It was a line in a book filled with script ideas that inspired David O. Russell to write "Three Kings," a war movie that is also a comedy, a tragedy and a searing indictment of American conduct abroad.
"Heist happens during Gulf War," it read. It was a synopsis of a script that was languishing at Warner Bros.
Russell, an independent filmmaker known for off-kilter movies about family relationships ("Flirting With Disaster," "Spanking the Monkey"), couldn't put it out of his mind.
He started talking to veterans of the Persian Gulf War and he heard bitter, surreal stories.
Finally, the 41-year-old filmmaker set aside a 19th-century mystery he'd been writing and began to spin the tale of four American soldiers (a cast led by George Clooney) who set out to hijack several tons of Kuwaiti gold bullion stolen by Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. The mission goes awry, of course, and the soldiers--previously distanced from a war waged by "smart bombs"--find themselves in the middle of a messy Middle East conflict in which they officially no longer have a role.
"Three Kings" is definitely not the perspective you usually get from war movies. Everyone from critics to Arab American advocacy groups have been singling out the film's original take on familiar material.
Roger Ebert called it "a weird masterpiece. . . . This sings with the exhilaration of pure filmmaking." The Los Angeles Times called it "a nervy attempt to reinvent the war movie," while this newspaper noted that it "has the feel of no other film. . . . It shows what is, yes, and then it shows what could be, what is anticipated and what is possible almost simultaneously."
Hala Maksoud, president of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, found herself in the rare position of praising a Hollywood production. "I'm very happy. I don't have grounds to say anything was stereotyped in this film," she says. "They went out of their way for once to make sure that Arabs are portrayed as human beings, as real people. Every one of them has a story, has a face. They're regular people."
"It shakes it up," Russell agrees. "That's the point of the movie, to turn the American point of view on its head, and in the context of giving you an amazing ride--because the amazing ride comes before anything else--to disrupt your perception of how the world works. It destabilizes you."
Russell is still a little awed by all the acclaim. He's just back from a screening in Washington--with policy wonks, security experts and Iraqi opposition figures--where the director mystified everyone there by walking around with a video camera in front of his face the whole time (he's videoed the making-of experience). He now nakedly squints at his questioner over pear salad at a Santa Monica hotel; a couple of blood streaks on his cheek betray a fresh bout with a razor.
He says "Three Kings" is an action film first, with cool effects like a bullet searing its way into throbbing, living organs, and black humor, as when a cow steps on a mine in front of the AWOL soldiers and explodes, its horned head landing on the front of their jeep.
Just beneath this, however, is a political statement, a message about the real human suffering inflicted by smart bombs and about the cynicism sown when the United States called on Iraqis to overthrow their leader, then left them to their fate when they tried. The four AWOL profiteers (Clooney is Special Forces Capt. Archie Gates; Mark Wahlberg is Sgt. Troy Barlow; Ice Cube is Staff Sgt. Elgin and Spike Jonze is backwoods hick Pvt. Conrad Vig) find themselves drawn into helping a group of Iraqi rebels despite their determination to stick with Plan A, the grab for the gold.
Some of the film's most off-kilter moments--the detonated cow, a tanker filled with milk that explodes--came directly from news photos and articles about the Gulf War. And the most sublimely surreal images--gold bullion carried around in Louis Vuitton bags, concrete bunkers filled with cell phones and Cuisinarts, a fleet of luxury cars commandeered by rebels--seem believable even without documentation.
But the political substance came largely from Russell's discussions with veterans, most significantly with Sgt. Maj. Jim Parker, a Special Forces veteran of Vietnam, El Salvador and the Gulf War. He recounted the frustration of not being permitted to help Iraqi rebels and civilians after the fighting was over. Parker, who died of cancer while the movie was being made, told stories of an airborne division illegally bringing rebels food--despite their orders--and staging illegal ambushes.
Russell says most veterans he interviewed were left with mixed feelings at the end of the war. "I'm just saying that this is what it feels like at a human level," he says. "It did seem ironic that we had a huge army there, and for geopolitical reasons, for balance of power reasons," American troops arrayed to liberate Kuwait stopped short of Baghdad.
Humanity on either side of a conflict wends its way unexpectedly throughout the film. A Saddam henchman, a torturer played by French Moroccan actor Said Taghmaoui, is given subtle shadings, bitterly describing how his own baby was killed by an American bomb. But shortly before that--in a typical Russellian moment--he bizarrely begins a torture session by snarling at Clooney's character: "What's wrong with Michael Jackson?"
Russell himself earned a reputation as not a particularly pleasant human being during the making of the film. About a dozen technical and production people quit (or were dismissed) during a tension-filled shoot in the sand dunes of California, Arizona and Mexicali, Mexico.
Russell was under the gun in more ways than one. He got 68 days to shoot instead of the 80 he wanted. It was his first foray into the big leagues: The $50 million budget was seven times more than he had on his previous film, and about $10 million less than he asked the studio for. Stories abound about an unhinged Russell shouting profanities at everyone on the set. Clooney has told of a shoving match on one particularly hairy day. Russell was shooting a complicated final scene involving lots of actors, extras, helicopters and Humvees.
According to Clooney, he tried to take the director aside when Russell was dressing down an extra. They started swearing at each other, then pushing, and Clooney grabbed Russell by the throat. It wasn't pretty. The star--who declined to comment for this story--was embarrassed afterward, but not mollified. He told Entertainment Weekly, "Will I work with David ever again? Absolutely not. Never. Do I think he's tremendously talented and do I think he should be nominated for Oscars? Yeah."
Russell says the whole incident has been blown out of proportion. "It happens," he says. "People blow up. It was a big climactic scene, near the end, where people were running to the border, there were helicopters, you couldn't hear, there were hundreds of extras--it was a lot of stuff." In fact, he says, the fight with Clooney was "a good release, because all this amazing energy went into the scene."
Producer Charles Roven says Clooney was also under a lot of pressure because he was shooting "Three Kings" three days a week, then the television show "ER" the other four. But, Roven adds, "David is definitely not your everyday guy. He does things differently. He looks at things differently. But we wouldn't have this movie if he didn't."
Over lunch, you can see what Roven is talking about. As the conversation wanders into domestic politics, into Warren Beatty's possible presidential candidacy (which Russell would support; he liked "Bulworth"), into the vapidness of most political discourse (he's particularly irked by senator and war hero John McCain), every so often Russell shades his eyes with one hand and gazes ahead at the person in front of him as if framing an object through a lens. It is a disconcerting habit, though it doesn't seem to disturb his own train of thought.
Russell's interest in cinema began as a passion for literature. After growing up in Larchmont, N.Y., he attended Amherst College, where he studied English with writer Robert Stone, and political science. Dabbling in the political ferment on campuses in the early '80s, Russell spent four months in Nicaragua teaching English after college. The contra war was starting; Russell became disillusioned both with Reagan's policy and the leftist Sandinistas. But the experience gave him a better understanding for Third World cultures and a sense--woven through "Three Kings"--of America "fed through the filter of another culture," as he puts it.
He moved to Boston, working with Central American immigrants by day and writing by night. Around that time he remembers seeing Roman Polanski's masterpiece "Chinatown" and realizing that this other medium, film, was more compelling than writing novels. He moved to Washington and worked on a Smithsonian miniseries, then wrote a couple of short films that were accepted at the Sundance Film Festival. His first feature, "Spanking the Monkey," an odd family drama with Oedipal overtones, won the Sundance audience award in 1994. His second film, "Flirting With Disaster," was loosely based on his adopted sister's search for her birth parents, and got the attention of a lot of Hollywood insiders.
Among them was Bill Gerber, at the time a president of production at Warner Bros.: "After 'Flirting with Disaster,' I thought he was a major league filmmaker, someone who can mix different genres and bring an intensity to the film."
He was wary, however, when Russell said he wanted to pursue the Gulf War story line. The studio grew even more wary when, just before it gave the green light, terrorists bombed the U.S. embassies in Africa. Then-Warner studio chiefs Bob Daly and Terry Semel were getting nervous that there might be violent repercussions to the film.
It was Clooney--according to Roven--who convinced the studio to move ahead. Says the producer, "George was the one who stepped up and said, 'You know what, it's because of guys like Osama bin Laden that we have to make this movie. If he can scare us off, then we have to make it.' "
To some degree, Russell still seems surprised that he was able to slide a political movie under the veneer of a Hollywood action-adventure film.
"I definitely set out to do something comedic in the way "M*A*S*H" is comedic--in an offhand way--but that didn't pull back from the dramatic and intense stuff, too. I took all the things that fascinated me in my research, that I thought would make an intense two hours." He pauses. "I wanted to pull the rug out from under the viewer, to make him feel an adventure in the truest sense, to not know what was happening--and to be gripped by it."