Reviews

Frederick Wiseman

USA, 1987

Credits

Review by David Carter

Posted on 17 June 2008

Source Zipporah Films DVD

Categories Frederick Wiseman

Vandenberg Air Force Base in Lompoc, California, is the home to the 4315th Training Squadron of Strategic Air Command (SAC). The 4315th performs a critical duty for the United States’ military—the training of the men and women charged with the upkeep and deployment of America’s nuclear arsenal. In 1987, Frederick Wiseman followed one class through the base’s intense fourteen-week training. Wiseman’s goal was not to document the procedural aspects of the training or the technical aspects of the job itself, however. His focus was instead on the vast implications of such an institution and the microcosmic world of those who exist in it.

Taken at face value, Missile lacks the narrative feel of Wiseman’s other works. No individual or event unifies the film’s scenes and it lacks conflict or resolution of any kind. This is a wildly superficial reading of the film, however. Missile externalizes its narrative; it exists only in the mind of the audience. Removed from the context of the viewer’s mind, the film documents a rather boring training class. Wiseman never fully addresses the immense gravity of the situation directly in the film, choosing instead to work with subtlety and implication. Missile documents men and women being trained to wield the most destructive force on the planet. This idea is unspoken but omnipresent, pervading each scene regardless of how mundane the matching onscreen action is.

Wiseman’s depiction of the training as a battery of efficient classroom instruction and simulations forces the viewer to face that chilling realization on their own. He very deliberately avoids any cinematic affectations that would color the scenes in any way: no dramatic close-ups, no quick pans, no forced perspectives. The only liberties Wiseman allows himself are brief cuts to the area surrounding the base: cars passing by, planes flying overhead. As the film progresses these become increasingly longer and more frequent. The journeys to the outside world begin to punctuate the instructions with a staccato rhythm, Wiseman’s subtle yet jarring reminder that the individuals inside the base’s walls could someday decide the fate of the world.

Wiseman’s cuts to the outside world are the only time that he breaks the film’s steady, calm tone, which mirrors the methodical detachment of those he documents. The trainers and students go about their tasks with an impressive attention to detail and a desire for absolute perfection. Wiseman depicts an admirable group of people, yet their blasé attitude toward their job is incredibly frustrating. The calm with which the instructor goes over the procedure for “turning keys” (slang for initiating a missile launch) is nothing short of disconcerting. Wiseman’s camera does not judge these individuals but still conveys the central ideological conflict of the film: we are dismayed by how unaffected they are by all of this. One naturally wants someone reliable and levelheaded to hold such a job, but it is difficult to imagine that they can fully grasp the magnitude of the responsibility and not be affected. Their professionalism never slips; we get not even one glimmer of self-doubt or second thoughts. A key scene occurs early on when the students attend a seminar on the “moral implications” of the job. Whether out of purposeful avoidance or an inability to deal with the true implications, the instructors focus on the morality of following orders rather than potential deaths associated with nuclear war.

Wiseman ends the film abruptly after the trainees’ graduation ceremony. A general gives a speech on the importance of preparedness and makes the film’s only mentions of war and the Soviet Union, despite the specter of both looming heavily over the entire film. Missile specifically ends on the word “God,” and the appearance of the concept of nuclear warfare and the potential moral ramifications of it – ideas noticeably absent from the rest of the film – gives the film a sense of closure mixed with ambivalence. Regardless of your personal opinions about atomic weapons, this glimpse into the clockwork precision of the system and the anonymous individuals who man it will give you pause. The Cold War was not a mere buzzword for the uneasy relations between the US and the Soviet Union but a stark reality of a war so close that both sides went to great lengths to prepare for it.

Missile is a profound testament to Wiseman’s abilities. The film simultaneously embodies the ideals of objective documentary cinema and proves that true objectivity is impossible, a concept that Wiseman himself asserts. Missile at no point guides the viewer toward a conclusion on the proceedings or persons depicted, nor are Wiseman’s personal beliefs ever evident. It is, however, a construct; a work of film art created by an individual who has made a decision about what is and is not seen and the context in which ideas and events are placed. Wiseman’s editing does not add or take away any meaning from the events shown, however. He is inviting you to make a conclusion rather than providing you with one.

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