by Michael Carson
The Germans have a saying having to do with a life only lived once: “einmal ist keinmal,” or, in English, “once is never.”
I have thought a lot about this in relation to war and the soldiers I have seen die at war. I spend much time writing about how people die absolutely. But no matter how much I write or think, they do not come back. They do not return. There is no magical fairy dust to sprinkle over them. No reset button.
They are dead forever and ever.
So I was ready to dislike Edge of Tomorrow, the recent Tom Cruise blockbuster that seemingly solves this problem of “once is never” by allowing a soldier killed in battle to return to life as many times as it takes to get it right. What he “gets right” is a D-Day-esque landing against aliens that bear an uneasy similarity to the Nazis in military trajectory and racial politics (they begin in Germany, take over France, most conspicuously the Louvre, and work to eliminate the human race through superior evolutionary adaptation).
Doug Liman’s picture in many ways seemed an insult, a distraction, from what I took to be a, if not the, salient fact of war. My deployment had shown me the ways in which soldiers could use video games to deflect from experiences in the field. A death or a shootout would not be considered as a death or a shootout but understood in the light of a movie or a game. No one, it seemed, could take death seriously, and the video games only served to undermine what little hold on their experiences my soldiers had. A movie like Edge of Tomorrow, where the hero is turned into a video game character, would, I believed, only reinforce this dissonance, make its damage harder to expose, and keep us fighting and killing with no sense of the finality of all this killing and fighting and blowing things up.
I think it was after Tom Cruise is shot in the head the fourth or fifth time that I changed my mind. Most of the audience did not know what to do, whether to laugh or gasp, and so they just endured his increasingly stupid and obscene deaths in frustrated silence. I felt as if these people were for the first time recognizing the fleeting precariousness of their own lives compared to that of the character on the screen. I watched the movie on Fourth July weekend, a few weeks after its release on the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings. There were plenty of other options for big-screen mayhem, death galore, explosions and machine guns – Transformers, for instance – to get us through our Independence Day, but only this one, I felt, with its strange conceit of eternal return, actually portrayed what it would mean to die, and maybe, for a moment, broke through the brilliant electronic pyrotechnics that distract us from what our violence actually means.
Many critics have called Edge of Tomorrow, based off of the novel Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s All You Need is Kill, a combination of Groundhog Day and Saving Private Ryan. I think this rather misses the point. Saving Private Ryan already met Groundhog Day. Saving Private Ryan is Groundhog Day. For seventy years now we have woken up here, on these same body-strewn Normandy shores, and have re-understood America’s role as international protector and bastion of civilization once again. We have emerged anew in a Manichean universe defined by ultimate evil and reluctant warriors, forged into a nation on the PT boats and parachutes. Whether we are seeking to understand wars before World War Two, such as World War One, or those that followed, such as Vietnam, we judge them in comparison to “the good war,” our existential fulcrum. Even after Iraq, we continue to finger our World War Two dog tags like rosaries. Our national consciousness begins here again and again, erasing the sins of the more recent past, and purifying us as we move into future mistakes.
Edge of Tomorrow, then, is, in fact, not D-Day meets Groundhog Day, as that already exists. It is, rather, a reminder, a not so subtle blandishment, encouraging us not to give up on the concept of eternal return – that would be too much for a Hollywood summer blockbuster – but to choose something less hideous to return to other than the slaughter that played out in Normandy. Ironically, this becomes clear in a moment of dialogue that seems to imply the opposite. At the movie’s beginning, a US Army Master Sergeant from Kentucky, played by the always-brilliant Bill Paxton, delivers a stirring speech to Bill Cage, the cowardly officer played by Tom Cruise. Combat, the Master Sergeant announces, to a room filled with vagabonds, losers, psychopaths, hucksters and seeming idiots, the salt of the earth really, is the one place, the one crucible, where men are made equal, and even scumbags like Cage, chickenhawks who preach and sell wars but don’t fight them, can gain access to a sort of immortality.
By itself, this speech, even through Paxton’s ironic accent, would be the worst kind of propaganda, a celebration of the idea that war, whatever else it is, whatever its rightness or wrongness, its collateral damage or mistaken pretexts, is a forge where men (or women) are made and heroes immortalized. But we don’t hear this speech only one time. We hear it as many times as Cage comes back to life. And each time it loses its force, its magic. Cage’s character begins to interrupt the Master Sergeant, he mimics him, cuts him off. “No,” he says, in so many words, “each and every one of you will die and no one will remember you because you will be dead.” Robbed of its air of mystery, the speech is deflated. The Master Sergeant is left confused, fumbling for words he – and we – once knew so well. It begins to dawn on the audience, a faint glimmer, a tremulous effervescence, that there is no mystery here, each and every one of these downtrodden men who were exploited in the civilian world are now being exploited in the military one; they understand, if only for a moment, in a flash, that, in the words of Tim O’Brien, war simply “makes you dead,” and, possibly, to quote Vonnegut, “when you’re dead you’re dead.”
But, now that we know, now that we understand, can we stop the slaughter? Cage’s inability to do just that is as tragic as it is hilarious. He can’t save the individuals he likes, no matter how many times he sees them die; he can’t convince the sergeants and the generals of the evidence plainly before them; he can’t even run away. When he does, the old men drinking at the bar call him a coward even though he has died a thousand deaths. When he tells the truth about his power, about this curious condition he has, they threaten to put him in the psyche ward (shades of Siegfried Sassoon and the First World War there). Over the course of the movie’s first half, Tom Cruise becomes a Laocoön of our own cultural zeitgeist, screaming at us that we will all die if we think every war a beautiful gift horse, another D-Day, another necessary and inevitable contest between evil and good, between survival and annihilation that will bring us together and make us good and caring and brave in the eyes of the world. Of course, as in the myth, everyone ignores this ridiculous prophet, and serpents sent by jealous gods – or in this case aliens who look uncannily like serpents – drag him screaming into the sea.
About halfway through the movie, one realizes Cage is not the only one repeating his life over and over again. Bill Paxton’s Master Sergeant is an almost exact reprisal of his role in Aliens II. Tom Cruise, with his knowledge of other’s actions, turns into one of his Mission Impossible role, dancing like a superhuman spy through government buildings, courting his co-star (Emily Blunt) and mugging his newly formed muscles for the camera. A bunch of ne’er-do-wells, freaks from way on down the socio-economic scale, are the only ones who can take down the evil empire, which is housed in the Louvre of all places, elite-western’s culture ostensible center. We are back with The Dirty Dozen, Stripes, Inglorious Basterds. Da Vinci Code and Starship Troopers. The movies in the other theaters – How to Train Your Dragon Two, Transformers Four – repeat the same stories, recycling, adding another sequel. But Edge of Tomorrow does all this at once, making more and more appropriations, showing the way in which our memory works to provide substance and form to a life only lived once.
And as I watched Tom Cruise live so many lives on this last Fourth of July, I kept on thinking of Tom Cruise playing Ron Kovic in Born on the Fourth of July, Oliver Stone’s much more straightforward, and perhaps that much more ineffective, anti-war film. Admittedly, Edge of Tomorrow does eventually descend into the Hollywood schlock we know so well, and for as many times as Cruise dies, we see surprisingly little blood – one wonders if the humans who live in this fantasy world are as biologically constituted as the aliens – but the movie as a whole does drive home, at least to me, that we are not Tom Cruise. We will not be born into a thousand and one different lives and a thousand and one different characters. We are us and the decisions we make regarding war and violence matter. People die when we use a drone. Countries cannot be invaded without consequence. The people we send to war do not come back no matter how many memorials we etch and patriotic firework displays we gather to watch.
“Einmal ist keinmal,” the Germans used to say. Still, I like to think, learning this, learning what we choose to memorialize, what we choose to relive over and over again, dictates who we are in the present, the form and substance of this dust that will soon be blown apart by history’s bitter winds. And, given this, better we eternally return to, shape and give substance to, a day that did not involve the mass slaughter of countless individuals, teenagers who never had a chance to go to movies on the Fourth of July with their families, a day with more nuance, less horror, no lies of transcendence. Learning this, even if only once, is to me something rather than nothing, and makes our one go around here on earth seem a little less like never.