It’s happened to all of us. We receive a recommendation from a friend: “You’ve got to see this documentary movie. It's important.”
Right away our suspicions are aroused. While the film in question may deal with an issue that cries out for public outrage, it is also likely to be a pretentious dry-ball exercise that will make an evening’s movie-going feel like sitting at the dinner table when you were eight years old and being told by your Mother to “eat your peas and carrots”. Experience has taught us to graciously accept the recommendation, and put said film on our “must see” list – at the bottom – where it stays.
The Triangle of Death is not that movie. It belongs at the top of your list.
The Triangle of Death is a fast paced picture that documents the day to day combat experiences of the 3rd Platoon of the 2/24th of the United States Marine Corps while deployed in the Sunni Triangle in 2004-2005. For 94 pounding minutes the film puts the viewer right at the tip of the spear. You are there; traveling in the convoys, going house to house, battling from the rooftops. The bullets whizzing by are as thick as deerflies at a Wisconsin fish fry in July, and they are real bullets. Same for the mortar rounds, the IEDs, and the blood…they’re all real, too.
And speaking of blood; this film is not for the kiddies. Body parts go flying, wild dogs feed on rotting corpses, and Al Qaeda reprisals against anyone aiding the Marines are brutal. The pictures are unvarnished. The language is unbleeped. It is all right there on the screen.
The film itself is something of an improbability. Get this: all of the combat footage was filmed by one man, Corporal Follah S. Tamba, a rifleman in Echo Company, who in addition to his other gear carried a small high-quality video camera. And what pictures he captured. Tightly edited together, The Triangle of Death it is like an extended fireworks display. The viewer is bashed by one astonishing image after another. Tamba was wounded midway through his deployment and had his first camera blown to bits by an IED. He got patched up, found a back-up camera and went right back into action.
Going further, and even more into the improbable, consider these facts: Corporal Follah S. Tamba is an immigrant from Nigeria. He has a degree in film from Chicago’s Columbia College. Upon graduation he didn’t go to Hollywood, he joined the Marines.
In the course of filming his deployment, and through follow up interviews back home, Tamba draws a clear picture of combat and the men who serve. Writer George Orwell’s statement “We sleep safe in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm” is spot on, but it also omits several important characteristics of these American Marines. The first is dedication. They are charged up and ready to go. The young Marines who are wounded can’t wait to get back into action. They clearly want victory and they want to accomplish their mission.
The second characteristic is professionalism. These guys are the most efficient, businesslike warriors the world has yet to see. No muss. No fuss. They train, they practice and they show up ready for action.
Third, and most unexpectedly, we see how funny these Marines are. Through all they experienced – heat, filth, fatigue, and the threat of miserable death, they maintain an almost chipper sense of humor. Off-hand comments heard in the background while something serious was going on led to some unexpected laughs. Their effort to establish good relations with the Iraqi locals was interesting, too.
While the Americans made it a priority to work within the framework of local mores and customs, sometimes this was a pretty tall order. An incident that occurred during a training exercise with Iraqi militia recruits was especially telling and amusing. At one point an Iraqi trainee, through negligence, accidentally discharged his weapon. As punishment the offender was ordered to carry around a 63 pound rock, in the heat of day through whatever they were doing. Throughout the rest of the filmed sequence, lurking on the fringes we see a gangly Iraqi with a slab of stone perched on his shoulder. This incident underlined the off-center humor sprinkled throughout the film.
The film's producers, Juan Montelongo and Thomas Hartmann, along with Corporal Tamba, are also Columbia College graduates. They formed Wolf Dog Films in the western suburbs of Chicago. The final cut of their picture finished, their task now is to get the film into as many festivals as possible and secure some form of general release.
As well photographed as the film is a key participant in the final presentation was the editor, Eugene Gordon. He kept things tight and moving forward. There is not one slow second of screen time. The sound designer, Tom Balazs, deserves mention, too. “The sound” of the FX tracks was first rate and enhanced the reality of the finished film far beyond the limitations of its modest budget.
As a piece of filmmaking, The Triangle of Death is a unique rare gem, a little jewel. Seeing it today you can easily imagine the film’s increased documentary value five hundred years from now. In future times someone viewing it will have a clear window into the American military of today, its character and capability, unfiltered and untarnished by current mainstream media bias. The Triangle of Death is fast paced, exciting, violent, funny and it makes a serious point: Some first-rate young men are working hard and taking risks so that the rest of America can sleep well again tonight.
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