Hi there, Nate here. Continuing my occasion series of reviews of movies from countries that we Americans hate, today I thought I'd venture back to the Middle East to watch an Iranian war movie and make fun of their mustaches (we hate them!). Eshlo tells the story of some semi-famous soldier who did something brave and dangerous in the Iran-Iraq War in the '80s, supposedly based on a true story, though the movie clearly amps up the "creative license" factor to 11. Long story short, "Uncle Morteza" leads a platoon across the border in a raid that ends up being a siege when his unit is trapped far behind enemy lines on top of a rocky desert hill. For a week the Iraqis assault the hill and shell it to dust, while the starving Iranians hold them off as their food and bullets run out. In the end, Morteza holds the hill by sheer force of will and Iran gains a modern-day martyr.
See that "made in 2009" tag up there? That didn't come easy, every print of this movie I can find lacks a production date, the internet is absolutely no help at all, and I searched the hell out of it both in English and Persian. Found lots of stuff about the movie, actors, crew, budget, tv stations it played on, all that, but no actual production date. So I did what anyone in 2013 does when they want to find something out...I Facebooked the film's director Sadegh Ashtiani and asked him when his Eshlo movie was made. Yes, despite what Senator McCain will tell you, Iran has the internet and Facebook. They even have running water and electricity and a thriving modern cosmopolitan culture that goes back thousands of years before Dick Chaney was even born. I even have it on good authority that Iranians are actually people, human beings very much like you or I who just happen to live in a part of the world known as "Not America". I know, shocking.
Anyway, this movie is visually dull as dirt, specifically the mono-chrome brown rocky dirt that makes up the part of Iraqi that our story takes place in. The endless expanse of dusty dirt, spotted with boring rocks and the rare scrubby bush, equally matches the soldiers' earth brown camouflage uniforms and the few dried mud buildings that dot the hillside. Even the wood stocks on their AK-47s are brown. The overpowering "brownness" of it all is so pervasive that you begin to wish for some sort of color change, any change, just to keep from wondering if you should adjust your monitor's color settings.
I hate brown.
What isn't brown, however, is the blinding, eye-burning, glow-in-the-dark brilliant whiteness of every actor's teeth. Seriously, I don't know what Iranians are eating these days, or what's in the water south of the Caspian, or what the Koran says about toothbrushes, but all these men have the brightest white teeth I've ever seen in my life. They're poster children for dental hygiene standards in developed countries, not a snaggletooth Englishman or a furry-toothed Arkansas hillbilly in sight, amazing to see. I'd mention the female cast's teeth but there is no female cast, the entire movie is just dudes with mustaches out in the dirt playing with guns. Sure, a couple of them mention their moms once or twice, and I think one man is wearing a wedding ring, but for all intents and purposes this is a guy's movie staring guys doing guyish things, no cootie- infested girls allowed.
Don't need no chicks here.
Since this is a war movie, we do have a lot of gunplay and a lot of explosions as the Iranians on the hill beat back several Iraqi attempts to dislodge them. To the movie's credit, however, it never veers into Western-style gun fetish/exploitation territory, no lingering slo-mo closeups of chattering machineguns or over-the-top Ramboesque leaping-over-walls-while-firing-rockets-from-the-hip maneuvers to a driving rock beat. For the most part the violence is short and limited and filmed more from the point of view of guys who aren't shooting as much as the guys with the hot- barreled Kalashkinovs.
Lots of shooting, all day long.
In fact, one of the movie's main secondary characters is a young combat cameraman with a portable 16mm movie camera, through which we watch most of the combat scenes happen. The occasional switches between traditional wide-angle digital shots of attack/defend battles and grainy film through-the-viewfinder point-of-view shots as the cameraman dodges shrapnel and bullets is pretty effective at bringing us into the action in a personal way that you rarely see in war movies. I was also expecting that old American war movie cliche where the pacifist eventually gives up his morals and picks up a gun to defend his new-found love of flag-waving freedom and apple pie. The cameraman in Eshlo remains to the last frame just a scared (but incredibly brave) kid with a Filmsonic camcorder and an intact sense of dignity.
But the camera guy is not the film's main character, that would be Uncle Morteza, the near-mythical defender of hills and slayer of Sunni Iraqi infidels. Morteza is a swirling, energetic mixture of bravery and humor, of tactical combat skill and psychological self-examination, a man whose very presence in battle, bushy hair blowing in the wind, mustache twitching, white teeth blasting out like a thousand suns, is enough to inspire his outnumbered and outgunned troops to continue to fight off Saddam's hordes. His men worship him with almost religious fervor, treating him more like a trusted and loved father-figure than just their superior officer in a military unit (hence the nickname "Uncle"). Morteza's men will live and die for him.
Damn, he's handsome!
And they do a LOT of dying, because, to be frank, Morteza is a bit of a reckless loose cannon who, quite literally, will get them all killed just because his ego won't allow him the shame of retreat. Morteza's superiors, via the radio, realize he's in a hopeless situation and order him to pull his men off the hill to safety, but Morteza refuses to comply and fights on, forcing his men to stay with him out of their mutual respect for him. In the end, after the Iranians finally send reinforcements after 5 days of siege, Morteza has validated his own stubbornness by holding the hill for the Green Team. However, around him lie the bodies of damn near all his men, perhaps all but one if the last act is to be believed. Morteza is still held up as a hero, both in this movie and in real life (this is a "based on a true story" movie, by the way), for holding onto that worthless chunk of dirt in a strategically-unimportant slice of enemy territory at all costs. Can you image an American movie where the cigar-chomping hero, surely played by Channing Tatum, holds off the IslamicRooskieKKKTerrorists and lives to tell about it but in the process gets everyone on his side killed? We're all for heroic suicide missions over here but our culture demands that "the captain goes down with the ship", preferably with an Oscar-worthy death scene and a last, tear-jerking monologue about love and honor all that, anything else just doesn't sit right with us.
Sure thing, buddy.
Let's see, what else to talk about here? There are a few other secondary characters of note, though they are really just one-note placeholders for a specific representative trait more than actual fleshed-out characters in their own right. There's the "Gun Loving Kill Crazy Always Smiling Guy" to compliment the "Cowardly Lion who Finds his Courage in the Third Act Guy", there's the obligatory "War Sucks We're all Going to Die Guy" who shares a trench with the "It's all Allah's Will Guy", there's even the cliched "Seasoned Older Soldier who has Seen Things, Man, Guy" who takes the "This is my First Time in Battle and I'm Shitting Myself Guy" under his wing and teaches him the way of the gun. In all there's probably a dozen men who get chunks of time to tell their story and it all seems rushed. Credit to the film for trying to give voice and life to all the men who fight (and die) for Morteza, but they clearly tried to do too much with too little time. A 90 minute run-time where you are required to tell the hero's story above all else just doesn't allow you a lot of time and filmstock to develop more than a few supporting characters.
And they all end up dead anyway.
I will give a high-five to one supporting character, Bloodlusting Machinegun-Caressing Sociopath Hossein-Ali, who gets not only to be That Guy who stands up in front of the charging Iraqis and mows them all down while laughing manically, but also a hipster kid from the big city Tehran who calls everyone "Bro" and talks like a California surfer, and by the Beard of the Prophets his beard-and-stocking cap combination is magnificent! Too bad Hossein-Ali ends up (like everyone else) a bullet-riddled corpse, denied even a macho Boromir-style final death scene to close out his story arc.
Sad to see him die later.
One last thing I should mention is that there's a couple of scenes where you wonder how this film passed the legendarily strict Iranian Cinema Censorship Board. Not the on-screen blood, there is very little gore in this movie, but the two or three times when characters talk about how it's almost criminal that the Iranian government would send soldiers out on a suicide mission without adequate food or supplies and then just leave them all to die. The film's director, through his 1980's character's voices, takes some pretty obvious jabs at the modern 2009 Iranian government and it's obsession with the military and inventing enemies, and even takes a couple of oblique shots at Islam's oft negative effects on the average Iranian's daily life, which really surprised me. Heart of oak to that man, let me tell you.
"...without food or water!".
So anyway, good movie all around, weak in the talky parts at times but always interesting and pretty good as a stand-alone war movie. Just way too much brown.
PS. Sorry, but simply by reading this review you are now on a NSA watch list, my bad! Good luck getting on a domestic flight anytime soon.
Written in August 2013 by Nathan Decker.
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