It’s tax season and we all know what that means. Time for Uncle Sam to dig in your pocketbook. Coincidentally it’s also a good time to watch the little known 1981 family comedy Harry’s War. The main premise of the film is that the IRS mistakenly thinks Harry’s aunt, Beverly, is running some kind of for-profit political group rather than a charitable commune and charges her with $190,000 in back taxes. Thus begins the comedy of man vs. bureaucracy. The film opens with a low-light scene of an IRS commissioner giving a speech with ominous music playing in the background. “Taxes are the lifeblood of this nation. Collecting taxes is a thankless job. As officers and agents of the Internal Revenue Service, we are more than just an arm of the government. We are the heart and hands of the United States Treasury.” he drones into the camera. It lays it on a little bit thick but it also establishes the film’s intentions right from the word go. Other than this the anti-government comedy doesn’t really show up until the second half of the film, however.Speaking of laying it on thick the next scene is the introduction to our protagonist Harry, played by Edward Herrman, in which he folds an American flag and complains to a co-worker about how it had been improperly stored. The next few scenes are used to establish Harry as a Chevy Chase-esque bumbling, but ultimately well-meaning, middle-class white guy character. It also lays the groundwork for the family drama by showing us Henry’s 2 daughters and his wife whom he’s in the process of divorcing. This first half is easily the worst part of the film. The entire family drama subplot takes far too long to set itself up for the ultimate purpose of a trite and predictable “they get back together” happy ending and the film could easily establish Harry’s simple character and have cut about half of these scenes. All the jokes involving the family drama are generic 80’s family comedy and not even particularly well executed either. The main joke involving the family is that Harry never identifies the woman he’s going to visit as his aunt leading to his wife thinking it’s another lover. Get it? Isn’t dramatic irony just the best!
Speaking of irony Harry’s first visit to aunt Beverly is where I began to suspect the film was laying the whole “red-blooded honest American citizen” schtick on thick ironically as she opens up grace for the meal with “God protect us from sin and the Russians…” which is one of the only jokes outside the IRS office that got an audible chuckle from me. It’s during this first visit that Beverly, played by Geraldine Page, tells Harry of her troubles with the IRS and floats the idea of him taking over her business. After some consideration, he agrees and then we get to the much more interesting part of the film. This is where Harry’s troubles with the IRS begin. His first visit to the IRS office is the most memorable, and easily the best scene in the film. Harry is working with an employee at the counter who interrupts the entire transaction to go on her lunch break, pointing Harry in the direction of the other girl at the counter. The other girl has no idea what he’s talking about which forces him to retread the same ground he went through with the other girl. Eventually, he gets fed up and asks to speak to a supervisor. She informs him that her supervisor isn’t in and he will have to return on another day. I’m not going to go through the entire scene because if you’ve so much as been to the DMV then you get the point, and that’s exactly what makes the scene so funny. It’s a relatable scenario to nearly every U.S. citizen for, as the saying goes, the only two things you can count on in life are death and taxes.
Another strength of the film is that while it has a comedic tone, the abuses and incompetence of the IRS are portrayed in a very realistic manner. The IRS does indeed have their own special “tax court” where you can be put on trial without a jury of your peers. The only way to get a fair trial by jury is to pay the IRS the money they claim you owe and then sue the United States government for it back. Your private bank accounts and property can be seized by the IRS with no due process. You are required to provide an IRS auditor a place to work if they choose to audit you from your home or place of business. It also portrays IRS employees as the unambitious, lazy, bumbling egomaniacs they most often are.
Without spoiling too much more Harry loses in tax court and it pushes him over the edge. He declares war on the IRS and barricades himself within his place of business. The ending is overly saccharin sweet to my taste. The public learns of Harry’s War and align with him, causing the IRS to back off. His wife also realizes that he is capable of growing a spine and standing up for himself and gets back together with him. All the IRS employees involved are quickly demoted and Harry goes on with his life. In reality, a man who refused to pay back taxes and declared war against the IRS would be fucked in the ass to the fullest extent of the law and thrown in a cage for the rest of his life. I suppose director Kieth Merrill is more of an optimist than I.
The second half of the film also contains some stronger material in the form of a couple pretty decent action scenes. The first time two IRS agents show up at Harry’s door he has the property mined and as soon as they detonate the first mine he begins blaring the national anthem over a speaker. The rest of the scene is the taxmen trying to escape from the minefield complete with slo-mo explosions while the national anthem screams out of a crackly old speaker. Great stuff.
Those of you who are more technical film fans probably aren’t going to enjoy this one. The only version I was able to find for viewing was a rip of a VHS copy of the film and as such the audio crackles and the frames are pixelated. This becomes especially noticeable as the film is fond of low natural lighting and the black pixels end up looking like lego bricks. There are also a few continuity errors in shots. In one scene is particular a door is locked with a chain bolt. It cuts to a reverse shot of the inside of the room as Harry reaches his hand in and the bolt is clearly unlatched. The cinematography isn’t anything special either. Mostly cuts between mid-shots and close-ups on actors faces. There are a few well-framed images, one in particular that stood out was a long shot of Harry walking the perimeter of a fence with the fencepost directing attention to him in the middle of the frame, but beyond that few of the shots really made a mark. The soundtrack is also as stock as they come. They say the best soundtracks are the ones you don’t notice and I noticed the soundtrack in Harry’s War frequently. From generic *womp womp womp* tubas during comedic scenes to bland “patriotic” flutes during Harry’s fiery speeches.
The firmest recommendation I can give for this film is that if you find the subject matter interesting you will probably enjoy the second half in some capacity. Oh also the line “Hitler would have loved the IRS” is spoken at one point so that’s pretty great.