Shimes Revisits Three Kings

  • The Batman We'd Like to Forget
  • The Leader of the Funky Bunch
  • Eazy-E and MC Ren's Mortal Enemy


Directed by David O. Russell

Danny and the forgotten Ocean's Twelfth bust into Terry Benedict's vault.


Part One

"Are We Shooting People or What?"

As of Thursday, March 20, 2003, we are. The United States' second foray into Iraq has begun, ostensibly to stabilize a war-torn Middle East and to liberate the Iraqi people. Diplomacy has run its course; nations that had been united behind American forces in both Kuwait and Afghanistan are now deeply estranged. For fear of fracturing President George Herbert Walker Bush's unprecedented coalition and "destabalizing" the region, Gulf War I stopped short of changing the Iraqi regime. The first President Bush, as he admits in Newsweek, "miscalculated" the resilience of Saddam Hussein; he and "every single Arab leader, every leader in the Gulf felt he'd be gone." A goal of Gulf War II is to correct this miscalculation, to change the regime and liberate the Iraqi people—which begs the question: If Iraqi liberation were not feasible in 1991, then is it feasible now, and if so, are the current American occupation strategies viable? From an American perspective, this seems an elementary question: Of course the Iraqi people would welcome Americans unshackling them from the rule of a murderous tyrant. Yet America's leaders have miscalculated Iraqi predilections before, and, witnessing the "underestimation" of staunch opposition "driven by a hatred of the United States," they may have again. A potential quagmire lies in whether reform is possible under current occupation strategies. This is where art is useful in providing a local human perspective, especially when American leaders display such a perfunctory understanding of an infinitely complex situation. I think back to the line that opens David O. Russell's 1999 Gulf War adventure Three Kings, the best opening line of any war movie—it captures the confusion and naiveté of its protagonists as they embroil themselves in the complex issues surrounding the Iraqi people.

Three Kings stars George Clooney (Major Archie Gates) as a cynical Special Forces commander; Ice Cube (Staff Sergeant Chief Elgin), a fire-baptized baggage handler "on six week paid leave from Detroit"; Mark Wahlberg (Sergeant First Class Troy Barlow), a party guy-turned-family man called up from the reserves; and his weaker satellite Private First Class Conrad Vig (Spike Jonze), a redneck "with no high school" who takes a keen interest in shooting "sand niggers" and "dune coons." The first three are the "Three Kings" who use a treasure map found in an Iraqi's ass to track down some stolen "Kuwaiti bullion" for their personal retirement accounts, inadvertently leading them to the heart of the post-ceasefire conflict between Saddam's Republican Guard and Iraqi dissidents. Couched as a Hawksian World War II adventure, Three Kings is, in essence, an essay on the failures of Gulf War I, foreshadowing why the current post-Saddam American occupation plan has been grossly miscalculated by the current Bush Administration. Three Kings offers mainstream Americans a human context of American military intervention through Iraqi eyes, the deep sense of betrayal felt by anti-Saddam dissident groups, Iraqi resentment of perceived American interests, and an idea of how to reconcile these differences. In short, world events have ordained Three Kings as the most important American movie of the past decade.

Three Kings opens with Sergeant Barlow deciding what to do about an Iraqi soldier in the distance. The rest of the troops, however, are battling their own boredom—one has sand in his eye, one is trying to figure out how to use his gun. Barlow shoots the Iraqi in the neck. The men rush to investigate, prompting Conrad to comment "Bad Ass!", though Barlow himself is unsure of what he's done. He puts this doubt aside long enough to be the life of the tent party celebrating the ceasefire that evening. The boys, after spending months in the desert, wrap flags on their heads, tip back some tequila, and sing along to Lee Greenwood. The movies have shown us an undisciplined military in the past, but rarely has being in the army been portrayed as an intercontinental frat party—which is not to say that the Gulf War was a party by any means, but the point is that, as Seymour Hersch writes in the May 22, 2000 The New Yorker, "In some cases, the end of the war led to an erosion of discipline."

Three Kings' plot is set in motion by this sort of "erosion of discipline," the discovery of the treasure map found while the boys are shaking down surrendered Iraqis. After some negotiations, Gates, Barlow, Chief, and Conrad set out across a desert minefield in search of Saddam's hidden bunkers. Gates drives while the rest shoot footballs off the back of the jeep. Conrad attaches an explosive to one, which causes Gates to stop the jeep. "You want to see some action?" he asks. Gates responds by showing the boys several scorched bodies, which surprises and horrifies them. Many of the Gulf War soldiers never saw the actual combat for which they had trained, so they were spared the danger of combat but were disappointed by not performing. Thankfully, most Iraqis willingly surrendered at the first sight of American tanks, many hoping that the fall of Saddam was near. But the largely unreported "erosion of discipline" and subsequent abandonment in Gulf War I has, according to the leaders of Iraqi dissident groups, only deepened mistrust. This is where Three Kings is its most powerful: Describing an Iraqi viewpoint of American military intervention, which threatens to undermine an American occupation of the country and the Bush Administration's vision of a post-Saddam Middle East.

Part 2

"I'm Confused With All This Pro-Saudi, Anti-Iraqi Stuff"

In Nicholas Lehmann's article "After Iraq" in the February 17 issue of The New Yorker, he argues that the most compelling argument for war is "that removing Saddam could help bring about a wholesale change for the better in the political, cultural, and economic climate of the Arab Middle East." "Unlike other justifications," he writes, "it is both a reason for war and a plan for the future." This idea has also been proposed in a recent issue of Foreign Affairs by Fouad Ajami, a "highly respected" voice within the Bush Administration. He sees a "reformist project that seeks to modernize and transform the Arab landscape," with Iraq as a starting point. The Bush Administration's Deputy Secretary of Defense and co-architect of the United States' current foreign policy, Paul Wolfowitz, proposes that war with Iraq could spark a current of democracy to flow through the Middle East. Richard Perle, one of the loudest voices for war within the Administration, proposes the Syria and even Iran should be the next targets of "regime change" in the Middle East, with the goal of reforming these countries into "civil societies."

Even for skeptics of the Bush Administration, this is an idea too attractive to ignore—certainly it's more ambitious and imaginative than what the Democrats have offered as "foreign policy" in many years. Most visions of this goal include what Lehman calls "a crisp series of post-Saddam moves across the chessboard of the Middle East," involving the fall of Tehran to moderate mullahs, a democracy-enlocked Syria succumbing to diplomatic pressure, and a weakening of Saudi Arabia's influence over American policy because of the liberation of Iraqi oil. These moves would eventually force the Palestinian Authority to renounce Hamas and Islamic Jihad because terrorists would be without state sponsors. This vision, proposed in various forms by hawkish Bush Administration officials, accomplishes the goal of attaching a strategy and definitive goal to "winning" the war on terrorism. Yet it must be noted that none of the above moves are possible without first achieving victory in Iraq. To define "victory", the chessboard analogy is useful: Defeating Saddam Hussein would only be capturing the Queen; the endgame is establishing an autonomous, in the words of Richard Perle, "civil society" in Iraq.

The most curious aspect of these visions of a post-Saddam Middle East is the Americanized perspective. It assumes that democracy is infectious: that once a nation rubs elbows with soldiers of a free nation, then it will embrace democracy itself. Yet this perspective seems jejune: On Wednesday, March 26, 2003, a Pentagon spokes described the humanitarian campaign in Safwan as Iraqis' "first taste of freedom," though British reporters described the scene as "chaotic" and that Iraqis "cheered for Saddam Hussein" and "the death of Bush" after scrambling desperately for food. Of course these people are still fearful of Saddam, but they are also skeptical of American soldiers, whose hopeful appearance and subsequent abandonment twelve years ago led to the murder of thousands of Iraqi dissidents. Hopefully, these attitudes will change after the people are assured of Saddam's fall, perhaps giving opportunity for democratic reforms. Turkey and Israel are the obvious models, but neither of these developed into moderate states through American enforcement. Now that the war has begun and Saddam's fall seems assured, the most essential question becomes: Will the Iraqi people embrace American-enforced reform, especially under the current Bush Administration plan of occupying Iraq with a military governor and American officers in the main ministries, under the command of the Pentagon?

Former Speaker of the House Tip O'Neil once declared, "All politics is local." So what of the local politics of Kirkuk, Basra, and Baghdad? According to the Bush Administration, the "local" makes little difference in their politics. The February 15, 2003 edition of the The Economist reports that Iraq's opposition "is dismayed at plans for an American occupation in Iraq." The leaders of six influential dissident groups met with American officials late last year to learn that "America intended to turn Iraq over to an American military governor for a year or so, and to put American officers in the main ministries." The Iraqis expressed "a sense of betrayal" at "the unworkable plan." One opposition leader said that Iraqis will "regard America as an occupying force," rejecting "occupation, foreign or local military rule, external trusteeship or regional intervention." Of course, "unsupervised democracy" could have widespread negative consequences, but the Iraqis' request for a federalized Iraq administered by Iraqis, supervised by coalition forces, has been rejected by the American envoy. "Their own democratic credentials may be pretty dubious," The Economist states, "but the opposition groups now increasingly question the sincerity behind America's stated desire to shine a beacon of democracy into their benighted corner." This is where art like Three Kings becomes especially useful: It takes a perspective apart from policymakers', describing the human issues surrounding abstract proposals, thus investigating the real workability of these ideas.

Part 3

The Shock and Awe of a Bullet Entering the Body

Three Kings helps us interpret this position by describing the little reported consequences of Gulf War I: The irreparable harm brought about by perceived American betrayal of Iraqis and pirating of Kuwaiti oil during the first Gulf War. When Archie, Barlow, Chief, and Conrad approach the bunker hiding the Kuwaiti bullion, they encounter no resistance from the Republican Guard. In fact, they offer to help the Americans by setting up a fire brigade to load the gold bricks onto the truck. While Archie, Barlow, and Chief are looting the gold, Conrad stands guard from behind his machine gun above ground. "We are here for your safety and protection," he tells them. After they get the gold, the boys try to leave, but Iraqi peasants cling to them: "We love the United States of Freedom!" The use of the word "freedom" is telling in this context: The scene's political undercurrent is that there is cruelty in American troops in Iraq offering hope that Saddam would be overthrown, then leaving after the Kuwaiti oil fields, not the Iraqi people, were liberated. Of course, the reasons for the first President Bush not advancing to Baghdad are far more complex (it would fracture the coalition, there was good reason to believe that Saddam would not survive a coup), but what these CNN-deprived people see is the arrival of Americans, whom they welcome as freedom-fighters, and their exit, forsaking them to cruelty of the Iraqi regime.

As the boys try to escape from the village, they encounter a large tanker truck, which the audience initially believes is an oil rig. Saddam's men fire at it, provoking something far worse than burning oil: The tanker is carrying milk for the Iraqis, which tidal waves across the sand. The peasants suck the milk from the sand, revealing the true crisis: Saddam's men are going to starve the people to keep them from revolting. As Hersh's article says, Saddam's troops wouldn't engage Americans after the war because their main objective was to quell the uprising. The first time I saw the film, I braced for a Bruckheimerian explosion from the tanker, and when the milk came spilling out, I laughed. Only after seeing the Iraqis slurping the sand did I realize the implications. This becomes a theme of the film: Director David O. Russell toys with our expectations of the action film genre to show that our perceptions of war don't always mesh with the real implications of war.

The milk truck incident also shows precisely what happened in the wake of coalition exodus from the region. Saddam indeed starved the citizens, exploiting the United Nations oil-for-food program for his own profit. To punish Saddam, economic sanctions were levied against Iraq, which didn't punish Saddam at all—the price trickled down to the peasantry. All of this, according to dissident groups, have contributed to a very deep sense of betrayal on the part of Iraqis. Yes, they hate Saddam, but what of the Americans who stood by while Saddam blew up their milk trucks, the Americans to whom they begged for freedom and were forced to ignore them? This, I stress, is not an anti-American statement (as I said before, the issue is infinitely more complex), but merely describing the perception of the situation through others' eyes.

Caught in the crossfire were the Iraqi peasants, like the Iraqi woman who is killed in the next scene. The Kings and the Republican Guard square off over an argument not about the gold, but about the treatment of the people. A bullet is fired that kills an innocent woman while her family looks on. The Iraqi leader is also killed in the skirmish, and Gates is wounded. The scene is remarkable in how it, again, toys with perceptions of conflict. In most Hollywood action movies, waves of bullets fly without consequence; nameless, faceless bad guys throw up their weapons and flail to the ground. Here, David O. Russell shows each bullet in super-slow-motion; we hear each bullet fired; we hear the thud resonate as the bullet enters the body. Some critics accuse Russell of trickery, but the point is very clear: In real battle, each bullet has a consequence, each death is the end of a life, be they friendly forces, enemy forces, or innocent civilians. We experience the shock and awe of even a small skirmish.

Russell's point extends beyond empathetic humanism. Earlier in the film, Conrad talks about wanting to see some action and kill some "camel jockeys." Gates then describes to Conrad what physiologically happens when a bullet enters the body. Later, during the above scene, Gates persuades Conrad not to fire: "No unnecessary shots, Conrad, 'cause we know what they do."

"Make infected pockets full of bile, sir."

"That's right, Conrad, that's what they do."

This is more than the usual artistic statement against violence; it's a direct response to the antiseptic perception of Gulf War I. We consumed the war from television, treated to Nintendo images of precision guided missiles launched at hard, not "soft", targets. There were less than three hundred American casualties in the Gulf War, prompting the Pentagon to advertise a new kind of technological warfare that spares lives. Yet, estimates of Iraqi casualties reach about three hundred thousand—numbers so high that casualties become statistics and not lives. Russell directly rebukes this perception by showing us not only blood, but bile and, later, Barlow's deflated lung.


At this point, Chief and Barlow disagree about the mission. Barlow, who caused a death when he shot an Iraqi in the neck during the opening scene, is much less enthusiastic about being entangled in conflict:

"Hey, I don't know if I can do this. I got a family. If I'm gonna shit in a bag for the rest of my life because I got shot after the war was over, that'd be pretty fuckin' stupid, wouldn't it?"

As they get ready to leave, Barlow says, "Let's just stick to the plan. The plan is for the gold, right." Chief, who believes that Jesus put the treasure map in their path, changes his mind: "Hold on, we can help these people first. Then we'll be on our way." They load the civilians onto the truck and take out across the desert. The Republican Guard fires chemical weapons at them, the truck nearly slams into a mine, and Gates ends up herding everyone into an underground bunker. An educated Iraqi, Amir Abdullah (Cliff Curtis), sees through what's going on: "We are fighting Saddam and dying, and you're stealing the gold." Gates, clearly caught in a compromising position, offers them a share of the gold. Amir responds:

"What good is it if you leave us here to be slaughtered. Huh? The big army of democracy beats the ugly dictator and saves the rich Kuwaitis, but you will go to jail if you help us escape the same dictator?"


Whether you agree with Russell's political statement or not, Amir's statement echoes the sentiment of many modern, progressive Arabs in the Middle East. It's not American ideals, products, or wealth they reject, but American double standards set according to its interests in wealth. The Washington Post has done several articles recently on the topic: Even Western educated Arabs have turned against the United States because they perceive that the United States no long represents "American" ideals. The peasants refer not to the "United States of America," but the "United States of Freedom"—it's not "America" they need, it's freedom. Iraqis, educated or not, will not accept "America" if they cannot equate it with "freedom," which, in the current context, apparently many cannot. The idea is developed several times in Three Kings: As Amir tells Conrad "Well, we just want to get rid of life...make business."

That's precisely what many in a generation of wealthier, progressive Iraqis came to the West to learn and bring back to their homeland. Even American products have been embraced: There's also a running debate between Chief and Barlow about whether Lexus makes a convertible. The answer is supplied by a leading Iraqi dissident who procured a fleet of luxury cars from the Kuwaitis. He is not only versed in Western automobiles, but a shrewd business man. Gates tries to let them use the cars to help get the families across the border:

"George Bush wants you! Many nations! United! Kick Saddam's ass! Fight for your freedom, and we will follow! God bless America! And God bless a free Iraq!"

This is so transparent that he sees through it immediately: "No deal."

Gates: "Ok, we'll buy them."


The irony plays as a swift joke, but darkness lurks underneath: How can the Iraqi people accept America's sincerity of "liberation" when its conduct provides so much evidence to the contrary? Or, in the language of Three Kings, how can American liberation be sincere when the country is being looted of its riches? Noam Chomsky has argued that if it not for American-led economic sanctions on Iraq, the people might have had the resources to rise up against Saddam. That position is rather tenuous, but it's more difficult to defend the American government's undisclosed contracts offered to Halliburton (the oil company in which Vice President Cheney was recently the CEO), Richard Perle's resignation over a conflict of business and government interests in the Middle East, and other such incidents. Even if Bush Administration intentions are sincere, the conduct of its officials gives fuel to anti-American sentiment and feeds the cynicism of its skeptics. Their conduct is as transparent as Gates' plea that "George Bush Wants You...God Bless a Free Iraq!"

Again, the vast complexity of the conflict might, for some, render this view reductionist. But from the perspective of others, this sort of conduct galvanizes anti-American sentiment, especially for those whose cooperation is necessary to win the war and rebuild a "civil society." Many reports from the current war indicate that Iraqi resistance to the American forces has been severely underestimated on most fronts. Part of this is fed by lingering fears of Saddam (as in Three Kings when the Republican Guard flees after a fleet of limos pulls up and an Iraqi yells "Saddam is very disappointed in all of you! He has come to kill you!"), but reports from inside Baghdad indicate that the "Shock and Awe" tactics have only emboldened the people to resist "invasion," no matter their hatred of Saddam. As a stationary supply seller in Baghdad told Jon Lee Anderson in a recent New Yorker article,

"Bush and Blair...They said this would be a clean war...This is not clean. This is dirty—a dirty war...Don't be sorry, it's not the American people. Most of them are against this war. We know this."

How did this Iraqi miscalculate recent polls indicating seventy percent approval for the war?

"I saw the director Michael Moore on TV yesterday."

This sort of incongruence is reminescent of the scene in which Sergeant Barlow calls home from an Iraqi bunker from a cell phone. He's trying to escape Iraqi captors; she's talking about changing diapers. He's trying to give her military coordinates; she's writing them down on a Post-It. If anything else proves the ease of misperception across continents, even in the era of instant media, it's the thought that Michael Moore represents American opinion. True understanding requires broader perspective. Again, Three Kings provides a perspective apart from apparent Administration miscalculation, showing that people will accept a local, known evil to an unknown foreign one.


As Gates, Chief, and Conrad try to organize a reconnaissance mission to bring back Sergeant Barlow, Barlow is being tortured by one of Saddam's loyal troops. Hooked up to electrodes, Captain Said (Said Taghmaoui) interrogates Barlow about his mission in the Persian Gulf, with a surprising acumen for American pop culture:

"What's the problem with Michael Jackson? You make the black man hate himself like you hate the Arabs, and the children you bomb over here...Do you army care about the children in Iraq? Do you army come back to help them?...My wife is bombed, legs cut off by big block of concrete...My son is killed in his bed...Can you think inside your heart how it feel if I bomb your daughter"

"Worse than death"

Russell not only suggests it, but he shows it to us in dream sequences. He shows us the poor Iraqi child being crushed by concrete, following it with the same image, only with Barlow's wife and baby. He's intent on putting us through a guilt trip, for sure, the point is powerful enough to warrant it. Again, this isn't necessarily "right", but how an Iraq loyalist views the situation. By showing us this viewpoint, complete with crib-busting bombs, we are drawn into moral conflict. No matter the intentions of the bombing raids on Baghdad, no matter the care taken to protect civilians, is America not culpability for those deaths, especially in the eyes of those citizens—especially considering America's role in creating the regime? Said continues:

"I got weapon and training from America. Where do you think I learned my English? Americans come here to train us when we fight Iran...You are here for save Kuwaiti people? Really? A lot of people in trouble in the world, my man, and you don't fight no fucking war for them."

"You invaded another country. You can't do that."

"Why not do it?"

"'Cause it makes the world crazy. You need to make it stable."

"For what? For your pickup truck?"

"For stability. To stabilize the region"

"This is you fucking stability, my main man." and he uses a CD to pour motor oil down Barlow's throat. Rick Ferguson called this "the most audacious political statement in American film since JFK," but the moment could have been embarrassing had the two actors not given each other so much in the scene. Taghmaoui tortures Wahlberg, but retains his humanity in the speech about his daughter. They even reach common ground on why they joined their respective armies. Said joined because he had a family and Saddam rewarded him with home and a car—confirmed by recent intelligence reports on why Republican Guard generals refuse to surrender. "Yeah, I joined for the extra cash, too. I had a child on the way," replies Barlow. Wahlberg invests enough humanity, even while sweaty with fright, that his act when freed (not shooting Said when he has the chance) doesn't seem like a token gesture of the screenplay. And yes, to reduce the argument solely to oil is reductionist, but the persuasiveness of this viewpoint must be considered when dealing with the Iraqi people. The Bush Administration has done little to dissuade this view, which is why movies like Three Kings are essential to the public consciousness.

Part 4

"You Do The Thing You're Scared Shitless Of, And You Get the Courage After You Do It, Not Before You Do It"

From here, Three Kings, as Charlie Kaufman might say, adapts to itself by adhering to the conventions of the action genre: Bullets flow more freely, a helicopter is blown up by an explosive attached to a football, and the boys decide to do the heroic thing. When I first saw the movie in the theater, I was very disappointed when I left: How could a film that takes so many chances have taken such an easy way out? In the end, Gates, Barlow, and Chief decide to help the Iraqis to the Iranian border so they can escape Saddam. The American military catches up to them, threatening to court-martial them for "violating American policy." They are handcuffed, including Barlow, who needs an inflating device to breathe. The Iraqi peasants are desperate to get to the border; they know if they don't get through, they'll be killed by Saddam. The only way for them to get through is to be escorted by Americans, who are under orders not to get involved in the intra-Iraqi conflict.

This is when we see the importance of a free and independent media covering military conflict. During Gulf War I, the media only had access to the battlefield when escorted by the military, and thus reported mostly official military record. When we first see Commander Archie Gates, he's boning a newsbunny in exchange for a story—a crude but apt description of the relationship between the military and the media during the Gulf War. They are rudely interrupted by a general and Adrianna Cruz (Nora Dunn), a reporter clearly modeled after Christine Amanpour, though bitter after being crowned runner up at the Emmys. The general rebukes Gates for his actions ("This is a media war, and you better get on board!"), to which Gates responds, "I don't even know what we did here." Pressing the point, the General asks, "Do you want another Vietnam?" The underlying point is that the opposition to Vietnam was in part fed by front-line reporting to mainstream American media, and for Gulf War commanders to present anything less than a unified front would jeopardize the hyperbolic accolades bestowed upon them by the media, thus diminishing the nearly unanimous support for American policy.

In the movie's resolution, however, Cruz, after being led on a wild goose chase by a military underling (Jamie Kennedy), catches up to Gates. She reports on the real consequences of American policy, which for the sake of the narrative rescues our heroes. But underneath the Hollywood ending is the idea that the American public needs an unconstrained media if it is ever to have a complete, complex portrait of events half a world away. The major American media outlets accepted the escort-only rule under protest, but seemed all-too-willing to accept an untainted, yellow-ribboned victory. The deep divisions over this conflict necessitate precisely what Three Kings calls for: Media free of unreasonable military intervention, which buried the most unsavory aspects of the last Gulf War.

So why else defend a Hollywood ending to a movie that is otherwise M*A*S*H in the sand? Former internet film critic Rick Ferguson often said that art functions to entertain, to question, to provoke debate, and to teach. Three Kings obviously fulfills the first three obligations, but what of the fourth? Three Kings teaches us that if Americans are to win the trust and support of the Iraqi people, then they have to believe that our intentions are sincere. There are many stories of individual American troops acting selflessly in both wars, offering starving civilians their own MRE's and giving medical care when possible, but what happens when policy is enforced by a American military governor under the orders of the Bush Administration? If the people feel exploited, or in the language of the film, feel as if we're stealing the gold, how long can we expect this trust to last?

In the end of the film, the boys sacrifice the gold after sharing it with the poor Iraqis. The idea is that we will have to sacrifice our own interests of wealth to win the people's trust, that we care about them as a people, as a nation—not just as an uprising that needs to be mollified so that the American kings can steal their gold. Educated and non-educated Iraqis are too smart for that. We know that Saddam withheld profits from the oil-for-food program, but are American oil companies any better if too little of their profits from Iraqi oil are sacrificed to feed the people and rebuild their cities? A movie like Three Kings, functioning as Roger Ebert's "empathy machine," answers the question by drawing us emotionally into the plight of the Iraqi peasants: For Gates, Chief, and Barlow to abandon them is unconscionable. Likewise, any occupation plan that hampers humanitarian efforts or disregards Iraqi dissidents who have fought Saddam is itself unconscionable.

The characters are developed to make this change of heart believable. Barlow is the heart of the film: His regret over shooting is the first indication that he wants to avoid conflict: A new father, having just brought life into the world, he's hesitant to take it away. Gates is the film's conscious; his cynicism erodes into empathy when faced with the real consequences of the policy he's there to enforce. Gates' character arc begins with detached disillusionment, to which he attaches morality as he is faced with real Iraqis, rather than mere "soft targets." But the soul of the film is Chief Elgin, baptized in a ring of the Jesus fire, who adopts a Muslim headdress and prays with the Iraqis before the reconnaissance mission. After proclaiming that "God put this (the treasure map) in our path," Chief finds inner peace in the bustle of conflict because the prophecy is fulfilled: God indeed put the map in their path, for reasons that at first weren't clear, and the Three Kings can sleep well knowing they did the moral thing.

After the fall of Saddam, will the Bush Administration be able to sleep so soundly? One of the most touching scenes in recent movies is the humility and sadness felt by the Three Kings as they wave to the Iraqis they helped liberate. Sergeant Barlow can always tell his daughter that he did the moral, humble thing, such as when, according to Newsweek, "Bush the Elder wrote a letter to his children. Ordering troops into combat, he wrote, 'tears at my heart.'" But have we seen the same sort of empathetic humanism from a recipient of that letter? The same Newsweek article provides the answer: "Aides said that Bush the Younger has written no such letter to his own twin daughters." By using the government to promote his arch-conservative Christian agenda, by using the word "crusade" to describe military interventions, does the President show himself to be as religiously enlightened as Chief?

With the news that Secretary Rumsfeld has efforted to ensure that the Pentagon controls "every aspect of reconstructing the country and forming a new government," we can only hope that the Pentagon conducts itself with the conscious of Major Archie Gates, who sacrifices his gold and ambition for the good of the people. But the Pentagon has dismissed the State Department and Tony Blair's position that the United Nations should be the center of postwar Iraq, and Rumsfeld has also rejected Colin Powell's plan for civilian-based humanitarian efforts. As it stands now, the Pentagon threatens not only an internationally-based rebuilding strategy, but has rejected Iraqi input, in addition to jeopardizing humanitarian assistance. Every day, more and more complaints about the Pentagon emerge from both the State Department and the military field commanders who have encountered Iraqis face-to-face. The mass surrenders seen in Gulf War I have not happened, "appear(ing) to reflect a miscalculation by the Pentagon and CIA of the willingness or ability of Iraq's political and military leaders to overthrow Saddam." Will the Iraqi people peacefully submit themselves to this heavy hand? Perhaps, but evidence from the first fortnight of war suggests otherwise. As does Three Kings, a map that leads as near to the Iraqi heart as we can find in American movies.

The Pitch:
1 The Treasure of Sierra Madre
1 M*A*S*H
1 Barry McCaffrey
4 Three Kings
See It For:
Ice Cube sees a mirage of Eazy-E jumping out of an Iraqi tank.