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    Buffalo Soldiers

    An army of one

    And that one is a very bad boy, being all that he can be by shamelessly corrupting the system and manipulating his superior officers in the darkly outrageous army satire "Buffalo Soldiers."


    Somebody forgot to tell director Gregor Jordan and crew that we don't make military movies like "Buffalo Soldiers" anymore. Today's war pictures — "Saving Private Ryan," "We Were Soldiers," "Black Hawk Down," to name a few — are unquestioningly patriotic, flush with heroism, brutally honest about the hell of war but never the least bit ambiguous about who are the good guys (us) and the bad guys (them).

    Directed by: Gregor Jordan.
    Written by: Eric Weiss, Nora Maccoby, Gregor Jordan.
    Adapted from the novel by: Robert O'Connor.
    Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Ed Harris, Scott Glenn, Anna Paquin, Elizabeth McGovern, Michael Pena, Leon, Gabriel Mann, Dean Stockwell, Brian Delate, Shiek Mahmud-Bey.

    Related links: Official site
    In less blindly nationalistic times, one might coolly note that "Buffalo Soldiers" is merely a modern update of "Catch-22," but it feels like the right time for exactly that. Today's Milo Minderbinder is Ray Elwood (Joaquin Phoenix), supply clerk for a division based in Germany. From the gallows humor of the very first scene, we know that nothing is quite by the book in this man's army. The official version that gets filled in on forms and sent up the ladder is always a distorted ghost of what's really happening.

    Elwood has a sweet deal going — moving industrial-strength army supplies to shady German buyers to raise cash, outfiting his quarters with the latest Japanese electronics, buying off the MPs, and much, much worse. The commanding officer (Ed Harris), whose ambition is exceeded by his cluelessness, is easily manipulated. Life is good. That is, until a new, by-the-book, tough-as-nails sergeant conveniently named Robert E. Lee (Scott Glenn) moves in and, suspicious of the supply staff's BMWs and Rolexes, declares war.

    Buffalo Soldiers  
    It's a war of hard-ass vs. smart-ass. The weapons are not guns and grenades but brains and bureaucracy. One by one, the sergeant picks off Elwood's luxuries from his private room to, in memorably ballistic fashion, his precision-engineered German automobile. Outranked but not outmatched, Elwood is the guerrilla warrior in this conflict. Some things don't show up, other things disappear, the colonel is in his pocket — and soon, the sergeant's lithe teenage daughter (Anna Paquin) is in his sights. It may look like peace but this is war.

    "Buffalo Soldiers," made in 2001 but delayed two years before its release, is the wrong movie for today's America. That's what's so perfect. It's taken us 30 years since the end of the Vietnam War to rebuild our myth of the patriotic, precise, efficient, professional military that never does wrong and never makes a mistake. Those who run the country have bet that most Americans will blithely accept that myth and that this other, more complex picture of the army and the nation itself will never be revived — or will be condemned as dangerously disloyal.

    The truth about the military combines both of these visions. The courage and brotherhood of the "Saving Private Ryan" army is no fantasy, but neither is the "Catch-22" army of absurd contradictions and craven personalities or the "Platoon" army of rogue soldiers and moral chaos. (And there's a third dimension that probably can't be filmed: the detached military of number-crunchers, button-pushers and aerial bombers that represents much of the reality in today's lopsided high-tech vs. low-tech conflicts.) We've just been through two years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq — in which our side's sense of righteousness and heroism have been matched by official lies, daily misinformation, failure to catch Osama bin Laden (note his claim that 94 percent of al Qaeda forces survived the U.S. assault), and killing of civilians and journalists in Iraq. This is clearly that other army, the one where things can and do go wrong.

    The army of "Buffalo Soldiers" is that army too — taken to satirical extremes. Things blow up, people die, whole truckloads of weapons disappear, cover stories thicken the air. The MPs are more of a mafia than a police force, turning the base at night into a lawless zone and demanding tribute from all the other lawbreakers as a price of doing business. Massive crime operations and enlisted men fight their own battles under the officer corps's oblivious noses. Dark and often outrageously funny, "Buffalo Soldiers" uses fiction to tell a truth that's supposed to stay deeply buried in George Bush's bellicose America.

    SEPTEMBER 2, 2003

    Reader comments on Buffalo Soldiers:

  • [no subject]   from rose phoenix, Nov 2, 2003
  • great flix   from cplusmc, Nov 11, 2003
  • Re: great flix   from bj, Dec 7, 2003
  • SOooooo Goood   from Sarah Marsh, Jan 1, 2004
  • [no subject]   from Carly Greene, Nov 24, 2004
  • wrong   from jack, Oct 27, 2014

  • Post a comment on "Buffalo Soldiers"