"Military intelligence in a contradiction in terms." - Groucho Marx
Imagine "Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid" reworked with vintage military training films instead of detective thrillers, and you've got yourself "Military Intelligence and You!", a brilliant mix of satire, absurdity, and indie filmmaking gusto. The movie takes a handful of productions from the First Motion Picture Unit, the branch of the Army that churned out hundred of training films during World War II - most of them featuring top-level Hollywood stars, and all of them now in the public domain, ripe for the picking. Writer/director Dale Kutzera grabbed a batch, spliced together key scenes from each, filmed some new material to bridge the story, then topped everything off with a big heap of dry narration to tie it all together.
The result is passed off as one of these training films, which, in the effort of entertaining as well as educating, combines serious instruction with comedy and melodrama. This one - recently declassified under the Freedom of Information Act, if you want to get knee-deep into the joke - is both a look at how military intelligence helps boost the war effort and a stern warning to loose-lipped airmen who might not realize that even the tiniest bit of information overheard at the wrong time can be a major boost to Jerry.
Several storylines run through the adventure. In one, an ace pilot must risk all to photograph what may be the hidden base for Germany's elusive "Ghost Squadron." Elsewhere, a captured platoon is continually tricked by their Nazi captors into revealing snippets of information, which helps the Germans plan to defeat a pending Allied invasion. And then there's the rookie G.I., nervous about his first taste of battle. Familiar faces include Alan Ladd, William Holden, Elijah Cook, Jr., and yes, even Ronald Reagan.
Did I mention that all of this is very, very funny? The secret's in the narration. Listen as the Stern Voice-Over Guy explains the importance of intelligence: "It is military intelligence that distinguishes dangerous enemies from merely annoying foreigners." Or this one: "We're taking the fight to the enemy. Why? Because it's not enough to beat them. We want to do it in front of their girlfriends and mothers! Really embarrass them!" And, of course: "Nobody said this fight would be easy... except for the President, the Vice President, the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of State, the head of the FBI..."
Oh yes, "Intelligence" takes countless none-too-subtle swings at the Bush administration, who once attempted to make their own analogies between Iraq and World War II. Kutzera pushes that conceit to inane heights, with references to color-coded threat levels, the memory of "12/7," and, of course, that reliable punchline about the most powerful man in the free world: the Vice President.
Most of the story acts as set-ups for delicious cracks about how the American military would require complete information before even considering invasion - although, of course, sometimes "you go to war with the intelligence you have, not the intelligence you wish you had."
It's not all Bush jokes and Iraq metaphors, though, as Kutzera shuffles up the material to keep everything fresh. There are plenty of childish groaners, cheap (but still hilarious) bits of lunacy like all those nonsensical names of German cities. (Is the hidden base at the town of Riboflavin?) And every now and then, the script will poke fun at itself, mocking its own use of borrowed footage. (He deliberately mismatches a key phone call sequence; that it's the weakest joke in the movie and yet it still earns chuckles shows just how valuable this movie is as a comedy.)
Kutzera is obviously an astute fan of wartime cinema in general and military films in specific, and that knowledge creates dead-on parody. The film pokes fun of the stoic, jingoistic attitudes of the time, most notably in the new footage, which stars Patrick Muldoon, Elizabeth Bennett, and Mackenzie Astin as a trio of square-jawed officers experiencing their own drama back at headquarters. This footage is lunacy at its brightest, balancing absurd soap opera antics (will Maj. Reed and Lt. Tasty reignite their love?) with gung-ho speechifying (on the curse of being the US of A: "It's not our fault we're better and smarter than everybody else. It's just the way God made things!"), all to mock long lost movies and the governmental bureaucracy that made them. It's this brand of satire that ultimately turns the film into a sort of low budget cousin to the likes of "Dr. Strangelove" and "MASH."
"Intelligence" continues the recent trend of indie comedies that attempt to pass themselves off as relics of another age; among the most successful are the cult favorite "The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra" and the gloriously bizarre "Monarch of the Moon." Kutzera creates an exciting variation on that theme, using a sort of cinematic collage to craft his unique blend of comedy. It works. "Intelligence" never stops being anything less than brilliant.
Video & Audio
The good news: "Intelligence" looks very good, with the new footage popping in brisk, vibrant black-and-white. There's some fake aging that helps match these clips to the vintage material. The whole thing looks good when it wants and bad when it wants. The bad news: the 1.85:1 widescreen image is not anamorphically enhanced. Nuts.
I'm not sure why a movie like this needs a 5.1 surround mix, but it's here, and it sounds pretty good. All the action remains up front, with the rear speakers used to simply enrich the overall sound. A stereo track is also included, which is slightly flatter - which might actually be preferable in recreating a 1940s-style sound. No subtitles are provided.
The only extra is the 1943 documentary short "The First Motion Picture Unit" (21 min.), which covers how the military makes their training films. It's an excellent documentary that studies every aspect of moviemaking, from concept to set design to wardrobe to editing, and everything in between. Its inclusion here is a brilliant touch, although one laments the absence of anything related to the feature presentation itself; I'd love the chance to learn how Kutzera made his movie. Presented in its original 1.33:1 full frame format, the short film looks its age, well-worn but not ragged.
"Military Intelligence and You!" had me giggling from the first frame (even the exclamation point makes me smile), and its whip-smart handling of wartime America (both then and now) makes it as devilishly clever as it is riotously absurd. Highly Recommended.