[9 November 2007]
This is not your grandfather’s war. This war is unpopular and controversial, seemingly endless. But that hasn’t stopped Hollywood from releasing a series of films about Iraq and its evil twin, the battle against terror.
Unlike filmgoers during World War II, contemporary audiences are avoiding these event-driven pictures, opting instead for easy-on-the-mind pop confections such as “Evan Almighty” and “The Game Plan.” Of the four films released in the past six months dealing with the current world situation—all with big-name stars and the full Hollywood studio push—none earned a profit in its initial theatrical release.
Three—“A Mighty Heart” (Angelina Jolie), “In the Valley of Elah” (Tommy Lee Jones) and “Rendition” (Reese Witherspoon)—are flat-out box office bombs. “The Kingdom” (Jamie Foxx) has done a bit better but still hasn’t covered its $70-million production cost.
There’s more coming. Friday, “Lions for Lambs” (starring Tom Cruise and Meryl Streep) opens, and soon after, “Redacted” (Nov. 16) and “Grace Is Gone” (John Cusack, Dec. 7), all of them dealing with current events in Iraq and Afghanistan. If past performance is any indication, their makers should be worried about swift box office oblivion.
“It’s a hugely unpopular war, and there’s a staggering amount of depressing coverage,” says producer Steven Bochco. Bochco’s 2005 TV series “Over There,” about a platoon of soldiers fighting in Iraq, lasted just one season. “TV is fully saturated with this war,” he adds, “and I don’t know if you can do a serious drama about this war and locate any angle that would overcome the negativity about it.”
Adds Dennis Rice, president of worldwide marketing at United Artists, which is releasing “Lions for Lambs”: “Anytime you believe a movie is going to be the same story as what you get for free on CNN 24 hours a day, people will ask, `Why spend $10 to go see that?’”
That’s certainly a far cry from the World War II era, when moviegoers marched into theaters to see ripped-from-the-headlines dramas such as “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo,” “Mrs. Miniver” and “Casablanca” (the last two were Best Picture Oscar winners), but were also entertained by non-war films like “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” “The Song of Bernadette” and “Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man.” Like today, these war films were out while the conflict was raging and were embraced by audiences—unlike the Vietnam War, whose classic movies were rueful affairs (“The Deer Hunter,” “Platoon,” “Apocalypse Now”) produced years after the battles ended.
“The communication of information during World War II really was limited to what people could see in movies or hear on radio, whereas today there is so much information, people are not as hungry for it,” says Sybil Del Gaudio, a documentary filmmaker and dean of Hofstra’s School of Communications. “Also, there was a lack of division in the American culture about the war effort during World War II, and that’s not the case today.”
“World War II was hugely romanticized in terms of its fiction,” Bochco says. “There were unambiguous villains, and the feeling we were fighting the right people over the right issues, as opposed to this war, which many people feel is misguided. And it was a mass effort war; every single American was touched by that war in some fundamental way. There was a real feeling of shared sacrifice, which emotionally gives people a sense of inclusion and commitment.”
There is, of course, the issue of whether these contemporary films are any good. Certainly “Rendition” and “The Kingdom,” which received positive ratings of only 43 percent and 52 percent, respectively, on the critics’ rating site rottentomatoes.com, didn’t endear themselves to reviewers. But Brandon Gray of the tracking Web site boxofficemojo.com believes that every one of the current war movies is fundamentally flawed.
“These pictures are failing as pictures,” he says. “They’re not entertaining or inspiring, and are neither cathartic nor thought-provoking ... And they have trivialized the issues, as in `The Kingdom,’ which tries to play terrorism as another episode of CSI.”
Still, there are those who say it’s all a perception and marketing problem. UA’s Rice says his studio’s film “Lions for Lambs” has been “unfairly labeled as a war movie.” He says it “really is a movie that examines politics and politicians and the media, and the effect those entities have had on today’s youth.” In other words, he argues that even though part of the film follows a trio of soldiers fighting in Afghanistan, it’s more about public policy issues and how those debates influence young Americans.
But Eamonn Bowles, president of Magnolia Pictures, which is releasing “Redacted,” isn’t sure image is the problem. “Are you going to put a happy face on an Iraq War film?” he asks. “The core subject matter is more the problem. The movie theater has always been an escapist environment, and I think it’s become much more a place where people go to get away from the world at large.”
Bowles thinks some of these features might actually do better on DVD and pay per view, because, he says, “people will have an easier time digesting them at home than in a movie theater.” Because of this, his company has decided to experiment by offering “Redacted” via video on demand in several markets, two weeks before its theatrical debut.
The bottom line, however, is that Iraq might be so immediate, so in everyone’s face, there has been little time to really process what it’s all about. Because of this, Bochco suggests a certain distance from the war might lead to better films and more viewer interest.
“This is the first war we are experiencing in real time, via the Internet, e-mail, cell phone and satellite transmission,” he says. “There’s such a sense of immediacy from this war. Even in the Vietnam War, the information that came out, the amount of time it took for information to get from point A to point B—the world moved at a slower rate 25, 30 years ago. There’s no historical distance from the current event; it’s unwatchable.”