The chaos of war makes a good backdrop for a heist film (see, for instance, Clint Eastwood in Kelly’s Heroes), but the reverse is also true; as Three Kings proved, the heist film is a good way to explore the issues behind an international conflict. On its most basic level, the film is a caper involving a group of GIs (George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Ice Cube, and Spike Jonze) taking advantage of the turmoil surrounding the end of the Gulf War in 1991 to seize a cache of Iraqi gold.
But beyond its thriller mechanics, the movie also works as an exploration of the American policy failures behind the war – especially the way we ended it while leaving Saddam Hussein in power and the Iraqi rebels we’d supported in the lurch. Led by the charismatic Clooney, the thieves are just everyman Americans taking advantage of a fouled-up situation, but they become stand-ins for America itself, getting involved in a foreign mess beyond their comprehension, where their unwelcome interference only exacerbates local tensions. The jittery, headlong rush of David O. Russell’s direction proves to be exactly the right way to tell this story, in which the robbers belatedly discover that the most valuable commodity they might salvage from the horrors of war is their own honor.