(THIS IS AN UPDATE OF SCRIPT COVERAGE FIRST SUBMITTED ON 10.30.09)
The 40,000 is a Pentagon production about heroic American soldiers dealing a death blow to the poppy farmers, terrorists, stoners, religious nutjobs and suicide bombers of Afghanistan, a mission no army on earth has accomplished since 339 B.C.. The soldiers are led by a character named General Stanley McChrystal, to be played by General Stanley McChrystal.
The 40,000 relies heavily on visual effects like, pre-visualization, virtual reality, drone spy planes and night vision cameras.
The script feels like a high tech update of a Russian war epic from about 25 years ago that eventually sank the entire Soviet war business, which is only just today beginning to recover with a few small features produced in Chechnya and Uzbekistan. That war was itself an updating of a series of three wars waged by the British on Afghan soil from 1839 to 1919, all with less than happy results for their producers.
The General McChrystal character reads books by the truckload, is fiercely driven, and sets a pace no mere mortal can maintain. He sleeps four hours a night, eats one meal a day, and runs twelve miles daily in the desert sun. This strikes me as neither cartoon-like as in a superhero movie, nor realistic as in a gritty drama. And none of it makes McChrystal a sympathetic or aspirational character. The audience doesn't care how much the main character eats or sleeps, what they want to know is how he or she fights. The Pentagon's script mistakes obsessive for heroic.
It turns out that McChrystal's character has played a role in the Pat Tillman friendly-fire cover-up, but the script glosses over this as it never happened. Nor does the character demonstrate any traits that would make him more human and vulnerable. McChrystal's character is only concerned with appearing invulnerable to his enemies, and by enemies we are primarily talking about President Barack Obama, a young, charismatic but inexperienced African American politician who defeated McChrystal's old mentor, Pappy McCain, in the recent election, and could keep the war from happening. Obama does not make a good villain. He's too soft. Kind of innocent. Smart but naive. Besides, villains start wars, they don't try to stop them. What sense does that make?
Another problem with the script: These 40,000 troops---who are they? The way they're written, they might as well be Green Army Men from Toy Story, that's about how well we get to know them. I realize this is a star vehicle for McChrystal, but come on. Is there no love interest? No rival? No enemy who doesn't sleep and doesn't eat?
NOTES: If the Pentagon really wants The 40,000 to succeed where others attempting to sell a similar narrative have failed, here are some suggestions:
1. Ditch the genre. The audience is weary of war stories. Have we not learned anything from the tepid boxoffice of The Green Zone, Redacted, The Hurt Locker, In the Valley of Elah, Body of Lies, Saving Jessica Lynch, Home of the Brave--need I go on? Those are all Iraq stories. Do you think American audiences can tell the difference between Fallujah and Kandahar? (Answer: No, they cannot.)
2. Second, if the Pentagon insists on a cast of 40,000, give these players roles that let us know who they are, so that we can feel and experience the narrative along with them. The great Col. Frank Capra used to give every extra in his scenes something to do, so that we felt as if we knew them. That was 75 years ago, during World War II. It seems as if 'modern' war stories like this one have regressed in this area, perhaps due to the influence of videogames.
3. Give the Stanley McChrystal character a makeover. As anyone who's read Joseph Campbell knows, the hero's journey begins when the hero is yanked out of his or her normal world and thrust into an extraordinary new set of circumstances. The script tells us that Stanley McChrystal was born into the military. In war, he is quite literally in his element. His heroic journey cannot begin, his destiny cannot be fulfilled, until he turns his back on war and faces what a career soldier like him fears most: Peace.
Mike Bonifer is the author of GameChangers -- Improvisation for Business in the Networked World. His company's website is www.gamechangers.com