Based on real life events, Army of One is among the oddest studio comedies in recent years. Starring none other than Nicolas Cage as the homegrown American hero or deranged misfit (depending on how you feel about the Don Quixote wannabe), and local Colorado handyman, Gary Faulkner, Army of One should be better than it is. The actual Faulkner is, without question, a certifiable oddball, whose frequent excursions to Pakistan throughout the 2000s in pursuit of the late international terrorist Osama Bin Laden made him into an unlikely folk hero and 24 hour news cycle phenomenon.
Faulkner’s actions of delusional tomfoolery saw the yarn-spinning, down-on-his-luck huckster become the center of some national celebrity and uncensored media attention. His appearances on various basic cable television programs, including Late Show with David Letterman and FOX News, made him into another facet of a contemporary multimedia market that had begun to thrive on colorful characters delivered by way of reality TV.
Directed by Larry Charles, whose past writing work includes multiple seasons of Seinfeld and a frequent director of Sacha Baron Cohen on such socio-political satires as Borat and Bruno, Army of One should be far more subversive than it actually is. Instead of mining some of the more grossly nonconformist qualities of Gary Faulkner as a character of unbridled eccentricity, the original script co-written by Rajiv Joseph and Scott Rothman plays it safe and conservative.
Army of One could have been a lot of different things, with plenty of room to shock and titillate fans of Charles‘ usual propensity for visceral subversions of cultural norms. In Joseph and Rothman‘s hands, the movie falls flat as a conservative piece of biographical fiction.
An American Idiot Abroad
The meat of Army of One occurs throughout several extended montages of actor Nicolas Cage pantomiming various actions of irascible indiscretions abroad. Unfortunately, none of these sequences quite manage to tell the viewer very much about what Gary Faulkner actually did or did not do while he was actively seeking Osama Bin Laden in real life. Instead, the movie feels content to gesture towards Faulkner as a typical American tourist eager to propagate his own misunderstanding of the Middle East without ever thoroughly investigating or fulfilling his stated mission of international espionage.
As a result, a lot of the comedy falls flat. None of the supporting characters or surrounding drama ever feels grounded, and the viewer comes away from the entire experience disinterested and detached. Gary Faulkner is a remarkably bizarre chimera of the American experience that feels more relevant now than ever before.
His nationalist pride bleeds into paranoia and a resulting messiah complex that would feel right at home in the recent US election cycle. You might be wondering who Gary Faulkner might have voted for president in early November, but Army of One never really delves very deeply into the psyche of its enigmatically fascinating folk hero.
Instead, Army of One forces Charles to refrain from passing any kind of judgement on Faulkner as a person, and instead gives lead actor Nicolas Cage free rein to go out on a ledge with another unremarkably incoherent performance. As adapters of one of the more fascinating stories of American patriotism post-9/11, Joesph and Rothman have delivered a script that doesn’t really seem all that interested in exploring the specifics of its domestically inbred pathology.
Army of One sets itself up for the kind of anarchic skewering of political misconceptions and cultural prejudices that Charles has already proven himself as being adept at uncovering through comedy and documentary filmmaking. In his 2008 documentary Religulous, Bill Maher provided the perfect comic foil for Charles to surreptitiously provoke supposedly devout members of various monotheistic faiths – most notably including Christianity, Judaism, and Islam – into revealing their own intellectual failings to grasp or uphold even the most basic core tenants of their professed belief systems.
Army of One features none of that pointed political satire. Instead, the entire comedy of errors comes as being atonal at best, and apolitical at worst. None of Faulkner’s ignorance is ever specifically pointed out or represented against a clear narrative context – leaving Cage to offer up a witless performance reminiscent of (though not self-aware enough to be) a modern day Sir John Falstaff. Instead, Faulkner’s slovenly ineptitude results in little more than a firm smack on the back of the hand on the behalf of the American government, and his stupidity is further rewarded by his clueless friends back home.
But the worst part of the entire affair comes in knowing that the same guy who made Army of One, which should go down as one of the most pointless movies of the year, also made the pop culture touchstone motion picture that is Borat – arguably one of the greatest political satires of the past ten years. Charles has done far better than what co-writers Joseph and Rothman have given him to work with in Army of One, but even his skill as a comedy filmmaker can’t save the resulting production from unmitigated failure.
Army of One is not a political comedy that anyone needs to go out of their way to see anytime soon. In fact, most viewers would be better off waiting for the movie to air on TV, or just giving it a pass altogether. You’d be hard-pressed to cite any moment in which the humor had any clear timing or progression beyond Nicolas Cage‘s usual barrage of non sequitur acting, and the rest of the movie is simply a bore to get through.
Charles seemingly had a real life premise that could have been mined for numerous moments of political comedy gold, but instead Army of One is a safe studio comedy that seems resigned to a disturbing amount of shallow caricature. Gary Faulkner – love him or hate him – is a great American folk hero whose story is ripe for cinematic adaptation. Let’s just hope that Army of One won’t be the last time Hollywood shows some interest in this particular American idiot.
Are you a fan of director Larry Charles? Would you like to see more movies tackle the true story of Gary Faulkner?
Army of One is currently playing in select theaters in the US. Find international release dates here. It is also now available on DVD and on demand.
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