Wiseman remains most interested in what happens when rules are broken, with a particular fixation on how the turmoil resulting from these eruptions can be amicably resolved.
Now 40 years old, Frederick Wiseman’s Sinai Field Mission presents a rare instance of an old movie about a battle which is in some sense still ongoing, even if its depiction of a diplomatic dead zone is short on details about the war itself. Entrenched in the everyday minutiae of international conflict arbitration, it’s also a reminder that as eternal and intractable as the clashes between Israel and its Arab neighbors may sometimes appear, the finer political points are fairly recent, rooted in definitive decisions made across the last half century. As flames roar again in Gaza, it serves as a useful commentary on the inherent absurdity of geopolitical brinkmanship, its tight-focus portrait of the muted rhythms at a US diplomatic site standing in stark contrast to other, more dramatic portrayals of high-pressure statecraft.
Beyond these qualities and its current ruby anniversary status, Sinai Field Mission is newly notable for being accessible, along with most of Wiseman’s works, as free streamable content through library systems across the country, a huge upgrade after years of scant legal availability. Part of a loose trilogy of ersatz occupation, it’s sandwiched between 1977’s Canal Zone and 1980’s Manoeuvre, the three films presenting humdrum normalcy in the strangest of places, and by extension, America sprawling itself out upon the world as if it were a living room couch. It’s fitting that E-Systems, Inc., the company administering the site that functions as the movie’s location, was later absorbed by Raytheon, one of the primary logistical engines behind our modern program of expansive global hegemony. In this sense, the film shows the seeds of a system that has led to the U.S. maintaining 800 military bases in 70 different foreign countries, as well as a captivating dispatch from a territorial squabble now spanning over 70 years.
After claiming the entire Sinai peninsula during 1967’s Six Day War, Israel held on the land for several years before finally agreeing, in the early ‘70s, to restore most of the desert dominion to Egyptian control. By 1982 this process had been completed, following a transitional peacekeeping period in which it was occupied by international mediators. As illustrated here, the Sinai is a land of oppressive, arid nothingness, its empty landscapes broken only by remnants of recent conflict, from burned-out trucks to other scattered wreckage. Presenting this forbidding landscape in washed-out, black-and-white 16mm, the film offers the spectacle of a land with little more than political value. Yet as with other Wiseman material, the final result is less polemic than bemusedly representational, attuned to painstaking politics of adjustment and bureaucracy, profiling various forms of unglamorous societal maintenance.
For those fascinated by procedure and protocol, these patient films can be downright balmy, stretching dry administrative conversations past the threshold of boredom toward a point of rhythmic enchantment. They also present portraits of interpersonal politics in miniature, here literalized within a buffer zone maintained by a wide variety of UN member states, each taking turns to provide various necessary services. From a large Ghanaian army presence to a retinue of Texas good ol’ boys, the wide range of personalities on display here represents a broad variety of agencies and interests, often competing but all pointed toward the same general, peaceable purpose. Where most movies chart progress through narrative developments tied to emotional beats, Wiseman’s offer a tidal flow of upkeep-focused processes that substitute routine action for sentiment. It’s significant that the most tense moments here involve the depiction of different people’s duties in choreographing an Israeli Medevac transport, in order to assure that the presence of a helicopter over the zone doesn’t ruffle any feathers.
The film’s most pointed and amusing scene, meanwhile, concerns a meeting about Finnish UN envoys eating food from the midnight buffet, which is intended only for the US corporate employees. The Finns don’t speak English, so there’s a question of whether they are intentionally snatching forbidden chili, or are just entirely unaware of the prohibition against doing so. It’s a discussion that wouldn’t be out of place in punctilious social satire like Curb Your Enthusiasm, yet here is played completely straight, another engrossing instance of people trying to find the dividing line between ignorance of the rules and flouting thereof, all part of a larger project of cooperative reconciliation.
While mostly subdued in style, Sinai Field Mission also presents a dynamism since leached out of the director’s style, as in a post-Thanksgiving party captured by a freely roaming camera and punctuated by novelty trick shots, cutting from the viewpoint of a pool cue to the ball’s approach into pocket. Yet most of the movie involves a familiar pattern of leisurely pacing and low-key, tongue-in-cheek absurdism, from a man sweeping sand off a cement walkway to an employee practicing layups in the middle of a vast desert wasteland. Perpetuation, and preservation, remains the primary focus throughout. In the aforementioned party scene, a Thanksgiving celebration devolves into a boozy brouhaha in which workers chug beer out of a cowboy boot, flanked by the sturdy presence of a large converted school bus. Later, the balance disrupted by this rowdiness is restored via a long bureaucratic reckoning over who damaged the couch, and how to prevent such destruction from occurring in the future. As always, Wiseman remains most interested in what happens when rules are broken, with a particular fixation on how the turmoil resulting from these eruptions can be amicably resolved.