Tears of the Sun — the new film from Antoine Fuqua, director of Training Day — stars Bruce Willis as Navy SEAL Lieutenant Waters on a mission to the Nigerian jungle to rescue an American, Dr. Lena Kendricks (Monica Bellucci), a priest, and two nuns from an advancing force of brutal Muslim rebels. As usual, Bruce Willis plays a hero, but not the sort to which viewers have become accustomed. He is a somber, mostly silent, hero, utterly void of a sense of humor or self-effacing irony. Before he can be the action hero, he must play the empathetic spectator, the vehicle through which America comes to see, and repent for, the cost of its indifference to “indigenous” peoples.
Now, this makes the film sound deeply anti-American and, in many ways, it is. But the film is also wildly, if naively, pro-American, depicting the U.S. as easily capable of resolving the internal conflicts that have plagued other nations for centuries. It ends with the famous statement from Edmund Burke that the only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men do nothing.
In spite of being gloriously filmed and taking on issues of great moral moment, Tears of the Sun is undone by incredible plot sequences and recourse to incoherent platitudes. In an early scene, Dr. Kendricks thanks Waters for saving her from an attack by warlords; he says coolly, “It’s not about saving your life. It’s about getting the job done, completing the mission.” This is the filmmakers’ unsubtle way of drawing our attention to the kind of soldier the American military typically creates. Toward the end, Waters reinforces this impression when he confesses, “I broke my own rule. I started to give a f***.”
At the outset, he clearly does not care about anything except doing his job in a mechanical fashion. When he arrives at St. Michael’s mission, where the doctor, the priest, and the nuns care for the poor and injured Nigerians, the religious refuse to leave, while Dr. Kendrick says she will accompany Waters only if she can bring along those in her care. Waters’s complaints about the doctor’s noncompliance earn him a mocking rebuke from his superiors. So he lies to her and agrees to shepherd all the able-bodied to safety. This is the first of a number of less-than-credible, pivotal events in the film. Why does Waters, a seasoned military leader, seem so insecure in the face of the female doctor? Why is the American government so insistent about making her leave even against her will? Why does Waters put the entire mission and the lives of his men at risk by escorting, along with Dr. Kendrick, a noisy child, whose cries the rebels can track and whom he plans eventually to abandon anyway?
None of these questions give the filmmakers pause, so focused are they on Waters’s transformation, a religious conversion of sorts, the initial impetus for which occurs just as he fulfills his mission of extracting Dr. Kendricks. They fly over the grounds of St. Michael’s mission and witness the devastation wrought by the rebels. Waters suddenly orders the pilot to turn around. Later, when one of his soldiers asks why he gave that order, Waters replies, “When I figure it out, I’ll let you know.” By this point in the film, direct experience of the victims of mutilation and rape has replaced Waters’s panoramic, helicopter vision of the horrors of genocide.
There are real issues here, regarding genocide and the question of America’s moral responsibility to do what it can, when it can, to intervene. But Tears of the Sun skirts the tough prudential issues of when, where, and to what extent America might effectively combat such atrocities. One could almost say it skirts politics altogether — subsuming the political, in fine liberal fashion, entirely into the personal. When Waters learns that Kendricks has concealed information crucial to their mission, he responds to her explanation (I did not trust you) with a sympathetic, “I would not have trusted me either.” Then there is an altogether incredible dialogue of Waters with his men, just after Waters has resisted “in conscience” the command of his superior to cease his involvement in the “internal politics” of another nation. Waters asks his men to speak freely about what they want to do. One soldier suggests they should return to their initial mission, but the rest voice platitudes about no longer being able to treat the Nigerians as “packages.” When a black American solider tells Waters that he is doing the right thing, Waters extends his hand and says, “For our sins.” So, Waters is now atoning for the entire history of America’s imperial injustices, both abroad and at home.
The themes of atonement and of (religious) mission surface repeatedly. Indeed, there is something unusual for a Hollywood film in the way religion repeatedly trumps politics. The oppressed people of Nigeria are Catholics, who make final confessions, pray for mercy, and promise Waters that “God will never forget” him. By the end, Waters is a sort of St. Michael, defending the innocent from the demonic forces of ethnic cleansing. One can be confident that the filmmakers never asked themselves how such a conception of the relationship between religion and politics might impact other controversial issues such as abortion, but that is just a symptom of the unthinking religious romanticism that pervades the film. The film wavers between seeing American imperialism as evil and as the only possible source of salvation for otherwise helpless Africans.
Tears of the Sun is standard Hollywood fare, in which a simplistic and condescending moralism replaces the tough-minded negotiation of difficult political questions.