Since its release, the critical response to the new Bruce Willis vehicle Tears of the Sun has been so negative as to be intriguing. It is, in some ways, more interesting than the film itself. Previews for Tears of the Sun (rated R for strong war violence, brutality, and bad language) suggest an uncomfortable blend of action, melodrama, and timely political comment-a not particularly appealing combination.
As it turns out, the film does wobble precariously and often unsuccessfully between these elements. It is, however, a solid and occasionally affecting action film, hardly deserving of the critical beating it's received-suggesting that there's more at work here than refined filmic sensibilities.
Tears of the Sun (the title doesn't communicate much) has Bruce Willis's Lt. A.K. Waters leading a team of Navy SEALS into Nigeria during a fictional civil war. His mission is to extract Dr. Lena Hendricks (Monica Bellucci), a U.S. citizen working at a Catholic mission in the heart of the jungle. Mr. Willis is ordered to evacuate Dr. Hendricks, and, if possible, three missionaries-but not any of the mission's refugees.
It quickly becomes apparent that things will not go as planned: Upon his arrival, Dr. Hendricks informs Waters that she won't leave without her patients. Waters is forced into a crisis both practical and moral, juggling the competing interests of a successful mission and his own growing sympathy for the people of Nigeria.
What seems to bother critics most is not the quality of the film, which is, admittedly, mixed, but its message. Jingoistic is the word of the day. Steven Rea of the Philadelphia Inquirer writes that Tears is "a slick Hollywood combat picture that does double-duty as a U.S. military recruitment ad, [and] couldn't have come at a more opportune-make that opportunistic-time."
Several critics leave readers with the impression that the Bush administration somehow hijacked the film to promote its Iraq agenda. "What Tears of the Sun does do with its portrait of peerless American fighters making mincemeat out of dark-skinned bad guys is, albeit unintentionally, offer up a propaganda fantasy of how the administration thinks the impending invasion of Iraq is going to go," writes Kenneth Turan in the Los Angeles Times.
In a similar vein, Jami Bernard writes in the New York Daily News, "This is the movie the Bush administration could show to support our newly interventionist foreign policy. But will a thinking audience really buy the image of helpless, grateful people bestowing kisses and victory songs upon Willis as the representative of all things American: power, guts, compassion?"
Yet Tears of the Sun is not rabidly pro-American. The American military machine is portrayed, at least initially, as heartless and workmanlike. The SEALS refer to the doctor and her missionary associates as "packages" to be retrieved. Waters's strict orders are not to engage the enemy unless fired upon, and not to involve himself in the internal conflict of the country. He helps the "natives" only by disobeying these orders and attempting to lead the mission's refugees to safety across the Cameroon border.
Tears of the Sun at heart remains an action film-it really doesn't touch on the subtleties of American interventionism or the horror of genocide and ethnic cleansing (although its effects are graphically represented). What really bothers most critics, I think, are two very simple points implied by the film's story: that it is possible to make cultural distinctions and that some good can come from American military action. These ideas should be irrefutable and harmless at face value, but in fact make liberals mighty queasy.
Christians run the Nigerian mission and the Nigerians who live there have converted to Christianity. The missionaries aren't portrayed as imperialists; neither are the Christian natives oppressed drones, but instead gentle, honest, and grateful. The Nigerian rebels, marching through the countryside, slaughtering entire villages as they go, are, by contrast, Muslim and Marxist.
The picture may be oversimplified, but it hits home in a way that undermines predominant ideas of cultural relativism. The film's Nigerian conflict is fictional, but it bears more than passing resemblance to events of the past decade in Rwanda, Somalia, and even Iraq.
Tears of the Sun is not by any means a perfect film (and obviously not for family viewing), nor is it ideal as a critique of cultural relativism or a defense of the Bush administration's policies in the Middle East. But its middling script is helped immensely by a strong lead performance by Mr. Willis, and by its boldness, at least at times, in the face of Hollywood's suffocating political correctness.