Director: John McTiernan
Writer: James Vanderbilt
Stars: John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, Connie Nielsen
“Longing for certainty in an uncertain world? Who isn’t? Basic imbeds a zen lesson for the seeker within its skillful execution of a whodunit quest for truth. Certainty follows uncertainty as surely as uncertainty follows certainty –– honest.”
Basic opens with a large ocean liner cruising through the Panama Canal while a voice over reminds us that France tried and failed where America prevailed, at the cost of thousands of lives to malaria. Unbeknownst to most, the corpses helped finance the canal. They were shipped out in barrels of vinegar for medical research all around the globe that the canal would come to serve. Death in Panama isn’t buried; it’s exported. And therein lies a tale worthy of a round table of olde.
Basic follows the twists and turns of a military investigation into what happened on a special training mission when too many deaths occurred for it to have been an accident. But the ‘other’ story lies in the method of storytelling. Probing for truth in Rashomon fashion where each encounter reveals facts that upset previous conclusions digs deep beneath the serenity of large, grand ships moving through an elegant canal arrogantly built, connecting two oceans. The implication is that American achievement comes with a human price tag — disappeared deaths, clandestinely exported. It’s not the facts but relentless revelation that leads to the truth in Basic. The more revealed, the less certain the facts. Examination changes what is being examined until a return to basics occurs.
In many ways, Basic is a good Hollywood story, an investigation that, like The Sting or The Crying Game, keeps its secrets under wraps for even sophisticated viewers. From the stencil lettering of its title — Basic announces itself to be a military film. A bizarre accident where six out of eight men on a special training mission were killed requires an official investigation. The Colonel in charge (Bill Styles) calls upon ex-Army Ranger (John Travolta), a DEA agent under suspension for suspected bribery who is an outside expert in interrogation to find out what happened to a revered but hated Sargent (Samuel L. Jackson) and his six men on a Special Forces training exercise, assign blame and move on. Basic. Basic training. Basic procedures. Basic military outcome. Death happens. Reports are made. Move on. But, by way of its Rashomon storytelling technique, Basic goes beyond the military and returns to a basic not found stenciled on boxes.
Each turn in the investigation reveals a piece of the puzzle that jogs the certainty that has just been established. Uncertainty follows each corner of certainty. And something begins to be revealed that is more basic than the fundamentals of a military search for culpability. Basic looks so intensely for honesty that facts shift as they are examined. Integrity, which also means cohesiveness, holds the center together when all else feels flung far apart. Basic continually moves past conclusions of certainty that would satisfy a court of law. It persists in the pursuit of what lies beneath easy conclusions. And that’s what makes Basic special. It induces a ride toward a basic truth of living. Just about the time we’re sure we’ve got life buttoned up, we don’t. And it’s not uncertainty but the movement between the two opposites that holds the center, assuring us the certainty we seek.
John Travolta’s elegant strides through previous films provide a critical background to the credibility of his uncanny surefooted moves of investigation in Basic. As he intensifies the focus on who killed who in the jungle, he subtly shifts attention to another question. How and why did two guys out of a squad of six survive an incident that should’ve killed them all? Travolta walks and talks with confidence. And that posturing of certainty almost gets him killed. It’s a message. The connection between certainty and uncertainty can be very, very slim – like a canal between oceans, perhaps. Travolta’s life is narrowly saved by the suspicious nature of his superior, an ever-ready Captain (Julia Osborne) who lacks both expertise and panache but has plenty of spark. She, who bullies him with her rank, idealism and (amped up, for effect?) brute strength, covers his back at a key moment – with a gun. She’s tough, uncertainty to Travolta’s certainty, but her puppy dog bravado with teeth makes her more foil than blade. Fortunately, when the last Rashomon tale comes forth, lady in waiting is beknighted by truth.
Enjoying the feel of anticipation, letting unsettling events flow and not minding a very loud grenade being blown up too many times by THX sound turns certainty to uncertainty, uncertainty to certainty in Basic until ships crossing from one side of the world to the other becomes the way of things. The uncertainty principle at work after all, setting the table and making nice with a couple of beers.