Tigerland training

Director Joel Schumacher regains filmmaker status with newest release

Every few years, Joel Schumacher takes a break from grinding out crap to prove he's really a filmmaker. The best example is the semi-classic Falling Down. Schumacher equals, if not tops it, with Tigerland, a drama about young men training to be sent to Vietnam. It's 1971 in Fort Polk, La.
The screenplay by Ross Klavan and Michael McGruther cleverly combines elements of both war and anti-war movies, so there's something for everyone. Irish actor Colin Farrell has his breakthrough role as Texan Roland Bozz. He looks like a cross between George Clooney and Montgomery Clift and acts like Matthew McConaughey channeling James Dean. His character is like Randle McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, but when he teams up with Jim Paxton (Matthew Davis) they become Hawkeye and Trapper John from "M*A*S*H."
That should keep cross-reference fans happy. Tigerland is the Army's idea of a virtual Vietnam ("a war theme park," one character calls it), where new soldiers spend their last week of Advanced Infantry Training (AIT) before being sent overseas to the real thing. The officers know how slim the men's chances of survival are and do their best to improve the odds in the short time they're given. Training is designed to strip the men of their dignity and individuality, to teach them to follow orders blindly on the theory that the people giving the orders are the best qualified to think for them.
Screenwriter Klavan, who based the story on his own experiences, obviously is represented by Paxton, who dropped out of college to enlist because he wants to be a writer and feels any experience will be useful: "I'm gonna take notes on everything. Maybe someday I'll write something."
In an effort to deflect criticism about reducing the other men to stereotypes, the writers have Bozz and Paxton banter about the various types of people represented and their function in Paxton's to-be-written book. The women in the movie are all one type: easy. They're in the nearby town to give — er, sell — the soldiers a good time when they get a weekend pass. Our heroes bond as, after getting their rocks off, they discover they prefer each other's company to that of the women.
One of Bozz's psychological weapons in his war with the Army is a worn copy of Dalton Trumbo's anti-war classic Johnny Got His Gun. In the film, he says he's never read it, though he often pretends to "because it pisses everybody off."
Sadistic Sgt. Thomas (James MacDonald) warns the more reasonable Capt. Saunders (Nick Searcy), "You underestimate the damage one individual like Bozz can do." After Sgt. Thomas does physical damage to "bumpkin saint" Pvt. Cantwell (Thomas Guiry), Bozz helps the victim get out on a hardship discharge, even though he's been forbidden to apply for one until he gets overseas.
Bozz is a bit of a Christ figure, taking a lot of suffering on himself to spare his comrades. While he wants nothing more than to get out of the Army and becomes the military equivalent of a jailhouse lawyer, he uses his expertise more for others than for himself. He knows his reputation has preceded him when a stranger tells him he's heard, "If you don't want to go to 'Nam you'd better pray to Jesus and talk to Roland Bozz."
Unlike some rebels who find themselves in such situations, Bozz has the smarts and skills to be the best soldier since Douglas MacArthur, should he choose to cooperate. Most of the officers come to respect him for this reason, while most of his peers return the respect he gives them, especially when he's co-opted by being appointed to replace weak Pvt. Miter (Clifton Collins Jr.) as platoon guide. The exception is Pvt. Wilson (Shea Whigham), a bitter weasel and hardcore psychotic who's convinced Bozz is a coward, if not the Antichrist.
There are enough references to Tigerland in the first eight weeks of training that, even without the title, any moviegoer will know that's where things will come to a head. The first scene there, in a pouring rain, provides haunting imagery that will stay with you. Cinematographer Matthew Libatique does excellent hand-held work throughout, lending the film a documentary feel without becoming annoying. Shooting in 16mm adds to the grainy authenticity of Tigerland, which was made like an independent film for a major studio.
The Peachtree International Film Society presents Tigerland March 18 at 6 p.m. at General Cinema Parkway Pointe, 3101 Cobb Parkway. Admission $7.50, $6.50 for members. 770-729-8487.