Hollywood goes to war

Mainstream movies focus on Iraq, terrorism

by Cary Darling

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

1 October 2007

THE KINGDOM: (L to R) Saudi Colonel Al Ghazi (ASHRAF BARHOM), explosives expert Grant Sykes (CHRIS COOPER) and FBI team leader Ronald Fleury (JAMIE FOXX) 

Writer Matthew Michael Carnahan makes a living pounding out movie scripts, where flights of fantasy and retreats from reality are the daily stock in trade. But a couple of autumns back, while speeding through TV channels in search of a USC football game, he had an epiphany.

“I was living in Chicago and I flipped past this report about a Humvee (in Iraq) that had flipped, and four or five soldiers had lost their lives. I thought, `What an awful way to go,’ and I couldn’t change the channel fast enough to find the game,” recalls Carnahan, 34. “Then I thought, `Here I am, the first to complain about the government and yet here I am, part of the problem, looking for pablum instead of the real stories.’”

cover art

The Kingdom

Director: Peter Berg
Cast: Jamie Foxx, Ashraf Barhom, Jennifer Garner, Jason Bateman, Chris Cooper, Ali Suliman, Jeremy Piven, Danny Huston

(Universal Pictures)
US theatrical: 28 Sep 2007 (General release)
UK theatrical: 5 Oct 2007 (General release)

Review [28.Sep.2007]
cover art

In the Valley of Elah

Director: Paul Haggis
Cast: Tommy Lee Jones, Charlize Theron, Susan Sarandon, Jason Patric, James Franco, Josh Brolin, Jonathan Tucker, Rick Gonzalez, Frances Fisher, Victor Wolf

(Warner Independent Pictures)
US theatrical: 14 Sep 2007 (Limited release)
UK theatrical: 25 Jan 2008 (General release)

Review [20.Sep.2007]

So was born “Lions for Lambs,” the Carnahan-penned, Robert Redford-directed film about politics and the war in the Middle East that stars Redford, Meryl Streep, Tom Cruise and Derek Luke. “It’s my way of exorcising the sense that I was part of the problem, not doing my share to acknowledge what’s going on,” Carnahan explains.

He’s apparently not alone. “Lions for Lambs,” opening Nov. 9, is just one of several major Hollywood films headed to multiplexes this season that deal either with the war in Iraq, its fallout or related issues such as terrorism.

“In the Valley of Elah,” directed by Paul Haggis (“Crash”) and starring Tommy Lee Jones as a dad whose son disappears after returning from Iraq, opened Friday, as did “The Hunting Party,” which features Richard Gere and Terrence Howard and chronicles the search for a Serbian war criminal who slaughtered Bosnian Muslims. Loosely based on a true story, the movie ultimately invites comparisons to the search for Osama bin Laden.

Opening last Friday is “The Kingdom,” which revolves around anti-American terrorism in Saudi Arabia. It stars Jamie Foxx, Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman and was also written by Carnahan.

These films will be followed by: “Rendition,” starring Reese Witherspoon, Jake Gyllenhaal, Peter Sarsgaard and Streep again, about a woman whose Egyptian-born husband is detained; and “Grace Is Gone,” featuring John Cusack as a dad who takes a road trip with his kids after his wife is killed in Iraq.

Two of the most controversial films are based on real events. Brian De Palma (“The Untouchables,” “Scarface,” “Mission: Impossible”) made “Redacted,” based on the case of American soldiers who raped an Iraqi girl and killed her family, while in “Battle for Haditha,” Nick Broomfield (“Kurt & Courtney,” “Biggie and Tupac”) revisits an alleged 2005 attack by U.S. Marines against two dozen Iraqis believed to have planted roadside bombs.

Coming in early 2008 is “Stop Loss,” which stars Ryan Phillippe as a soldier who returns home to Texas and refuses to go back to Iraq.

This wave may seem unprecedented, but it was perhaps predictable. Fall is the time when, after a summer of killer robots and wacky pirates, studios haul out their serious, would-be Oscar contenders. These films went into production at different times, so it may be an accident of fate that they’re all coming out now, though the trend also might reflect a larger reality.

Richard Allen, professor of radio, TV and film at Texas Christian University, says it’s taken a few years for the movie industry to absorb 9-11, and that’s why the ripple effects are now percolating through pop culture. “There’s the shock, and then it becomes part of the culture and it becomes the thing to do. Filmmakers are trying to be as contemporary as possible as they deal with issues like terrorism. It’s an age-old thing. Think of the `50s Cold War and how it inspired science fiction.”

Can war sell?

But it remains to be seen whether Americans will flock to see entertainment about a current military conflict involving the U.S. After all, most of the notable movies about Vietnam—Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter, Coming Home, Platoon—came out after the end of hostilities, while some of the most talked-about anti-war films that came out as the war raged (MASH, Catch-22, Johnny Got His Gun) were set in previous conflicts.

The quick 2005 cancellation of the critically lauded FX series Over There, which followed Army soldiers on their first Iraq tour of duty, and the dismal showing for the $16 million A Mighty Heart—the film about murdered journalist Daniel Pearl that has grossed just over $9 million in the U.S. since its June release—doesn’t augur well for the onslaught of Iraq-themed films.

Other recent dramas about American involvement in the Middle East have fared better—Syriana (2005) cost $50 million to make and has made that back domestically, while Jarhead (2005) cost $72 million and has earned $62 million domestically—but they were hardly blockbusters.

Ironically, the movie with one of the best returns is United 93 (2006), which cost $15 million and took in $31 million in the U.S.—hardly Transformers numbers, but not bad for a film some thought would be too much of a downer for an American audience. Less successful was World Trade Center (2006), which cost $65 million and has brought in $70 million in the U.S.

“These films are going to have a hard time,” says Jeff Bock, an analyst for Los Angeles-based box-office tracking firm Exhibitor Relations, who notes that war movies in general face a steep climb these days. “Clint Eastwood, with his double shot last fall (WWII films Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima) sealed that. They had critical acclaim and together they didn’t even do $50 million.”

He thinks the productions’ attempted immediacy could also be their drawback in an era of 24-hour news networks and the Internet. “We have a plethora of information and soldiers’ blogs. These outlets are more influential and up-to-date than these films could ever be.”

Not everyone is quite so pessimistic. “Something might break through to the mainstream, like The Kingdom, because it is action-oriented,” says Jeremy Devine, marketing vice-president of the Dallas-based Rave Motion Pictures theater chain and the co-author of Vietnam at 24 Frames a Second: A Critical and Thematic Analysis of Over 400 Films About the Vietnam War. “But as far as an introspective piece on the root causes of the war or what’s really happening—(something) that’s not a great adventure movie—I think it’s a little early. It’s early to get historical perspective, and it’s just too controversial.”

That’s one reason why The Hunting Party director Richard Shepard doesn’t really want his film lumped in with the others. “Those movies are all political movies and, at the end of the day, my movie is an adventure movie,” he explains. “This movie is for a good time on a Friday night. If (audiences) think about things at the end, that’s not bad. But none of us wanted to make a message movie.”

Missing John Wayne

Some observers are taking a wait-and-see attitude, not about box-office take, but about the political messages in these latest Iraq films. Jim Hubbard, director of the conservative, Dallas-based American Renaissance Film Festival, which just staged its first Washington, D.C., festival, has not yet seen all of the new films but is afraid they will represent a singular, liberal point of view.

“A lot of them deal with the tragedy of war and, for lack of a better term, moral relativism. Where’s the John Wayne movie?” he asks. “To use an example, with The Bourne Ultimatum, people like it but the good guys were American agents and the bad guys were American agents. I have no problem with any of these films coming out, but there should be films from every perspective. In the Vietnam War, there was at least one film that was taking the side of the American as hero. At least you did have The Green Berets.

“It was a propaganda film, and I’m not saying we should return to the `40s and `50s where everything is glorious. But there is no balance.”

“I think it’s interesting that films are taking a look at this,” says Sameer Zuberi, communications coordinator for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim advocacy group, but he is concerned about the portrayal of Muslims. “I hope they’re not doing this in a stereotypical manner.”

Writer Carnahan makes no bones about the fact that he approaches the topic from a personal perspective, especially in Lions for Lambs, and that he thinks the Iraq war is a mistake. “I’m sure people are going to say that I’m anti-GOP, but I tried to make (Tom Cruise’s conservative senate character) as upfront and honest as I knew how and, I gotta tell you, some of the better arguments of the entire movie come from him. (But) the (current) Republican leadership is pretty awful. I’m not going to turn away from that opinion to make (the movie) as apolitical as possible.”

Hollywood ultimatum

If these films don’t perform well at the box office, it might be difficult to get politically oriented material up on the big screen, at least in the near future. “There’s a little of that toe-in-the-water aspect, and if they all do poorly, you can retard the process for another four years,” says Rave’s Jeremy Devine. “But, if one breaks through, bar the doors, because you’ll have plenty (more).”

“Hollywood goes through ups and downs,” says The Hunting Party director Shepard. “A series of political films doesn’t do well, but then one will do well. I always looked at it as making the movies I want to make and telling the stories I want to tell. To me, we were never making a political movie. I don’t know if audiences will burn out, but, personally, I don’t want to see six different Iraq movies. That’s why I didn’t make one.”

“If it’s not a good movie, people don’t care about how topical you are,” sums up TCU professor Allen. “Relevance is not high on most people’s list of why they go to the movies.”

For Carnahan, whose chance stumbling across the death of American soldiers on TV sent him to his computer keyboard, it’s a tense time. “I’m waiting with bated breath to see what happens with my two movies,” he says. “There are (popular) movies, like The Bourne Supremacy, that are wonderful action movies but have undertones of what America has become post 9-11. I think there are ways to walk the line and not mimic the (real-life war) horror you see on CNN—when they’re not doing obesity-in-America or celebrity reports.

“I think very quickly we’ll be able to suss out which movies in this glut are the ones worth the money in your pocket. I do hope mine are in that mix—but you never know.”


Major Hollywood movies with an explicitly political edge are going to be as ubiquitous as presidential mudslinging this fall. Here’s what’s coming when. Opening dates are subject to change:

In the Valley of Elah (now in theaters): Crash director Paul Haggis returns with a film starring Tommy Lee Jones and Susan Sarandon as parents whose son goes missing after he returns home from Iraq. Charlize Theron plays the detective who helps solve the riddle. This one screams Oscar bait.

The Hunting Party (now in theaters): Set in Bosnia-Herzegovina at the turn of this century, this relatively lighthearted thriller starring Richard Gere and Terrence Howard focuses on journalists who—even though the CIA and the U.N. can’t or won’t do the job—decide to go after a Serbian war criminal who’s hiding in the mountains near Montenegro. Based loosely on a true story, the film draws parallels to the hunt for Osama bin Laden.

The Kingdom (now in theaters): Director Peter Berg (Friday Night Lights) moves from West Texas football plays to Middle Eastern power plays in this action-thriller about terrorism against Americans in Saudi Arabia. Jamie Foxx, Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman star as agents sent over to find out what’s going on. Ali Suliman, from the controversial Palestinian film Paradise Now, is a local cop who may or may not be their friend. It’s written by Matthew Michael Carnahan, who also penned another of this season’s Iraq-themed movies, Lions for Lambs.

Grace Is Gone (Oct. 5): John Cusack gets serious this time. He plays a guy who takes his children on a drive across the country after finding out his wife has been killed in Iraq.

Rendition (Oct. 19): Acclaimed South African director Gavin Hood (whose Tsotsi won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar last year) tells the story of a woman (Reese Witherspoon) who discovers her Egyptian-born husband is being detained overseas in a U.S.-backed facility. Witherspoon is joined by some major co-stars: Meryl Streep, Jake Gyllenhaal and Peter Sarsgaard.

Lions for Lambs (Nov. 9): Here’s more star-studded Oscar bait, the first film from United Artists since it was relaunched under the leadership of Tom Cruise. Cruise, Meryl Streep, Robert Redford, Derek Luke and Peter Berg (yes, the guy who directed The Kingdom) take the leads in this drama about how far-ranging political decisions affect those fighting on the ground in the war zone. Redford directs.

Redacted (date to be announced): Of all these films, this may turn out to be the most controversial. Director Brian De Palma (The Untouchables, Mission: Impossible, Dressed to Kill) crafts a “fictional documentary,” based on a true story, about the rape of a teenage Iraqi girl and the murder of her family by American soldiers. It caused sensations at the Venice Film Festival (where De Palma took home Best Director honors) and at the Toronto Film Festival.

Battle for Haditha (date to be announced): Much argued-over director Nick Broomfield (Biggie and Tupac, Kurt & Courtney) turns his attention to the war in this retelling of a 2005 attack by U.S. Marines against two dozen Iraqis they believed planted roadside bombs.

Stop Loss (date to be announced): Originally set for release this fall, it’s now been pushed back to early 2008. Ryan Phillippe plays a soldier who’s back home in Texas after a tour in Iraq and refuses to return.

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