Feeling Good about Subversion and Throwing Bricks

War, Inc. is one of the sharpest satires of U.S. foreign policy to hit movie screens since The Tailor of Panama. Unfortunately, the film has been getting tepid reviews from critics who apparently don’t appreciate comedies that hit so hard at the American way of war.

John Cusack, who co-wrote the screenplay and co-produced, plays Brand Hauser, a go it alone hitman we first see doing dirty work in the klondike to the strains of an Ennio Morricone-like guitar. Next, Hauser is talking to the former U.S. Vice President (Dan Ackroyd doing a dead-on rip of Dick Cheney), who heads a company called Tamerlane. The VP gives Hauser a contract to bump off a Middle Eastern oil minister who wants to build a pipeline through war-torn Turaqistan. In addition to controlling Turaqistan’s oil, Tamerlane is scheming to profit from construction, for “now that we’ve bombed the shit out of them, well — there’s lot of rebuilding to do.” Sound vaguely familiar?

Soon Hauser is directing a “Brand USA” trade expo in Turaqistan, in the midst of “the first war ever to be 100% outsourced to private enterprise : Tamerlane jets, Tamerlane tanks, Tamerlane soldiers.” As he attempts to smooth talk a feisty left-wing journalist (played by Marisa Tomei), Hauser responds to an explosion outside his window by saying, “I wouldn’t call that an attack,” though he admits, “technically, that was a bombing.” Such Orwellian spin control might have been torn from the pages of Bush Administration press briefings.

The movie has a lot to say about the insanely oversaturated media environments in which we all live, and the dehumanizing effects of advertising. A subplot involving Yonica Babyyeah (Hilary Duff), a Eurasian teen pop star whose hyper-sexual public persona has left her completely alienated, hits home on sexist global entertainment packaging of young women.

A journalist friend who has spent time in the Middle East commented that touchstones of investigative reporting like Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine and Jeremy Scahill’s Blackwater document much of what is portrayed in War, Inc., and make even the more frenzied moments seem sadly plausible. Indeed, in a recent interview Scahill commented that the film had “better reportage than a lot of what we see in the corporate media.”

Though the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan aren’t “100% outsourced,” the film’s comedic exaggeration effectively spotlights the staggering number of contract warriors doing dirty work for Uncle Sam. And the neoconservative gospel of privatization, which Klein dissects in her work, continues to ripoff U.S. taxpayers: the Halliburton-linked contractor Kellogg, Brown and Root, called “Root, Branch and Blossom” in the film, recently
made news
for its inability to account for over $1 billion in Iraq contracts.

As in the earlier Grosse Pointe Blank, John Cusack’s real-life sister Joan plays assistant to his hitman, anti-hero lead. That 1997 feature also had at its core a snappy, subversive critique of the status quo, including the tendency to justify murder when it becomes expedient for foreign policy and corporate profiteering. If such former staples of movie addiction were still available, a double feature of the two films would be ideal. I would happily watch both again just to catch some of the one-liners that whizzed by while I was still laughing at previous jokes.

John Cusack handily summed up the film’s appeal in a recent interview: “I think subversion and throwing bricks at the right sort of people is supposed to feel good. So I think it reclaims a spirit of resistance and a spirit of defiance that I think is the first step towards action, because I think a lot of us are sort of depressed about all this.”

Ben Terrall is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, In These Times, Counterpunch, Lip Magazine, and other publications. He can be reached at: bterrall@igc.org. Read other articles by Ben, or visit Ben's website.