Rules of Engagement (2000)

D: William Friedkin
S: Samuel L. Jackson, Tommy Lee Jones

Military-themed courtroom drama following the court martial of decorated officer Samuel L. Jackson (The Negotiator). He is charged with murder after he orders his unit of Marines to open fire on a supposedly unarmed crowd during an increasingly ugly protest at the American Embassy in Yemen. Were the crowd armed? Is there a cover-up by the State Department designed to offer the Colonel up as media fodder? Can retiring military attorney Tommy Lee Jones (U.S. Marshals), who fought in the field with Jackson in Vietnam then fought with himself through alcoholism and divorce pull together a case against the odds? Can you say "propaganda"?

Rules of Engagement is mostly a well mounted and involving ethical drama showcasing good performances and a peculiar narrative style signalling director William Friedkin's (The Exorcist) lack of interest in the mechanics of courtroom drama. It is built around scenes of revelation and confrontation, both military and personal, which cause us to question the characters motivations and give us pause for thought about the politics of the situation. There are some fascinating and troublesome questions asked about the use of deadly force and the morality of contemporary military involvement in Muslim countries which keep the viewer engrossed most of the time. There is also a believable level of civilian corruption which increases our sense of sympathy and paranoia, and forces us to evaluate which is the greater good; defending the country or defending the citizen. The characters are quite three dimensional, given strengths and weaknesses which inform the plot and move the thematic and moral issues forward. There are no easy answers about them, and we are presented with more than enough negatives to avoid the taint of manipulation or bias. There are some terrific scenes, and the film builds up to what looks like being an interesting and uncompromising finale. Then something very strange happens (beware of spoilers from here on). Almost in a flash, the film comes to an end which essentially argues that the system of military justice will always protect its own, and rightly so.

While we have to appreciate that our nation's military choose to serve their country in a way which ordinary civilians can never fully understand, there is something faintly disquieting about the way this film ultimately seems more like a morale boosting film for Marines. After raising difficult questions throughout, it finally promotes the value of the warrior above the war, claims that civilians are untrustworthy, and encourages viewers to feel protected by a system which might overlook actions considered unacceptable in civilian society given that they occur under fire. I am sure that, as the film never tires of pointing out, being under fire is something a civilian cannot understand, and of course the military could not do its job if deadly force in combat was legally and morally equivalent to murder. But, most of the time, this film is all about how those lines can become blurred (or, more specifically, about trying to find out if they have been blurred in this particular case), and when it comes out in the wash not only that things were straightforward after all, but that even though it can not be proved legally, the military justice system will give the benefit of the doubt, its optimism seems at best jingoistic and at worst naive. Scapegoats exist. Cover-ups are successful. And sometimes, yes, even soldiers can be guilty of misconduct (a potential second set of charges against Jackson, we are told by the perfunctory titles which come on screen at the end, are dropped, and that case was a lot less problematic in terms of legal guilt). Even A Few Good Men, which the film sometimes faintly resembles, had to concede that while we need men like Jack Nicholson's character in that film on the wall, they still have to obey the rules. Rules of Engagement comes to an unlikely happy ending which is does not arise naturally out of the dynamics of the characters or the plot as it has been unfolded to that point. The fact that it happens quickly makes it all the more disturbing. The non-military viewer leaves the theatre not at all sure if they are more comfortable or more frightened by what it has to say. Maybe this was the intention. Certainly it left this reviewer confused and dissatisfied. It is difficult to believe, which, regardless of any political or moral reaction, is not a good thing. The result is that despite interesting elements and good craftsmanship, the film seems simplistic in a way which negates almost everything it has to say.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2000.