A new script for Hollywood war movies

[11 October 2007]

By Carrie Rickey

The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)

Anti-war demonstrators storm the Pentagon in the movie “Across the Universe.” A career soldier protests the Iraq conflict in “In the Valley of Elah.” The tactics of an elite FBI squad and an al-Qaeda-like terrorist cell are virtually indistinguishable in “The Kingdom.”

Now playing at your local cineplex: Iraq, the never-ending movie, starring Tommy Lee Jones, Jamie Foxx, Reese Witherspoon and a cast of thousands.

“It’s really telling that we’re getting these films while we’re fighting the war,” says Jeanine Basinger, a Wesleyan University film historian and author of “The World War II Combat Film.’ And, to borrow the title of Charles Ferguson’s critically acclaimed documentary about America’s bungled policy in Iraq, there’s no end in sight.

Coming soon are “Redacted,” a fact-based drama about U.S. soldiers who rape and kill a 15-year-old Iraqi girl; “Rendition,” with Witherspoon, about the CIA torture of a suspected terrorist that is nearly as brutal as the way jihadists dealt with Daniel Pearl, and “Grace is Gone,” with John Cusack as a father struggling to tell his young daughters their soldier mother has died in combat.

Marching close on their boot heels this holiday season are Robert Redford’s “Lions for Lambs” and Mike Nichols’ “Charley Wilson’s War,” about how U.S. missteps in Afghanistan - official and unofficial - mirror bad decisions in Iraq.

While some may regard this trend as an example of Hollywood liberals flying the peace flag, the Iraq films are made by directors from the political center to left. And though their makers are trying to sway public opinion, polls suggest they are following it: According to the latest ABC/Washington Post poll, 68 per cent of adults nationwide disapprove of the way President Bush is handling the situation in Iraq and 59 per cent do not believe the war was worth fighting.

There’s nothing unusual about movies critical of war. What appears to be unprecedented is that the current flood of films protest a war in progress. They are borne on a tide of what Basinger calls “the displaced Iraq films” - “Flags of Our Fathers,” “Across the Universe” and “Talk to Me” - World War II- and Vietnam-era films questioning the establishment and the war itself. And they represent a U-turn in thinking from Hollywood wisdom, circa 2002, that “no one will buy a ticket to a war movie that they can see on CNN.”

“I think perhaps, in part, the rise of the documentary and feature films is a response to the reduction in volume and quality of the news coverage on TV,” says Ferguson, the political-science scholar and software developer who directed “No End in Sight.”

“I’ve seen `Elah’ and `Redacted,’” Ferguson says, referring to Paul Haggis’ film starring Jones as a soldier who digs into an Army coverup involving his missing son and Brian De Palma’s film about soldier misbehavior and its concealment.

“These movies certainly are more willing to be critical of the military and misconduct of individual soldiers. Certainly no such feature was made like these during or after the Vietnam War.”

Nor during or after World War II. Nor during or after Korea. Except for “Hearts and Minds,” the Oscar-winning 1974 documentary about America’s misguided involvement in Vietnam, film historians are hard-pressed to cite a precedent for the phenomenon.

When it comes to protest films, “it’s traditional to see movies set in a previous war that are implicitly critical of the current one,” notes Basinger, citing “M*A*S*H.” Though the 1970 black comedy was set in a Korean War medical unit, its allusions are to Vietnam.

It’s also traditional, she notes, just prior to U.S. involvement in war, to detect a call to arms in films. In the run up to Iraq, “Black Hawk Down” and “Behind Enemy Lines” (both 2001) framed war as a fight for humanitarian values in, respectively, Somalia and Bosnia.

“The movies that explicitly ask, `Is the war worth it?’ - historically, those films come out after the conflict has ended,” says Basinger. “The Best Years of Our Lives” was released two years after World War II, “Men in War” after the Korean conflict, “Coming Home” and “The Deer Hunter” after Vietnam and “Three Kings” after the Gulf War.

“That these films are coming forward during the progress of a war and questioning it sooner may mean that the general public is rejecting what our leaders are telling us ... and want to know more about the war,” she suggests.

During World War II, Hollywood complied with the non-military Office of War Information, which aimed to have movies show an America united behind the war effort. Today there are no such guidelines “in contrast to that period,” says Phil Strub, Department of Defense public affairs officer.

“Filmmakers approach us when they seek military personnel or equipment, we cooperate or not” - depending on the script - but filmmakers are free to depict U.S. military in any way.

The speed with which antiwar films are being brought to screen “may also reflect the changing economy and development of filmmaking,” says Ferguson. “With digital technology you can make films more cheaply and swiftly,” he says.

De Palma’s “Redacted,” made on HD video and employing images from digital cameras, video recorders, and Internet uploads, has a you-are-there urgency. Likewise, “Elah,” in which Jones investigates his son’s conduct in Iraq by downloading footage captured on his cell phone, reflects what Haggis calls “the first Internet war.”

“The difference between the Vietnam anti-war movies and these films,” observes Lawrence Suid, a military historian from Greenbelt, Md., and the author of “Stars and Stripes on Screen,” “is that the Iraq films don’t blame the soldiers, but the people who got us embroiled in the war.”

For the makers of these films, making an impact upon American hearts and minds is as important as making an impact on the box office. “I like packaging tough questions inside pop entertainment,” says Haggis, who also wrote and directed the Oscar-winning “Crash” and won an Oscar for his “Million Dollar Baby” screenplay.

Similarly, for Julie Taymor, director of “Across the Universe,” the objective was to entertain as well as edify. Taymor’s rock opera set to Beatles music has Kafkaesque scenes of draft boards and army hospitals. G.I.s hoist the Statue of Liberty like a cannon, chanting “She’s So Heavy.”

By phone from Paris where her celebrated stage work, “The Lion King,” is in previews, Taymor calls “Universe” “an indirect direct commentary on Iraq. The response from college students has been amazing,” she says. “Many of them feel that anti-war activism of the 1960s is a reproach to the comparative apathy of their generation.” Pre-empting those “who get upset when movie people talk about the war,” she says, “You’d rather them talk about botox?”

From a business point of view, Len Klady, box office analyst for moviecitynews.com, worries that the Iraq films “run the risk of creating battle fatigue.” While “The Kingdom,” with Foxx and Jennifer Garner, has made about $20 million, thus far the other films are not burning up the box office. (“Elah” has taken in less than $4 million, “Universe” about $6 million, both in limited release.)

“The big question with the Iraq films,” says Klady, “is whether these American-centric stories will play overseas. The jingoism of a `The Kingdom,’ a `Rambo’-unctious action flick, could seriously limit its foreign box office.”

Historically, for a movie linked to current events, box office can go either way. In the case of “Primary Colors” and “Wag the Dog,” both satires of a Bill Clinton-like candidate and president and released at the height of Monica-gate, it hurt. In the case of “The China Syndrome,” about meltdown at a nuclear power plant eerily like one that occured at Three Mile Island days into the film’s release, it helped.

“I didn’t make `Elah’ because I wanted to influence the upcoming election,” says Haggis. “I’m just as worried about Democrats getting elected as Republicans - America has a history of Democrats getting us into and escalating wars. ...

“I wanted to make a film that said it’s not only Iraq we’re destroying, it’s our own men and women.”

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/article/a-new-script-for-hollywood-war-movies/