Allegiance, the new Iraq war military drama starring Aidan Quinn, is the hard hitting debut feature by Irish American director Mike Connors and producers Sean Mullin, John Boyle and John O'Neil. Cahir O'Doherty talks to Connors and Quinn about the film’s controversial theme -- what happens when a soldier is forced to choose between his loyalties to a deserting soldier, his unit and his fiancée?
The real truth about the Iraq war is that soldiers deployed there, depending on the post, had good reason to believe they would not be coming home -- in anything other than a box, that is. The chaos and terrorism that engulfed the region made it a theater of war unlike anything the U.S. military had ever encountered before.
Back in 2004, when the conflict was at its height, to be posted to hot spots like Sadr City (a suburb district of the city of Baghdad) meant almost certain death. That’s the high stakes backdrop to Allegiance, the hard-hitting new military drama starring Aidan Quinn and directed by talented newcomer Mike Connors.
The film follows Lieutenant Danny Sefton (played by Seth Gabel) who, though his father’s powerful connections in Albany, has wrangled a reassignment preventing him from deploying to Iraq with the rest of his National Guard unit. It’s the ordinary grunts, the film gently reminds us, who are out of luck.
But Sefton’s conscience is deeply troubled when medic Chris Reyes (played by rapper Bow Wow) is torn from the bedside of his terminally ill son, to be deployed to Iraq by Colonel Owen (Quinn) despite repeated assurances that he would not be.
As moral quandaries go, this one is fairly clear-cut. Sefton has to decide where his loyalties lie -- to his unit or to his colonel -- and he has to decide who needs Reyes more, the Army or his dying child?
What follows is a gripping military drama, steeped in its attitudes and traditions, that asks hard questions about the Iraq war and its consequences in the everyday lives of the soldiers who fought it (often through deployment after deployment).
Irish American writer and director Connors, hailing from a military family himself, knows the army life and the issues that arise in it better than most. Not only did he write and direct, but most of his army buddies also played major roles in bringing Allegiance to the big screen.
“The veterans who financed the movie were young guys like me,” Connors, whose grandparents hailed from Sligo, tells the Irish Voice.
“Our main executive producer is John Boyle and his parents were immigrants from Ireland, he went to West Point where he was in the class of 1998. I met him through my other Irish West Point friend Brian Reidy. They both helped me from a financial point get the movie off the ground [they’re both traders and bankers] bringing in other investors.”
Connors, an ex-Ranger, has a father who is also a West Point graduate who brought his Vietnam era friends in as investors. This lead to Navy SEALs and Green Berets taking control of the training sequences in the film, so you can be assured it’s as close to real military life as is possible.
After receiving a BA from Harvard University in 1997, Connors was commissioned as an infantry lieutenant and completed four years in both the active service and the New York National Guard before enrolling in Columbia University’s Graduate Film Program.
“The main kernel of the story was based on my personal experience. I was on active duty from 1997 to 2001. I got out in September 2001, I moved to New York City and started film school,” Connors says.
“Two weeks before 9/11 I was a newly minted civilian. So I wondered what would happen now? Would I get called back in? The military changed overnight.”
The thing is, there weren’t a lot of call-ups between 2001 to 2004 because Afghanistan was still the focus of special operations. That all changed when the Iraq war was declared, though. Connors was still on the reserve list and he got called back in 2005, just as he was finishing film school.
“I had orders to go to Iraq for two years. I hadn’t put on a uniform in two years and I was not a supporter of the war. But I had all these friends who were going. I got pulled in a lot of different directions,” he recalls.
The push and pull of his divided loyalties proved inspirational. “I went through the whole process of mentally preparing myself and then suddenly they announced they didn’t need me anymore. Political pressure about a backdoor draft made them call it off,” Connors says.
“I felt guilt over lucking out when a lot of my friends were returning for their second or third tour. That was the impetus behind the film.”
It turns out that it’s not as easy as you think to say no to a war you don’t support when you have family and friends in the ring.
“My last couple of months of commitment were spent in the New York National Guard. It was my introduction to this weekend warrior culture, having come from a situation where I had been in it every day,” Connors says.
“Once Iraq came around my old National Guard unit got called up and got this 18-month rotation. They were citizen soldiers; they were much older than the regular army guys. I was shocked that the army pulled these guys out of their regular lives to send them to Iraq.”
The public generally doesn’t want to hear about the situation faced by the reservists -- how they become handy fall guys, a standing line between the public and the draft -- because the public realizes they are not participating in the sacrifices others are making in their name, and which they probably have a lot of mixed feelings about to begin with.
“It’s amazing how well the military has held together,” says Connors. “Iraq was probably worse than Vietnam in terms of a no-win situation. Yet somehow it still feels like a fairly professional fighting force that does a pretty solid job given what they’ve been handed.”
Quinn, who plays the get the job done Colonel, agrees.
“I loved the script and the moral dilemma they were facing. I loved the fact that it dealt with reservists from the National Guard being sent back over there again and again, in tour after tour,” he tells the Irish Voice.
“A lot of these people were thinking they’d just get college money without seeing that kind of conflict. They thought they’d be weekend warriors. It’s kind of unprecedented that they were used to this extent.”
Quinn signed on because he liked the character he’d been asked to play. “His decision is to send the medic with the dying son to Iraq because that would be the best protection for his men. It’s nothing personal,” he says.
But Quinn is so believable in the role that I ask him if his family has any military members to consult with?
“Far from it,” he laughs, “It was just the basis of the writing. I understood his point of view and the moral dilemmas it brings up for people of privilege. Officer’s sons fare a little differently. It’s kind of an unspoken thing that goes on. Our wars are primarily fought by people with less opportunity and less financial background.”
In Ireland we call them the working class. Quinn laughs again.
“Exactly. We get them to fight our battles. Bu Allegiance isn’t some bleeding heart liberal’s view,” he points out.
“It’s written from the inside by the writer/director who has real experience of the life. It’s an eye opening exploration of the men we send off to war and some of the moral dilemmas that go with that.”
Bolstering his Irish credentials, Connors adds that his father grew up in Flushing, Queens and his own memories of St. Patrick’s Day involve the mandatory showing of The Quiet Man.
“It’s how we learned about our heritage,” he laughs. “To this day John Ford is in my top five directors of all time!”
Allegiance will be released January 15.
Check out the trailer here: