Directed by: Doug Liman
Premise: Set in Iraq in 2007, a pair of American soldiers (Aaron Taylor-Johnson and John Cena) are pinned down by an enemy sniper. One of them takes shelter behind the remains of a building and attempts to outwit the gunman.
What Works: The Wall is an excellent example of filmmakers imposing limitations on themselves and turning those limitations into advantages. This film was directed by Doug Liman who had previously made big budget Hollywood action pictures such as Mr. and Mrs. Smith and Edge of Tomorrow. But The Wall has none of the polish or scale of Liman’s studio movies; instead it recalls his earlier, more exciting work on independent films like Go and Swingers. The Wall has an intimate scope as it focuses on a pair of American soldiers on a sparse patch of land in the Iraqi desert and the film recreates the fear of warfare in a way that few combat pictures accomplish. A lot of The Wall consists of scenes in which one of the soldiers, played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson, crawls around a twenty-foot section of rubble. Despite that, the film is impressively cinematic and Liman and his filmmaking crew find ways of keeping the action tense. A story like this, in which the audience sits with a character in a confined space, can lead viewers to analyze the situation more closely than they might in a story that is on the move from one location to the next. That can lead the audience to search for flaws and inconsistencies and so it is incumbent on the story and the characters to be smart. The Wall is generally intelligent and credible with the soldiers making resourceful use of the supplies around them. Given its narrow focus, The Wall also features impressive character work. The soldiers played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson and John Cena have a convincing rapport and the filmmakers characterize these men in effective and efficient fashion. They aren’t especially deep characters but there is more going on in the film than its premise initially suggests. Taylor-Johnson’s character in particular is haunted by a tragedy and the extent to which the film is able to give him a character arc within the narrow confines of this story is impressive.
What Doesn’t: The Wall is set in a very specific place and time—during the occupation of Iraq well after President George W. Bush had declared “Mission Accomplished” and in the midst of the 2007 troop surge—but that specific setting doesn’t appear to be especially relevant to the movie. For all intents and purposes, the story of The Wall could be anywhere and if the filmmakers sought to say anything about the Iraq conflict it’s not readily apparent. When it comes to war movies there are films that are purely fantasy (see: anything directed by Michael Bay) and other films that intend to be a credible portrayal of modern combat (Black Hawk Down). The Wall falls into the latter camp but there are a few elements in it that don’t make sense and undermine its credibility. For one, the American soldiers are alone in the field and don’t appear to be in regular contact with any base or commanding officer. Another related problem is that the Iraqi sniper uses a radio to impersonate American soldiers and draw rescuers into an ambush. It seems unlikely that the Americans would not ask for some kind of confidential identifier that would confirm the speaker’s identity. But The Wall suffers the most from its ending. The filmmakers attempt to outsmart the audience with a shocking last minute reversal. But the twist feels forced and unsatisfying and undermines the dramatic integrity of the movie for the sake of cheap twist. It’s not enough to ruin the picture but it does leave the audience with an unsatisfying finale.
Bottom Line: The Wall is an impressive little film. It is mostly intelligent and extremely well executed. It may not say much about the invasion of Iraq or modern combat but it does tell a thrilling story very well.
Episode: #648 (May 21, 2017)