Monday, March 12, 2007

300

Once upon a time, a king declared himself a god, assembled an enormous army, gathered a mighty armada, and set out to conquer the known world. Standing in his way was a collection of independent city-states that one day would become known as the cradle of western civilization. It was able to become that cradle because when the Persian god-king Xerxes came a-conquering, the Greek city-states singly and collectively told him to go to hell. They then aided him in that journey.

That, in a really tight nutshell, is the history leading up to and following the Battle of Thermopylae. Thermopylae is where Spartan King Leonidas lead a force of Greek warriors from Sparta, Thespiae, and other Greek city-states. They stood in Xerxes's way, stalled the Persian advance for several days, and died to a man.

The film 300 is about that battle. It is not a completely accurate historical account (the naval portion of the campaign, waged by Athens, is missing, as is the contribution of the Thespians, etc.), but it's not meant to be. Director Zack Snyder calls his film an "opera" of the battle, and that's pretty accurate. Like all opera, you either like it or you don't; there's seldom a middle ground. Also, like opera, its morals and messages are writ large, in bold and italicized print; nuance is not on the menu.

The film is very straight-forward. A Persian messenger comes to Leonidas, insults the King's wife, and demands his surrender. Leonidas responds by kicking him into a bottomless well. He then takes his "personal guard" of 300 Spartan warriors (hence, the title) to the narrow pass at Thermopylae where the massive size of the Persian army will work against it. Emissaries go back and forth. Offers of wealth are made, asking only subservience in return; Leonidas does variations of kicking the messenger into a bottomless well. Thus are lines drawn, and the fight is on.

Snyder over-uses slow-motion. About the only action director who did slo-mo right was Sam Peckinpah, and I'd prefer if modern directors didn't try and match that master's skill. The slo-mo actually takes me out of the fight and gets more and more tedious. When the fighting is done "real time", however, it becomes visceral and frightening. The initial fight, when Spartans and Persians are smashing into each other shield to shield, is an excellent example. Shields, spears, and swords are messy things and 300 captures this with flashing blade and CGI spurting blood.

There really isn't much plot to 300; it's all setup and on with the fighting. This wasn't meant to be the definitive account of the time. This is the opera of the battle, and as such it's a beautiful thing to behold. The film was shot on a sound stage, a la Sin City and Sky Captain. The entire "world" in which it occurs was laid in afterwards via CGI. It comes off better than either of its predecessors; at times it achieves a certain artistic glow.

The cast lacks any major star, and is the better for it. The acting is serviceable; nothing more was demanded. It could have been more. (Example: 1962's 300 Spartans, same battle.) With a little more work, a little more focus on the man, the death of Leonidas at the end could have brought you to tears. Nonetheless, as it is you see men stand for what they believe, in accordance with their beliefs, and willingly give their all for a cause they know is just.

I was amazed at some of the things put into the film. In taking the fight to the invading Persian army, Leonidas violates Spartan law by ignoring the words of an oracle. However, we find that the oracle's handlers were bribed by an unscrupulous member of the city council. That same councilman manipulates the council and prevents sending Leonidas any reinforcements; he even says that Leonidas is provoking Xerxes into invading. Does any of this sound familiar?

I noticed something else while watching the film. The audience got involved. My complaints notwithstanding, the audience gave a damn. People cheered, and not when the action got gory, but when it got meaningful. I haven't seen or heard this sort of audience participation in a good many years.

300 pulled in over $70 million at the box office its opening weekend; it was anticipated it would "only" do around $40 million. Clearly, the film is a hit. Unsurprisingly, this has pissed off a lot of liberals. Tirdad Derakhshani writes that 300 is "so pretty that it hides the ugly truth about war." What is that "ugly truth"? We're never told.

Here's the historical truth behind 300: Because of the Spartan (and Thespian) sacrifice at Thermopylae, the Greek city-states rallied together to oppose the invading Persians. While Xerxes won at the Hot Gates, he lost in his effort to conquer Greece. As a result of that defeat, he was sent packing back to Persia, humiliated and defeated. Greece, often considered the birth place of democracy and western thought, was saved from tyranny, and the entire course of modern history was set. Our world would be radically different if Leonidas hadn't made his stand.

The ugly truth about war is that sometimes it is necessary. Liberals are condemning 300 as being Manichean. It clearly bothers them that a film would come out that says this simple fact, that sometimes war is necessary. This is shockingly relevant today and it's amazing that the Hollywood machine let this film get made.

Meanwhile, Peter Suderman is less impressed than Dirty Harry, David Weigel provides the proper allegorical notes, and National Review makes all the right points.

Me, on the Netflix scale I'd give it 4 out of 5 stars.

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