'The Wall': A Horror Film About the Idiocy of America’s War in Iraq

Exploring U.S. policy in the Iraq war, Doug Liman’s ‘The Wall’ offers suspense, but lacks historical and ideological validity

This image released by Amazon Studios and Roadside Attractions shows John Cena, foreground, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson in a scene from 'The Wall.'
David James/AP

“The Wall” marks the second time in two years that Doug Liman has halted the steady stream of high-budget action blockbusters he has been directing or producing to make a more modest picture, which – once again – touches on the war that George W. Bush sent U.S. troops to fight in Iraq. Liman’s directing credits include “Mr. & Mrs. Smith,” “The Bourne Identity” (he produced the other films in the same series) and “Edge of Tomorrow.” In 2010 he made “Fair Game,” a movie telling the real-life story of Valerie Plame. A CIA operative, Plame was outed by the White House as revenge after her husband published a New York Times op-ed piece claiming that the Bush administration had lied about Niger’s sale of uranium and weapons of mass destruction to Iraq.

“Fair Game” was an effective drama, directed in a traditional realist style. In “The Wall,” set in Iraq in 2007, toward the end of the war, Liman has tried to do something bolder and more unusual. This is a movie set entirely in a single location and featuring one lead actor, one supporting actor, and the voice of a third actor we never actually see. Liman must have known that “The Wall” would not attract a very large audience (I’ll be very surprised if it becomes any kind of hit), but even if the box-office returns are small and the movie quickly disappears from theaters, this will not harm Liman’s status in the filmmaking industry, especially given the picture’s “artistic” halo.

I respect the effort Liman has made in this project, and he handles the narrative and visual aspects of the project with skill. Too bad he did not pay as much attention to the screenplay by first-timer Dwain Worrell, which causes the result to be disappointing. Sergeant Shane Matthews (John Cena) and his lookout, sergeant Allan Isaac, known as “Ize” (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), are sent to answer a distress signal in a remote part of the Iraqi desert, where a civilian company has been laying down oil pipes. When the movie opens, the two men are already at the scene, having found the entire crew dead of sniper shots to the head.

Is the sniper still there? Matthews decides to risk it, descends to the site of the massacre – and is shot. Rushing to his aid, Ize is likewise hit in the leg. The sniper has such precise aim that he shoots off the antenna of Ize’s radio as well as his canteen. With neither water nor any way of calling for help, all Ize can do is conceal himself behind a wall of loose bricks that once belonged to a school. Most of the plot follows his efforts to locate the sniper and take him out.

This part of “The Wall” is effective and suspenseful. However, Worrell and Liman added another element to the plot, a twist that is supposed to make the result more than just an action movie and allow it to explore the idiocy of America’s war in Iraq; but their use of this added component is clumsy and forced. The multitalented sniper may have succeeded in cutting Ize off from his unit, but he himself manages to talk to Ize on the radio, and as he proceeds on his hunt, he wants to chat or, as he claims, to get to know his prey. Ize responds because he hopes the conversation will help him locate the sniper, who speaks flawless, lightly accented English (the voice belongs to British actor Laith Nakli), but also because he is himself isolated and alone, and because if Ize has no one to talk to, the actor playing him will have nothing to do but say the word “fuck” over and over. (As it is, the movie may use this word more times in a row than any other I can remember.)

Predictable and formulaic

The sniper’s tone is ironic, and he harangues Ize – who is presented as a run-of-the-mill recruit sent to Iraq to carry out orders – about the injustices of the war in which he is taking part. Ize’s replies are for the most part furious, and to keep the conversation going, he tries to make the sniper explain how an educated man such as himself became a terrorist. Because the sniper even knows some details of his military past, Ize agrees to tell him more about his experiences. This leads the screenplay to its real low point, when Ize confesses to the sniper about a particular incident in which he was involved. Supposed to serve as the human and emotional peak of the movie, the confession is so predictable and formulaic that it feels as though it was included because some how-to book on dramatic writing said that every plot needs a profound personal revelation as its climax.

The combination of a main character on which the camera is constantly focused and a disembodied voice gives “The Wall” the feel of a horror movie: we’ve seen many such films in which an unseen psychopath verbally tortures the hero or heroine before carrying out his violent plans (the opening scene of the first “Scream” movie is a good example). This feeling may be the sharpest comment “The Wall” has to make about the Iraq War. Since Ize himself is not concerned with ideology, and we tend to agree with the sniper about the motivations and outcomes of the American fighting in Iraq, the movie is filled with ambivalence; but it is an ambivalence without depth. It therefore lacks historical and ideological validity in much the same way that the absence of historical and ideological context affected “American Sniper,” the better 2014 movie directed by Clint Eastwood, about the real-life sniper who killed more Iraqis than any other.

The ending of “The Wall” tries to tell us something about the ongoing ramifications of the war in Iraq, which was born of a lie and has perhaps never ended. But this ending, which tries to make the entire movie seem allegorical in retrospect, is too simple in its symbolism. It would have been better for “The Wall” to stay away from the allegorical and tell only a tale of physical action geared toward survival; then it might have been more effective and meaningful.

Naturally, “The Wall” relies heavily on the presence and personality of British actor Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who suffers skillfully through the film’s 90 minutes in a performance that clearly required a great deal of physical effort. But the movie does not allow him to do much more than that, so that the eventual monotony of his acting becomes more evident just as the movie reaches its dramatic peaks.