The democratic government of Nigeria collapses in this fictional drama, leaving the country in the ruthless hands of a military dictator. His minions surge through the countryside, cleansing it of all those on the "wrong" side of the newly erected ethnic divide. The U.S. is involved only so much as to extract embassy personnel and other Americans trapped in the conflagration. That’s how Navy SEAL Lieutenant Waters and his men enter the story. They’re sent to rescue a Doctors Without Borders physician, a priest and two nuns from a missionary/hospital compound in the country’s interior. This relatively simple mission gets complicated when Dr. Kendricks refuses to leave without the group of natives who are in her care. Waters isn’t authorized to shepherd indigenous refugees, but he just can’t bring himself to sentence them to death by leaving them stranded. His compassion leads to a grueling trek through the jungle as his SEAL team, Dr. Kendricks and a rag-tag band of Africans head for the Cameroon border. Before they reach it, they witness a village being brutally purged of its inhabitants, and face off with a platoon of rebels determined to kill them. It’s not until deep into the film that Waters discovers there’s more to their peril than renegade soldiers bent on random acts of destruction.
positive elements: The condemnation of racial and religious-inspired killing is central. "At its heart, it’s a movie about a rescue mission that turns into a mercy mission," says actress Monica Bellucci, who plays Dr. Kendricks. Mercy for the innocents suffering from unjust war and dictatorial persecution. Also at the film’s forefront is Lt. Waters’ transformation from military machine to empathetic human being. "It’s a movie about humanity, finding that human side in all of us in the middle of conflict," star Bruce Willis (Waters) says. "Waters embarks not only on a physical journey, but also on a soulful journey. You see him transformed by the compassion he feels for these refugees and their plight. He starts off as a hardened man and through the course of the story ends up not only falling in love with these people, but becoming a person again."
Despite the movie’s advertising tagline ("He was trained to follow orders. He became a hero by defying them"), scriptwriters were careful to insure that Lt. Waters is never directly insubordinate (at least in the untrained view of this civilian critic) and that he never betrays his men or his country. It’s possible that that's why this is the first movie about Navy SEALs to receive an endorsement from the U.S. Navy and Department of Defense. When urging Waters not to take a specific course of action, Captain Rhodes says things like, "I strongly suggest," rather than barking typical movie-military phrases like, "I’m giving you a direct order." He sympathizes with Waters’ moral predicament and gives him as much leeway and aid as he can, refusing to inadvertently order the deaths of those in Waters’ care.Catholic missionaries show sacrificial commitment to those they have crossed the oceans to minister to. Dr. Kendricks also exhibits an amazing level of commitment to her healing duties.
spiritual content: It’s strongly implied that the missionaries’ dedication, even in the face of death, is driven by their love for God and their calling to serve Him. When a Sister laments what she believes to be flaws in her attitude of devotion to God, the priest urges her to trust God’s high opinion of her rather than her own feelings. When the priest tells Waters to "go with God," Waters retorts, "God has already left Africa."
nudity and sexual content: While Waters and his men are fighting the ethnic cleansers in a remote village, moviegoers see glimpses of rebel soldiers raping women. One devastating scene has the SEALs dragging a woman’s assailant off her. It is not erotic in any way, and it’s shot in half-light as if not to leer at the victim’s shame and nudity. Elsewhere, a bedraggled Kendricks leaves her shirt half-unbuttoned.
violent content: Opening television news footage of shootings, burnings and civil unrest is only a mild precursor to the brutality to come. "We’ve got ringside seats to an ethnic cleansing,’ a SEAL intones. Dead bodies lie strewn in the mud and are piled in heaps on the edge of town. Rebel soldiers shoot, bludgeon and maim villagers. Deadly firefights rage through the foliage as the SEALs fend off wave after wave of enemy attackers. Machine-gun fire and shoulder rockets kill countless men. Grenade blasts launch bodies high into the air. A booby-trapped body decimates a huddle of soldiers. Waters knees a wounded man in the chest to make him tell what he knows about the rebels. Quite a bit of the war violence is dimly lit. That allows the explosions to look all the more spectacular. It also helps minimize the level of gore seen. That’s not to say there’s not copious quantities. A man’s leg splinters as it’s impacted by a bullet. Blood streams from numerous wounds on a whole host of people. A mutilated African woman dies literally covered in blood (her breasts were cut off to prevent her from ever nursing babies). Throats are slit. Limbs severed. Torsos impaled. Buildings burned. Bombs dropped.
crude or profane language: Twenty f-words and three s-words. God’s name is combined with a profanity several times.
drug and alcohol content: Morphine is dispensed to a wounded man.
conclusion: Tears of the Sun functions as three distinct things. A military mystery (there’s even a mole). A Platoon-style wartime shoot-‘em-up (complete with a spectacularly hair-raising air-strike finale). And a moral bully pulpit from which the filmmakers cry out against ethnic cleansing. Executive producer Joe Roth put it this way: "The script of Tears of the Sun compelled me because it seemed to be a standard rescue story, and then midway through it becomes a moving and harrowing humanistic piece." The Los Angeles Times reports that between takes on the movie’s set, director Antoine Fuqua spent his time poring over photographs of genocide. Pointing to a picture of a slain Rwandan child, he told Times staff writer John Horn, "It takes a lot to bring tears to my eyes. But when I saw what happened to this 9-year-old, which is the same age of my son, I said, ‘I have to do something.’"
The color of one’s skin has very little to do with the level of love or hatred expressed toward others in this film. The cause for which one fights, and the rectitude with which one carries out that fight, however, is paramount. The story isn’t deep. And the characters aren’t especially well-developed (they’re too busy dodging bullets to have many conversations). But Fuqua’s intended message survives. Could he have as effectively presented that message without resorting to gruesome depictions of death and mutilation? Possibly. But even without the special effects, this wouldn’t have been a film for families. The subject matter is far too intense and could be damaging to children. Those adults who decide to face the onslaught of violence and vulgar language shouldn’t be going to enjoy another war movie. And when they exit the theater, they should be heartbroken, mourning the loss of millions upon millions of innocents around the world.