There’s a scene in the new movie Savages where the “good guys,” artisanal pot growers Ben and Chon, organize some of Chon’s ex-Navy Seal friends to emplace IEDs in the road they know a group of nasties from the Baja cartel will take to a meeting. It was a strange moment for me, after seven embeds with American troops in Afghanistan—to be rooting for the IED-makers. It would be an even stranger moment for an ex-Navy Seal. Yet no one knows better than American officers who fought in Afghanistan or Iraq how much more fun it would be to be on the insurgents’ side.
These complexities were explored more entertainingly and with greater nuance in the 2009 movie Avatar, which may be the best expression on film yet of the counterinsurgent’s envy of the insurgent’s more glamorous, appealing side. But Savages points to a cost that the blue people never pay in Avatar—becoming degraded themselves by the necessities of the fight. As Oliver Stone engineers it, Ben and Chon can’t simply give up the business when the Baja thugs move in—they have no choice but to fight. And yet that fight does not improve them.
Along with Dark Knight Rises, Savages is an example of the way in which our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are being digested at home. Dark Knight Rises is also impossible to imagine having been made in, say, 1999; it features hundreds of conventional bomb explosions in the heart of Gotham and Army troops in full battle rattle surrounding the city. . . .