In its long and crowded history, Hollywood traditionally produced war movies of real quality, some of them even thoughtful and insightful in their examination of a rich and important subject. Although the invasion and occupation of Iraq continues, with increasing loss of life, money, and credibility, Hollywood appears reluctant to tackle the action in any manner beyond the indirect or perfunctory.
The dull and repetitive Three Kings of a few years ago pretty much amounts to the total of the film industry's treatment of the first Iraq invasion; since then, only documentaries, made far from Hollywood, confront the present engagement in the Middle East.
To show the behavior of soldiers of all kinds in combat, motion pictures these days tend to transport the action (and the audience) to other times, places, and conflicts. Gladiator, Troy, and Kingdom of Heaven, for example, suggest an attempt to make the excitement and the horror of war palatable by distancing it from our time; fantasy and science fiction films like The Lord of the Rings trilogy and the Star Wars saga match the magic of their subjects with the technical wizardry of the cinema to make war a glamorous, exciting, and even noble endeavor.
The new movie Stealth provides yet another familiar alternative, inventing a kind of combat that borders on the fantastic, enhancing it with spectacular effects, and transforming the violence and bloodshed into a sort of abstraction. Combining elements from pictures as different as Top Gun, Dr. Strangelove, and 2001, Stealth shows the usual problems involved in employing a weapon with a mind of its own.
Navy Captain George Cummings (Sam Shepard) orders his three ace fighter pilots --- played by Josh Lucas, Jessica Biel, and Jamie Foxx --- who fly super secret jet planes called Talons, to add a new member to their group, an unmanned, computer operated aircraft named Extreme Deep Invader (EDI for short). EDI performs perfectly on their first mission together, but suffers a lightning strike, which somehow rewires his brain and drives him nuts. On their next mission the drone turns into a killer, disobeying orders and destroying a target that includes a number of innocent people; from that point the human pilots must attempt to destroy EDI, who possesses superior weaponry, technology, and maybe even intelligence, before he provokes a global nuclear catastrophe.
The director juices up that familiar scenario with some truly spectacular flying sequences in planes that look like some graceful combination of predatory birds and flying sharks. The film shows scene after scene of the aircraft zooming and whooshing through the stratosphere at speeds way beyond the supersonic, firing missiles and rockets, dropping bombs, and shooting up the sky and the landscape.
The film at least hints at the moral dimensions of warfare when it devotes considerable time to conversations between Ben Gannon (Lucas) and EDI, as the human pilot attempts to dissuade the computer from carrying out his dangerous mission. EDI speaks with the sweetly unctuous baritone of his ancestor HAL from Stanley Kubrick's 2001, and executes some of his predecessor's malevolent agenda. Gannon's arguments with the machine underline the necessity of human control over mechanisms, which supplies the theme of countless movies over the last half-century.
Although the film depends almost entirely on its numerous spectacular aerial dogfights, explosions, and stunts, it also includes a batch of primitive plots that take place all over the world and could supply enough material for a couple of other pictures. It includes an essentially juvenile love story involving Lucas and Biel; a survival story about Biel bailing out in North Korea, hunted by a platoon of soldiers; a megalomaniac attempt by Captain Cummings to usurp control of EDI for somewhat unclear reasons; and a handful of shootouts on the ground in which one good guy somehow outguns dozens of heavily armed baddies.
The picture, as it must, moves swiftly and slickly, full of all sorts of action and a plenitude of visual entertainment. The dialogue and acting work together to establish a pervasive sense of adolescent naiveté, which may perfectly suit the vision of the writer and director, who never allow serious emotion or deep thought to interfere with the rapid progress of their elementary narrative. At least for now Stealth appears to be the closest thing to a war movie Hollywood will allow --- full of excitement, with a minimum of suffering, and perhaps just what the public seems to want.
Stealth (PG-13) starring Josh Lucas, Jessica Biel, Jamie Foxx, Sam Shepard; directed by Rob Cohen, is playing at Cinemark Tinseltown, Loews Webster, Pittsford Plaza Cinema, Regal Culver Ridge, Regal Eastview, Regal Greece Ridge, Regal Henrietta.