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Director: Antoine Fuqua
Writers: Alex Lasker, Patrick Cirillo
Stars: Bruce Willis, Cole Hauser, Monica Bellucci
Release Date: March 7, 2003
Run time: 2 hour, 1 minute
Turmoil erupts in Nigeria following a military coup d’etat led by exiled General Mustafa Yakubu in which President Samuel Azuka and his entire family are reportedly assassinated. The ethnic enmity is between the Fulani Muslims in the north and Christian Ibo in the south. Foreigners evacuate the country and Lieutenant A.K. Waters and his U.S. Navy SEAL team consisting of Zee, Slo, Red, Lake, Silk, Doc, and Flea, board the aircraft carrier Harry S. Truman, to be dispatched by Captain Bill Rhodes to extract Dr. Lena Fiore Kendricks, a U.S. citizen by marriage to the late Dr. John Kendricks who was killed by rebels in Sierra Leone. Their secondary mission is to extract the mission’s priest and two nuns, should they choose to come.
Waters gets to Kendricks, telling her that rebels are closing in on her hospital and the mission, and that his orders are to extract U.S. citizens; however, Kendricks refuses to leave without her patients that she loves so much. Waters calls Rhodes for options; after a brief conversation, he concedes to Kendricks’ wishes and agrees to take those refugees able to walk. Kendricks begins assembling the able-bodied for the 12 kilometres (7.5 mi) hike; the priest and the nuns stay behind to take care of the injured.
Irritated and behind schedule, the team and the refugees leave the hospital mission after daybreak. At nightfall they take a short break. The rebels rapidly approach their position, and Waters stealthily kills one. Kendricks warns Waters that the rebels are going to the mission, but he is determined to carry out his orders, and they continue to the extraction point.
Back at the mission, the staff and refugees are detained by the rebels. Despite the priest’s pleas for mercy, the rebels murder him and the remaining occupants.
When the team arrives at the extraction point, Waters’ initial plan becomes clear: the SEALs suddenly turn away the refugees from the waiting SH-60B Seahawk helicopter. Waters forces Kendricks into the helicopter against her will, leaving the refugees stranded in the jungle, defenseless against the rebels. En route back to Harry Truman, they fly over the original mission compound, seeing it destroyed and all its occupants murdered, as Kendricks had feared.
Remorseful, Waters orders the pilot to return to the refugees. He then loads as many refugees as he can into the helicopter and decides to escort the remaining refugees to the Cameroonian border on foot.
During the hike to Cameroon, the SEALs discover the rebels are somehow tracking them. As they escape and evade the rebels, the team enters a village whose inhabitants are being raped, tortured, and massacred by the rebels. Cognizant of his ability to stop it, Waters orders the team to kill the rebels. The team is visibly shaken by the atrocities they see the rebels have committed against the villagers.
Again en route, Slo determines that a refugee is transmitting a signal allowing the rebels to locate them. A newer refugee picked up during the trek attempts to run but is shot. A transmitter is discovered on his body. As he bleeds out, he confesses that he is coerced to be the rat because his family had been captured by the rebels. The following search for his co-conspirators reveals the presence of Arthur Azuka, the surviving son of late President Samuel Azuka, which they realize is the reason the rebels are hunting them: Samuel Azuka was not only the president of the country, but also the tribal king of the Ibo. As the only surviving member of this royal bloodline, Arthur is the only person left with a legitimate claim to the Ibo Nation. Waters is angered that Kendricks knew this but did not inform him.
The SEALs decide to continue escorting the refugees to Cameroon, regardless of the cost. A firefight ensues when the rebels finally catch up with them, and the SEALs decide to stay behind as rearguard to buy the refugees enough time to reach the border safely.
Zee radios the Navy for air support; two F/A-18s take off and head towards them. The rebels kill Slo, Lake, Flea, and Silk. Waters, Red, Doc, and Zee are wounded, but direct the jets on where to attack. Arthur and Kendricks rush towards the now-closed Cameroonian border crossing when they hear the jets approach and bomb the pursuing rebels.
Waters, Zee, Doc, and Red rise from the grass as Navy helicopters land in Cameroon, opposite the Nigerian border crossing. Rhodes arrives and orders the gate open, letting in the SEALs and the refugees. They are then escorted onto the helicopters.
Rhodes promises Waters that he will recover the bodies of Waters’ men. Kendricks bids tearful farewells to her Nigerian friends and flies away in a helicopter while comforting Waters, watching as Arthur is surrounded by his people proclaiming their freedom.
The movie ends with, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing” quote attributed to Edmund Burke.
Despite there not being much dialogue, this is a beautifully shot, tense, well-paced action film. Roger Ebert described this movie better than I can, so I’ll quote him here:
“Tears of the Sun is a film constructed out of rain, cinematography and the face of Bruce Willis. These materials are sufficient to build a film almost as good as if there had been a better screenplay.”
My suspicion is that the audience at the time, and also today, will view this film through the lens of how they view the American military’s interventionism around the world. The depiction within the film is positive. Navy SEALs rescue an American citizen (the beautiful Dr. Lena Kendricks played by Monica Bellucci) but decide on the fly to expand the mission to save also around seventy Nigerians who are likely going to be killed if they are left behind. They learn during the rescue operation that one of the members of the expanded mission is the son – believed previously to be dead – of the recently assassinated President of the country. The mission thus has an initially unintended direct political element. As a result, the effort given by the opposing faction to prevent the SEALs from getting this group out of country is great, ultimately leading to many of the American troops dying. Within the context of the story, it is easy to view this intervention as good and heroic. However, the whole thing calls to mind the ethics (legal and moral) of intervening in another country’s fight.
I like being made to think, and having my own views challenged, and this film succeeds in doing that. American citizens have grappled with how to use our country’s military power for decades. If the USA intervenes in a foreign situation, that choice is often met with international derision (at least in some quarters.) If the USA fails to intervene, often that is also met with anger and condemnation (current examples include Ukraine and Israel.) The international community rarely speaks with one voice, and it is often the case that public opinion changes to whatever the opposite happens to be of what the Americans have decided. Complicating matters further, powerful elements within the United States financially profit from war-fighting, and sometimes seem to seek out (or create whole cloth) opportunities for said war-fighting. As a U.S. citizen then, parsing the various propaganda from multiple directions, alongside a desire to do and act wisely in the world, is an almost impossible task. How does a powerful country use its strength wisely? How do the citizens of that country obtain enough unmanipulated information to knowledgably press its leaders to use their power wisely? The answers are easier when they’re academic rather than put into practice. Tears of the Sun thus becomes polarizing inasmuch as it takes a side, at least in a hypothetical situation.
The story itself is based loosely on a mission of the Canadian Joint Task Force Two (JTF2) that took place in Colombia. Are the bigger picture questions raised by the film less present if the film had been about Canadian troops?
Setting questions of ethics and philosophy aside, if you’re someone who just likes an action / war movie, or Bruce Willis, this one is excellent. The first quarter of the film is quiet, beautifully shot, with limited dialogue. The quiet actually builds the tension. During the race to the border, tension builds at a steady pace, culminating in an emotional, brutal shootout. The high volume of well acted joy and grief, among the people who eventually reach safety, will put you forcefully in your feelings.
In conclusion I enjoyed the movie on its own merits. It’s visually stunning, well-paced, well-acted, and it delivers an emotional punch. I also appreciated it as a vehicle for making me think a bit more deeply about bigger picture issues.
Have you seen Tears of the Sun? If so, what did you think?