The Iraq war was winding down in 2007, but isolated hostilities hadn’t completely ceased. Accordingly, the American sniper team of Staff Sgt. Shane Matthews and Sgt. Allen Isaac are dispatched to a pipeline site to discern whether the suspected insurgents who killed eight soldiers and contractors are still lurking in the area.
For 20 hours, Matthews and Isaac remain motionless and vigilant on a hill about a quarter mile from the site, scanning the area for enemies. Matthews looks through his gun’s sight. Isaac uses his scope, one that used to be carried by a former partner who was killed in combat.
Matthews suspects that the ambush was the work of random, roving insurgents. Isaac isn’t so sure. He wonders if it might have been the handiwork of a “pro,” an Iraqi sniper like themselves.
But Matthews grows weary of being prone with nothing but the dusty wind and blazing sun to keep the camouflaged soldiers company. There’s no sign of any life at all, though a crumbling brick wall could be shielding hidden combatants behind it. Matthews wants to know for sure, and begins making his way toward it.
He doesn’t make it.
A sniper’s bullet pierces his gut, and Matthews goes down. Isaac tries to rescue him, but he’s shot in the knee.
Isaac makes it to relative safety behind the wall. But he soon realizes just how good the sniper who shot him really is. His radio antenna has been shot off. His canteen has a hole in it. Looking around at the dead bodies close by, Isaac realizes that they all have wounds similar to his.
Baking and bleeding in the desert sun, Isaac’s only hope for survival is a rescue. And for a moment, he thinks he’s managed to locate help on the short-range radio he and Matthews (who’s unconscious and apparently dead) use to talk to one another.
But the voice on the other end of the radio isn’t going to help him at all. Instead, it’s the voice of the Iraqi sniper.
“I want to get to know you,” the voice says in mock pleasantry. “Will you allow that?”
Sgt. Allen Isaac doesn’t really have much choice.
Isaac does his best to try to save Matthews, but there’s really no way for him to help his partner, whose unconscious body is out in the open.
Isaac is determined to outsmart his clever, anonymous foe, repeatedly doing calculations in the sand—based on bullet angles and other bits of CSI-like information—in order to figure out where his cloaked assailant is hiding.
The Wall tries to proffer a brutal, bloody meditation on the messy complexity of war (a theme I’ll return to in the Conclusion). It wants us to ponder whether the conflicts that the United States engages in are really as black and white as they might seem. It also alludes to the terrible human costs and the unintended consequences of a complex war such as the one in Iraq.
Isaac eventually guesses the identity of his hunter, a fearsome and fabled Iraqi sniper named Juba who’s reportedly killed at least 75 American troops. Much of Juba’s conversation with Isaac is psychologically manipulative. But he does coax Isaac to admit—apparently for the first time—that the death of his former partner was actually his fault. Grief over his friend’s death haunts Isaac, and it’s the reason, he tells Juba, that he stays in Iraq instead of going home. As much as he insists he wants to return to the States, it’s clear that the war has damaged him so deeply that he doesn’t feel he can ever really return. In that sense, the film obliquely offers commentary on the hidden costs of combat borne by soldiers and returning veterans.
Matthews tells Isaac that carrying a deceased soldier’s scope is “bad juju.” One of the guys says, “That wall’s cursed.”
Juba tells Isaac, who’s behind the wall, “You are hiding in the shadow of Islam.” Isaac responds that he’s actually in “the shadow of death,” which would seem to be an allusion to Psalm 23. Juba says revenge fuels his desire to kill Americans, “As the Scripture says, ‘An eye for an eye.” Isaac spits that he doesn’t think Muslims are any more religious than Americans are.
Juba is known as “The Ghost” and “The Angel of Death” among American troops.
We hear crude, joking references to oral sex as well as an extended conversation about the state of Matthew’s anatomy after lying on his stomach for 20 hours. Isaac mockingly asks Juba if he’s anticipating having “12 virgins” waiting for him in paradise.
We repeatedly see the corpses of the eight soldiers and contractors whose deaths the American snipers came to investigate. One of them has a head wound with gore spilling out.
Matthews is shot multiple times. Isaac is shot strategically in the knee, which is essentially turned to hamburger mush. We see the nasty wound repeatedly, especially when Isaac puts a tourniquet on and cinches it (in agony), and when he digs a bullet out of the bleeding wound. Isaac passes out and awakens to find a crow hungrily sticking its beak in the wound.
Juba threatens to shoot Matthews’ face off if Isaac doesn’t tell him more about himself. Later, Juba graphically describes to Isaac all the ways he plans to mutilate his corpse after Isaac inevitably dies.
Isaac tells Juba, “I might just shoot myself,” and he looks at his pistol, as if pondering whether to take his own life. Elsewhere, heavy bricks from the wall fall on Isaac’s right hand, badly mangling one of his fingers.
[Spoiler Warning] Juba ambushes another group of soldiers as well, bringing down a helicopter and killing all inside.
About 185 f-words, at least eight of which are paired with “mother.” More than 30 s-words. God’s name is taken in vain about half a dozen times, including two uses with “d–n.” Jesus’ name is abused twice. We hear “b–ch” four times, and “a–,” a–hole” and “d–n” three times each. “B–tard,” “b-lls,” “d–k,” “pr–k” and “p-ss” are used once or twice each.
It’s not clear whether a conversation about soldiers getting “baked” refers to them weathering the hot Iraqi sun or smoking marijuana.
Matthews and Isaac repeatedly use the derogatory (in this context) slur “hadji” to describe Iraqi combatants.
Who is the good guy and who is the bad guy?
In any given movie, that’s a pretty basic question. And usually the answer is clear. In The Wall, the answer seems clear at first, too. The good guy is the wounded American soldier. The bad guy is the wickedly accurate Iraqi sniper hunting and haunting him.
But as Isaac and Juba talk, the wily Iraqi presents his case for flipping that script. The Americans, he suggests, are the aggressors, the terrorists, the bad guys. They are the ones who bomb schools and kill children. They are the ones who in their arrogance train up Iraqis who often turn against them. They are the ones who invade other countries and plunder its resources.
So by the time The Wall crawls to its grim conclusion, it has mightily sought to subvert the American hero war paradigm. What we have instead is a reinforcement of the idea that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. Any sense of righteous moral justification for war is as obliterated as Isaac’s poor knee.
There are no good guys here, the film suggests. Just anonymous, battle-scarred warriors on both sides whose sacrifices and losses and bitterness are ultimately as meaningless and barren as the desert where they fight. “You Americans, you think you know it all,” Juba bitterly tells Isaac. “But we are not so different, you and I.” Isaac rejects that idea, but the film itself embraces it.
At the very least, The Wall seems to be an anti-war movie (and a profane, bloody and intense one as well). Whether or not it’s ultimately an anti-American story, too, is a determination each viewer will have to make alone.
After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews as the site’s director. He and his wife, Jennifer, have three children. In their free time, the Holzes enjoy playing games, a variety of musical instruments, swimming and … watching movies.