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Pilot project

John Moore is hesitant about labeling his directorial debut, Behind Enemy Lines, the first war movie of the 21st century. It’s not that he doesn’t appreciate the designation, which acknowledges his visceral portrayal of high-tech combat, and the way he injects a major action movie with a needed shot of ambiguity about the nature of modern warfare, where identifying the enemy means deciphering complicated factional — even tribal — conflicts. What makes Moore uneasy is something utterly out of his control.

The events of Sept. 11 were so shocking in their magnitude and devastation that witnesses inevitably compared it to watching a movie.

Hollywood responded by pulling from fall lineups any picture that might unnerve audiences who had suddenly seen a disaster film come to life. But as American troops headed for Afghanistan, 20th Century Fox observed audiences cheering the trailer for Behind Enemy Lines and decided to open the film two months early. Moore says he had hoped his adrenaline-fueled war story would offer a peek into “the Pandora’s box of the Balkans and the military’s cross-purposes.” Now he fears its point will be lost on audiences eager to enjoy the film, “for the confidence it gives them in the American military.”

All of which leaves Moore philosophical. The 31-year-old Irish commercials director, who began his career as a cameraman for two of his country’s best filmmakers, Neil Jordan and Jim Sheridan, finds his film opening in this climate bittersweet. (It grossed $19.2 million last weekend.)

Patriotism as a motivating force, he says, is “very effective. It’s very lethal, it’s a blunt instrument and I’m wary of it. I think patriotism and fundamentalism are different spellings of the same word.”

“But you can’t deny human spirit,” he asserts, “you can’t overanalyze people’s feelings. When you make a film, you put it out there and it belongs to the audience, it belongs to what emotional experience they want to get out of it.”

Some of the films John Moore studied include Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, a piercing look at hubris and hypocrisy during World War I, and William Wyler’s hard-edged The Best Years of Our Lives, about American soldiers’ uneasy return home from World War II.

Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, he says, is his favorite in terms of “the cinematic experience;” yet he considers it a prime example of how, with the passage of time, wars can be romanticized no matter how gruesomely they’re portrayed.

“I have an avid interest in world combat politics,” he continues. “I’m fascinated by the political scenarios, but also the machinations of those scenarios, the guns and the bombs. I think they inevitably play a big part.”

Behind Enemy Lines is structured as an insider’s look at what happens when the chain of command is broken. A naval aviator (despite surface similarities, the story is not based on the real-life experiences of Capt. Scott O’Grady) is shot down over a Bosnian no-fly zone, and his commander must defy direct orders to retrieve him. While Moore found that the military creed of leaving no man behind is a strong motivator, it becomes problematic when you take a global view.

“You could say it’s exclusionist,” he explains, “it’s purely self-interest that the American’s military goal internationally is to take care of their own priority and nothing else. And again, that’s what’s asked in the film. Are you here to solve a problem and finish what you started, or are you just concerned with getting your guys out, closing the door and going?”

Serena Donadoni writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail letters@metrotimes.com

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