Iraq War-themed films can't find an audience

by Soren Andersen

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

2 January 2008


What if they made a war movie and nobody came to see it?

No biggie. Individual films fail all the time for all kinds of reasons. Filmmaking is a crapshoot. Always has been. Always will be. The people who make movies never know with certainty what audiences will embrace, or spurn.

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Lions for Lambs

Director: Robert Redford
Cast: Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep, Robert Redford, Michael Peña, Derek Luke, Andrew Garfield, Peter Berg

(United Artists)
US theatrical: 9 Nov 2007 (General release)
UK theatrical: 9 Nov 2007 (General release)

Review [9.Nov.2007]
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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]

But what if they made a whole bunch of movies about a war in a short span of time, movies about the war in Iraq, say, or about the war on terror, and not many people came to see them? What then?

Houston, we have a problem.

Or rather: Hollywood, we have a situation.

Since summer, the studios have rolled out one war-related movie after another: “A Mighty Heart,” “The Kingdom,” “In the Valley of Elah,” “Rendition,” “Lions for Lambs” and “Redacted.” “Grace Is Gone” opened last weekend in New York, Los Angeles and a number of other cities and is due to arrive elsewhere in the next several weeks.

In Hollywood parlance, all these pictures have “underperformed.” A number have outright bombed.

Among those leaving the largest craters was “A Mighty Heart,” which took a mere $9 million over its theatrical run, despite a massive promotional push that landed star Angelina Jolie on seemingly every major magazine in the country. Other flops included “In the Valley of Elah,” which has earned only $6.7 million at the box office; “Rendition,” $9 million; and “Lions for Lambs,” $11.5 million, according to figures from the authoritative Internet Movie Database.

That kind of money is pocket change in Tinseltown. Consider: Over the five-day Thanksgiving holiday week period, “Enchanted,” the No. 1 film released that week, made nearly $50 million, far more than the combined total grosses up to that time of those other four films.

It’s not that these movies lack star power. In fact most boast at least one Oscar winner in their casts: Jolie in “Mighty Heart,” which tells the story of the kidnapping and murder by terrorists of journalist Daniel Pearl; Jamie Foxx in “The Kingdom,” Tommy Lee Jones and Susan Sarandon in “Elah” (which was written and directed by Paul Haggis, another Oscar winner) and Robert Redford and Meryl Streep in “Lions for Lambs.”

That latter movie also stars Tom Cruise. It made no difference. “Lions for Lambs” ranks near the bottom of the heap in terms of tickets sold for any picture starring the superstar.

What’s going on?

“I think audiences are just not in the mood for serious-minded, topical films that are either peripherally or directly reflecting the war,” said Paul Dergarabedian, a respected analyst of box-office trends who is based in the Los Angeles area. “Audiences are still looking for summer kinds of escapist fare, and these films are not that.”

“These are not what we call `easy sits,’” Dergarabedian said. They make audiences squirm. They make the people in the seats unhappy.

Tom Rainey, a professor of history at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash. who teaches a course called “History According to Film,” in which war films are part of the course work, said, “the situation now in the Near East is so complicated I think most Americans simply can’t get their mind around it.”

And members of the moviegoing public aren’t the only ones with conflicted feelings about the war, Rainey said. “I think sometimes the producers can’t make up their mind which side they’re on.”

“The nature of this war is so ambiguous, and that ambiguity is constantly being put in our face by the news cycle,” said Robert Thompson, a professor of popular culture at Syracuse University. He likens the war in Iraq and the war on terror to “a great big miniseries airing on CNN and MSNBC.”

“When you’re being bombarded by so many media images of this war on a daily basis, and then the weekend comes and you’re thinking about going to a movie to escape, do you want to see more of it? I suspect the answer is no,” said Michael Taylor, chairman of the Division of Film & Television Production at the University of Southern California film school and a former film producer.

Rainey said he sees similarities in the national mood today and the mood of the public during the Great Depression. Then and now, audiences flocked to escapist fare, to gaudy musicals and screwball comedies during the Depression and to computer-generated action-adventures like “Transformers” and “Beowulf” today.

The experts see movies about the war in Iraq and the war on terror as being very different animals from pictures about past wars. Many of the current crop have an anti-war slant, particularly “In the Valley of Elah” and director Brian de Palma’s “Redacted.” Both depict U.S. troops committing atrocities.

A soldier is shown torturing an Iraqi in “Elah,” and in “Redacted” servicemen rape an Iraqi girl and then murder her and her family in an incident inspired by the Haditha massacre of 2005. That latter picture earned the well-publicized wrath of Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly, who urged his viewers to boycott it even though he hadn’t seen it when he attacked it.

Also on the anti-war side is “Rendition.” In it, the CIA kidnaps an Egyptian-born engineer at a U.S. airport and packs him off to a secret Middle Eastern prison to be interrogated and tortured because the agency believes he has terrorist ties.

This is something new.

Contrast those pictures with movies made during World War II, films like 1944’s “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo,” about the 1942 Jimmy Doolittle raid that was America’s first strike on the Japanese homeland after Pearl Harbor. Or 1943’s “Guadalcanal Diary,” about the American invasion of the Japanese-held Pacific island. And “Mrs. Miniver,” the 1942 British home-front drama set around the time of the evacuation of British forces from the beaches of Dunkirk.

These and all other war pictures churned out by Hollywood during the war were all very much on the side of the Allied cause.

That war, said Syracuse University’s Thompson, “was so black-and-white, as the movies themselves about it were. You had this enemy that had to be stopped and our side (had) the moral high ground.”

World War II, said USC’s Taylor, “had tremendous, if not unanimous support, and audiences wanted to go see movies about it, particularly movies that were really about heroism and bravery and made people feel good.”

With the Vietnam War, things began to change, though not much at first.

Although Vietnam divided the country at least as much as the current wars, the only significant Hollywood movie dealing directly with that war while it was still going on was John Wayne’s “The Green Berets.”

Released in 1968 at the height of the war, it was in most ways a war movie in the mold of the ones made up until then about World War II, including Wayne’s own “Sands of Iwo Jima,” released in 1949. It was a movie about good vs. evil that left no one in doubt which was which. Wayne’s Special Forces men were the good guys, and the Viet Cong were the villains. It was reviled by anti-war activists and many critics—Roger Ebert called it “cruel and dishonest and unworthy of the thousands who have died there”—but it was also a big box-office hit.

“When that came out, there were still plenty of people that were completely supportive of the war,” said Thompson. “It was a John Wayne movie, and it really delivered: `Let’s send John Wayne to Vietnam, and we’ll be fine.’”

But despite its popularity with audiences, “The Green Berets” did not trigger a wave of movies about Vietnam. Those came later. Significantly, they came after the war ended in 1975.

“Coming Home” and “The Deer Hunter” were both released in 1978. Oliver Stone’s “Platoon” came out in 1986, and his follow-up Vietnam picture, “Born on the Fourth of July,” was released in 1989.

With the exception of “Platoon,” which was a fairly apolitical film about men in combat, all had anti-war perspectives. And all were box-office hits that were showered with Oscars. “Deer Hunter” and “Platoon” won best picture honors, and Stone took home directing Oscars for both “Platoon” and “Born on the Fourth of July.”

Thompson calls those movies “masterpieces” and suggests that only after our present wars have ended and the dust has a chance to settle will pictures of similar stature be made.

“We have to see what happens,” he said. “The real definitive treatment of the Iraq war won’t happen until we have a handle on what this Iraq war ultimately meant.”

Until then, it seems unlikely that many more movies about these wars will be made, pro or con.

And there have been some pictures in this cycle that are definitely in the pro column. Those are ones that have celebrated the heroism of Americans in the war on terror, both on the home front and overseas. Last year, “United 93,” director Paul Greengrass’ riveting docudrama about the passengers who fought the hijackers on the doomed jetliner on 9/11, earned an Oscar nomination for Greengrass’ direction. But it earned only a modest $34 million at the box office.

Also last year, Stone’s “World Trade Center,” about the rescue of two police officers from the rubble of the twin towers, took in $70 million, making it the most successful of the movies in this cycle so far. But that hardly makes it a blockbuster. Hollywood only starts throwing around that term when a picture crosses the $100 million mark.

This year, “The Kingdom” took a conventional action-movie approach to the war on terror with its story of a team of heavily armed FBI agents joining forces with Saudi Arabian security troops to fight terrorist killers in the Saudi capital. The picture has a spectacular car chase. It ends with a massive shootout in which all the terrorists are blown away. It has Jamie Foxx in the lead role.

Despite all that, it made only $47 million at the box office. Considering its production budget was an estimated $80 million, that’s a classic case of underperformance.

Looking over the casualties of this movie cycle, Steven Friedlander, executive vice president of distribution for Warner Independent Pictures, which released “In the Valley of Elah,” said, “I think we hadn’t really thought through as an industry whether people want to see them.”

“We’re very proud of `In the Valley of Elah,’” Friedlander said. “I think it’s a fine film with great performances, great direction and a really good screenplay. But, at the end of the day, the public votes for what they want to see, and right now the tone of the country is such that they don’t want to see this.”

As for the future, “from an economic standpoint, people are going to be more judicious about making these types of films,” Friedlander said.

And what about those pictures just coming out, or others that are still in the pipeline?

“I’m sure they’re worried. I’m sure everybody who has got a film with this subject matter is concerned.”

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