security Advisor Sokal (Bruce Greenwood) and Ambassador Mourain are quickly demonised, proving that politicians are universally bad, and unlike those in the military, can never be trusted. Biggs is painted as an earnest, if deluded man, too restrained by rules and protocol to see the truth, and lacking an education in the school of hard knocks that has made such virtuous men of Hodges and Childers. But worse than the clear Manicheism of Rules of Engagement, the stark polarities of good and evil in the American characters, is the portrait of those not American, those not representative of the American ideal symbolised by Hodges and Childers. The Yemeni people are painted in the broadest, most racist terms imaginable. Friedkin lets his camera linger over their angry faces, exaggerating their difference: the robes, the veils, the beards, the bizarre, harsh language, and their keen desire for violence. The omission of key scenes early on only serves to emphasise the horrendous racism of this film when the ‘truth’ is revealed later. The message of Rules of Engagement is the necessity to kill all those who actively oppose the United States and that the murder of women and children is acceptable in such cases. The implicit suggestion is that no matter what, these Middle Eastern fanatics will be carrying a gun and a desire to shoot you dead first – even innocent looking six year olds – so their annihilation is in the best interests of the ‘civilised’ world. This hysterical, paranoid fear of the Other pervades every scene in Rules of Engagement, it celebrates the death of these Yemeni people because they do not share a love for the USA. Much like the absurd representation of the Russians in the McCarthyist ’50s (and again in the Reaganite ’80s) those from the Middle East, those not sharing a Christian background, those who dress, speak, act differently to the shining example of America are an instant threat. Wiping them out, despite their guilt or innocence, age or attitude, is Rules of Engagement‘s solution to the problem.

Considering Friedkin’s past successes with such classics as The French Connection (1971) and The Exorcist (1973), you would hope for something more involving, more finely tuned than The Rules of Engagement. But Jones and Jackson merely trot out their standard firm jawed, steely gazed military man personae, whilst Guy Pearce, looking positively cadaverous, seems to be acting for the stage rather than the screen. His gestures, his mannerisms and voice all seem too large, too forced to give Biggs any chance of not being the standard straitjacketed worshipper of protocol. Anne Archer snares a couple of scenes, and she’s good, but this is strictly a man’s film, and she obliges by being weak and dewy eyed for her few moments in the spotlight, before conveniently vanishing from the screen. The opening sequence, again borrowing from Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998), spends so much time aestheticising the violence (something that is echoed later in the shootout at the embassy) that such deaths become a ballet of spurting fluids and graceful collapses. This isn’t war, it’s more of a tragic, violently romanticised wet dream for teenagers. And whilst the hand-held camera is used effectively, and Friedkin frames and moves with great style and precision, it’s so hard to get beyond the foul ideology of this film to appreciate the skill with which it’s made. Early on in the film, Childers suggests to Hodges that the army is an empty thing without an enemy, an organisation without a purpose. You can’t help feeling that this film sets out to create one, to establish an enemy for America’s benefit. This is not a film that encourages peace or resolution – it actively constructs conflict and estrangement, identifying a new society to combat, vilifying and demonising a culture to give the US a purpose, a sense of direction. Because without such a focus, without a target for their enmity and distrust, America is lost and alone, clinging to empty, hollow rules that mean little. In the foul world of Rules of Engagement it is the battle of law versus instinct, and instinct must win at every turn. It encourages you to identify an enemy, to trust your fears, indulge in your prejudices, to act on your gut. And once you target an enemy and surrender to instinct, you can act without a shred of guilt or fear of reprisal, and, in the eloquent, patriotic words of the heroic Colonel Terry Childers, just “waste the motherfuckers”.

About The Author

Mark Freeman is an academic in the Department of Film and Animation at Swinburne University. His most recent publication was in Digital Horror: Haunted Technologies, Network Panic and the Found Footage Phenomenon edited by Linnie Baker and Xavier Aldana Reyes. He is also an editor at Senses of Cinema and has interests in national cinemas, horror and reality television.