Before Clint Eastwood took over the project, “American Sniper” was being developed by Steven Spielberg, who ultimately passed on it because he couldn’t figure out a way, budgetarily, to create and follow a parallel storyline dealing with an Iraqi counterpart to the real-life sniper played by Bradley Cooper. We'll never know how a Spielberg take on “American Sniper” would’ve fared. We only know that Eastwood’s version, morally untroubled and a bellwether for the 2016 election, stoked fear and loathing of The Enemy and made more than half a billion dollars worldwide.
Set in 2007, well into the Iraq War, director Doug Liman’s “The Wall” takes a stab, at least, at hearing from the other side. This is a fairly effective small-scale drama pitting two American soldiers against an Iraqi sniper in the middle of nowhere. It’s fairly effective, that is, until the moment when one of the characters says to another: “We are not so different, you and I.” That sentence is so bad, so on-the-nose, you can almost hear the actor opening a tiny drawer labeled “THIRD-RATE THESIS LINES” as quietly as possible before speaking.
The premise is simple. With dead bodies scattered in the desert nearby, near an oil pipeline, two men, Sgt. Isaac (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Sgt. Matthews (John Cena), have waited for 20 hours. They know their enemy is out there: an insurgent sniper of apparently deadly accuracy and cunning. Then, a shot. Matthews is seriously wounded. Isaac takes cover behind the ruins of a wall and waits for a rescue.
Much of screenwriter Dwain Worrell’s dialogue takes place between men communicating remotely and listening over earpieces. (Liman and cinematographer Roman Vasyanov, shooting on Super 16 mm film, took care of principal photography in 14 days, using the western edge of California’s Mojave Desert as a stand-in location.) Liman does a lot of things right with “The Wall.” The pacing’s shrewd, thanks largely to editor Julia Bloch, and the cutting rhythms rarely feel antsy or falsely dramatic. There’s virtually no mood music. And, given the scenario at hand, the central performances by Taylor-Johnson and Cena stick to the life-and-death business at hand, which is also the stuff of blood, sweat, some tears but not too much corn.
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Then, around the time we hear the dreaded thesis line, “The Wall” starts to crack and starts looking and feeling more and more artificial in its suspense constructs. Interestingly, the overall fatalism baked into the narrative is precisely the sort of thing “American Sniper” would’ve considered unpardonable, un-American. That’s another story. “The Wall” may be fictional, but at its occasional, patient best it feels truthfully scary.
Rated R for language throughout and some war violence. 1:30. Hamburg, Fayette Mall.