A Mad Hunt for Bin Laden Keeps Nic Cage Sane in ‘Army of One’
Come to watch Cage, stay to watch two old men on dialysis fight in a cave
by MATTHEW GAULT
Dreams are important. They keep us healthy, give us something to live for and give us a reason to push through the bullshit of another day. Army of One is about a dream so ridiculous that it’s crazy — a dream that should sentence its dreamer to life in a mental institution. Instead, it keeps its dreamer sane and happy.
Also, the movie stars both Nic and Nicolas Cage.
There are two Cages. There’s Nicolas Cage, who made audiences cry as the self-destructive career drunk in Leaving Las Vegas and portrayed screenwriter Charlie Kaufman as combative twins in Adaptation. Then there’s Nic Cage, the guy who mugged his way through Vampire’s Kiss, took his Face Off and was Gone in 60 Seconds.
These two actors are appealing for different reasons and, though they share a body, they’ve never appeared in the same film … until now. Army of One has them both. It’s a strange, heartbreaking and uneven movie that Cage elevates with his performance.
He manages to both show up to work and overact and the results are, much like titular character Gary Faulkner’s mad quest, too surreal and touching.
Army of One is set in 2005 and tells the true story of Gary Faulkner — a man with a mission from God to kill Osama Bin Laden. In the film, Faulkner is an older guy who’s got everything in the world to complain about. He’s aging badly, floats from job to job and couch surfs with friends until his overwhelming personality puts him back on the street.
Oh, and he’s diabetic and spends a couple of days a week on dialysis. If he misses treatment, he tends to have messianic hallucinations. All these hard knocks don’t hold Faulkner back, and he’s upbeat, generous and fun. He buys his friends beer, confidently sweet talks women and carries himself with dignity.
Then God shows up and tells him to hunt down Bin Laden. Faulkner takes the message to heart and spends the rest of the film trying to get to Pakistan to hunt down the bearded terrorist he calls Binny Boy.
It’s a fun premise without an obvious conflict. Audiences know the story, they know how Bin Laden died and watching a life-loser fail is a hard movie to sell.
Enter Marci — a hard-working single mother who anchors Faulkner in the real world. She’s played with restrained elegance by Wendi McLendon-Covey.
Marci and her daughter want Faulkner to stick around, settle down and form a family. But Faulker’s grand delusions won’t let him settle and long-suffering Marci understands why. So the drama of the film comes down to Faulkner’s internal conflict.
It’s not whether he catches Bin Laden or not, it’s if he decides to eschew his madness. Unfortunately for Marci and Faulkner, his dream is the only thing that keeps him from going crazy.
The movie is schmaltzy and maudlin but it works. Cage and McLendon-Covey are a joy to watch and, at a 90-minute runtime, don’t overstay their welcome.
Army of One has flaws too. An obnoxious and unnecessary voiceover plagues the first half of the movie. It sounds like a broadcaster reading a news report on Faulkner, adds nothing to the film and disappears in the back half.
The other is the disconnect between the true story of Faulkner and the wonderful mythic film version. He was a real guy. He actually did fly to Pakistan on a hunt for Bin Laden.
Marci is an invention, a scriptwriter creation that adds conflict to a story that would otherwise have none. She’s needed, but as rendered, unbelievable.
Faulkner can’t hold a job, hallucinates visions from God and bums around the house drinking and getting stoned. Marci holds three jobs and cares for a special needs girl. Everything the writers created to make her sympathetic and — by extension — to make Faulkner seem like a decent guy also makes it hard for me to believe she never tossed Faulkner out on his ass.
Despite these flaws, Army of One is a great film and that’s largely down to Cage and Russell Brand.
Cage turns in a performance here on par with his best work in Leaving Las Vegas and Raising Arizona yet infused with the madness of his wacky turns in Con Air and The Wicker Man.
Faulkner is a high-energy mad man and Cage brings his manic energy to every scene. This is a man who won’t stop despite the problems — dialysis, money issues — that hold him back.
Then there’s Brand as God. In the real world, Brand is a controversial gadfly who grates on people’s nerves, spouts half-baked conspiracy theories and confounds people with his mix of intelligence and naive ignorance. He’s the perfect guy to play Faulkner’s God.
The handful of scenes the two have together are the standout scenes of the film. Brand, who tabloids and documentarians whisper believes he may be the second coming of Jesus Christ, embodies God with an easy, ahem, grace.
Brand is a smart guy and, possibly, another person who’s grandiose beliefs and nigh-madness keep sane. He’s an easy fit for Army of One and a strange example of casting as subtext.
Faulkner cowers before the face of his creator with a proper mix of fear and respect. This isn’t like John Denver having a conversation with George Burns, no, Cage portrays Faulkner as a man cowering in the face of the Lord Almighty. He sells it.
Another stellar Cage moment comes at the end of the film when he’s watching the famed news report from May 2, 2011. This was the moment Pres. Barack Obama stood before the world and announced that Bin Laden was dead.
The look of confusion, sadness and relief on Cage’s face shows why he won an Oscar. Despite taking any role that comes his way, this actor can still turn on the goods when he wants to.
The story of the real-life Faulkner is sadder and more complicated. He’s an ex-con supported largely by his family. There’s a girlfriend but scant details about her, no end to the quest and increasingly erratic behavior. A recent The Daily Beast article caught up with the real life Faulkner, who’s in-hiding in Colorado.
He doesn’t believe Bin Laden is dead and he’s planning on a return trip to Pakistan as soon as he can get a new kidney in his body.
He thinks there’s a tracking implant in his arm, claims Al Qaeda hired cartels to assault him and that he’d been to the ritzy cave where Binny Boy hides out.
The reality is complicated and sad. The movie is simple and entertaining. The truth is that Faulkner’s story is good old fashioned American fun until you look too close and unpack the multitude of delusions it takes to keep him going.
That’s true for a lot of people and it’s the core of Army of One — a beautiful movie about a mad quest. It’s Don Quixote meets the War on Terror fueled by the American Dream.