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'Rules of Engagement' is Entertaining, though Not Engaging

By Charles W. Gittins
Special to CNN Interactive

April 22, 2000
Web posted at: 8:47 a.m. EDT (1247 GMT)

(FindLaw) -- Since the Persian Gulf War with Iraq, the U. S. armed forces have been engaged continuously in non-combat peacekeeping operations around the world. "Rules of Engagement," based on a story by former Navy Secretary James Webb, now a successful novelist, illustrates the danger of current American policy in which U.S. forces are engaged in military actions without clearly-defined and well-articulated goals.

The movie succeeds in capturing the details of a successful military operation and showing the possible political fallout from such an operation. The drama lags, however, once it enters the courtroom where "Rules of Engagement" is neither accurate nor compelling. Samuel L. Jackson, thoroughly convincing as Terry Childers, a 31-year Marine colonel and commander of a Marine amphibious unit, finds himself ordered into Yemen, where demonstrators armed by Middle East terrorists have lain siege to the U.S. Embassy. In a tense, gripping and well-filmed military expedition, Childers leads his Marines into harm's way to make contact with a cowardly U.S. ambassador, played effectively by Ben Kingsley, and ultimately to extract the ambassador, his wife, played by Ann Archer, and son from the soon-to-be-overrun U.S. Embassy.

In what is every military commander's nightmare, Childers finds his rescue operation in doubt as fanatic Yemenese, including women and children, begin firing on and killing his Marines. Forced to return fire on the killer crowd or possibly lose his entire unit, Childers orders the Marines to lay waste to the terrorists. In the aftermath of the action, no weapons are found among the bodies outside the embassy. An international incident results and Childers is charged with the murder of the civilian demonstrators.

Faced with court-martial and life in prison, Childers finds himself abandoned by his chain of command and the National Command Authority. Confronted with the prospect that he is being sacrificed for political foreign policy objectives, Childers rejects offers to be defended by elite civilian lawyers. Instead, he turns to his best friend, Col. Hays Hodges (Tommy Lee Jones), a self-described "weak lawyer," to defend him at his trial.

Childers knows that his order to fire on the terrorists came only after his Marines were fired upon and therefore was within the Rules of Engagement, the rules governing the military's use of deadly force. However, unscrupulous National Security Advisor William Sokol, overplayed by Bruce Greenwood, for reasons of political expediency destroys the security camera videotape of the crowd firing on the Marines. Nevertheless, Hodges muddles his way to an acquittal for his friend on the murder charges despite the efforts of the Marine prosecutor, effectively and authentically played by Guy Pearce.

Missed opportunities abound in "Rules." What could have been a taught and explosive courtroom confrontation between Hodges and Sokol fizzles. In an effort to increase the tension, the director frequently pans to the jury, apparently to show their stoic attention to the evidence.

Charles W. Gittins, a Lieutenant Colonel and Judge Advocate in the Marine Corps Reserve, is a Virginia lawyer. In his practice, he represents members of the military in courts-martials.

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