In a post I wrote earlier today, I was trying to challenge claims that film audiences had achieved “Iraq War fatigue,” that the poor box office for a number of Hollywood films about the Iraq War constituted a public refusal to engage with representations of the war. I remain unconvinced that the relative box office failure of a small number of Iraq War-themed films can really tell us anything about whether audiences want to be engaged by compelling narratives and documentaries about the war. In fact, I would argue that what we need are newer, more focused narratives that can provide us with new ways of seeing and understanding the war, a point that A.J. addresses in a recent blog post when he praises a small number of recent docs for focusing on what he calls “small stories, personal portraits and intimate profiles.”
One of the films that A.J. praises is Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein have Bulletproof Salesman (IMDB), which introduces us to Fidelis Cloer, a war profiteer who sells armored cars to diplomats, journalists, and others working in Iraq. Bulletproof Salesman, like Tucker and Epperlein’s two previous documentaries on the Iraq War, Gunner Palace and The Prisoner Or: How I Planned to Kill Tony Blair, avoids any simple political positions, instead choosing to introduce us to one face of a man who profits off of war. The film works, in part, because Cloer is a natural salesman, selling himself just as quickly as he sells bulletproof cars and vests, as well as other safety devices. In fact, as Variety reviewer Joe Leydon observes, there is an extent to which Cloer seems like he would be a charming dinner guest until you develop a full understanding of his occupation and its dependence on the continuation of the war, or perhaps of war in general.
In order to tell Cloer’s story, Tucker and Epperlein make use of footage taken starting in early 2003, just months before the insurgency began; however, it is clear that Cloer anticipated the violence and is prepared to meet the needs of an increasingly nervous pool of consumers (he recognizes that it is, in fact, “the end of the beginning of the war”). The film mixes what I have called Tucker and Epperlein’s “video verite” style sequences, in which we observe Cloer at work, with talking heads interviews with Cloer. Further, Leydon points out, titles provide the film with a mordant sense of humor, such as when Tucker and Epperlein underscore Cloer’s assertion that “chaos is opportunity.” Ultimately, Bulletproof Salesman follows Cloer off and on for several years of the war as it escalates and evolves, forcing Cloer to change and improve his cars.
Throughout the film we see Cloer testing his equipment, constantly trying to find ways to improve the safety of the vehicles he sells. He takes armored cars out into a field where he directs others to fire hundreds of rounds of ammunition and to set off massive explosions in order to test their safety, but Cloer acknowledges that the only way to genuinely improve his products is for one of them to fail. Essentially people have to die, an observation that Cloer accepts in his trademark matter-of-fact style. At one point, Cloer, prodded by a customer, even climbs into the car, allowing dozens of rounds to be fired into the windshield, in order to demonstrate his confidence in the product he is selling. While it’s clear that Cloer is initially reluctant, he also recognizes the importance of standing behind his product.
But, while Cloer’s cold, dispassionate view of the war might unsettle us, as Tucker points out in an indieWIRE interview, Bulletproof Salesman is about more than a single individual, it is in fact, “a film about the pathology of violence.” And I think this is where Tucker and Epperlein have provided us with a significant new narrative about the Iraq War and about conflict in general. Cloer constantly acknowledges that he isn’t simply selling cars, that he is, in fact, selling safety and security, protection from a world in which violence is increasingly commonplace. And yet, of course, we realize that no vehicle is ever truly safe, impervious from the newer weapons and more powerful explosives. While Bulletproof Salesman is unambiguous in depicting the unsettling fact that war has become “disturbingly normal,” it never presents that depiction of Iraq in a simplistic, moralizing way. Instead, we are confronted with someone who profits from that war, from the very conditions where safety becomes a commodity rather than the norm.