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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Soldiering on

“Finally, someone’s found a sure-fire way to make money with a modern Middle East war movie,” began Variety’s review of Iron Man. “Just send a Marvel superhero into the fray to kick some insurgent butt.”

It was a good line but, as I noted last week, it raises an interesting point. It seems as though, every time a new movie comes out which is about the war in Iraq (or sometimes Afghanistan), every article or report about it or review of it seems to begin by pointing out that no one has gone to see previous movies about the war. When I read or hear something like that, the first thing that goes through my mind is, is that really true? The next things that go through my mind are 1) even if it is true, why do they keep mentioning it? And 2) why is it true?

Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but when I hear, say, news program hosts on National Public Radio, keep mentioning that no one goes to see all these movies about Iraq, it makes me think that the host is betraying a desire for a movie about the war to create a real splash in the public consciousness, to move the public’s heart and spur a national conversation about what is going on in the Middle East, that will draw attention to one of the most critical issues of our time—and maybe even go on to win an Oscar or something. How frustrating for these radio journalists to always be longing for that to happen.

The only problem with that take is that such a movie has already done all of that. And no, it wasn’t Iron Man. As every review of the first hit of this summer has made clear, Iron Man is “about” America’s involvement in the Middle East only in the same way that the Harry Potter movies are “about” British public education. No, the Iraq war movie that made a topical and box office splash was called Fahrenheit 9/11. Made for an estimated budget of $6 million, it had grossed nearly $120 million within four months in the United States alone. Strangely, it did not get nominated for an Academy Award, but its director (Michael Moore, who did win an Oscar two years earlier for Bowling for Columbine) received a slew of awards around the world, including the Palme d’Or at Cannes and the Best Non-Fiction Film prize from the New York Film Critics Circle Awards. And for months, it seemed to be the only movie that anyone was talking about. So, like so many things journalists say in passing as a given, this trope doesn’t really hold water.

To be fair, if you challenged one of these journalists, he or she would clarify that they were speaking specifically about a series of Hollywood feature films beginning approximately with Irwin Winkler’s 2006 movie Home of the Brave and continuing through 2007 with movies like Robert Redford’s Lions for Lambs, Gavin Hood’s Rendition, Peter Berg’s The Kingdom, Brian De Palma’s Redacted, Paul Haggis’s In the Valley of Elah and coming current with Kimberly Peirce’s recent Stop-Loss. But, while none of these will hold a candle to Iron Man in terms of grosses or publicity, there is no particular reason to believe that these movies have, on average, done any worse than most of the large numbers of movies that get released every year. The Kingdom grossed around $47 million in the US, which was less than its budget, but that is not that uncommon for Hollywood releases. Most movies are simply not break-away hits. The statistical odds of any short list of movies featuring a particular theme including a major commercial success would have to be pretty low. So, why is the lack of major commercial success for these Iraq films considered newsworthy enough to mention every time another Iraq-themed movie comes out?

One suspects a consciousness or unconscious political motive. Supporters of America’s Iraq involvement would suggest that the media in general and film critics in particular are rooting for one or more of these movies to be a major hit that moves audiences so much that it actually shifts or mobilizes public opinion against American involvement in the Middle East. Opponents of the war could just as well argue that the constant repeating of the fact that Americans don’t go to these movies is a self-fulfilling prophecy that may only encourage continued apathy about the issue.

One conservative retort that is sometimes heard is that the lack of success of these movies is evidence that most Americans actually support the war to some extent or at least do not want to see America lose. The response from the left would seem to be that, while Americans should be more actively opposing the war, they are sick of it and don’t want to be reminded of it. Neither side seems to want to consider the fact that perhaps none of these movies was particularly great and that is the sole reason none has caught on to the extent some people would like. Proponents of the crop of Iraq movies seem to want people to want to see them purely because they are good for you, and not because people will find them worth the cost of a ticket.

A great example of the this-movie-is-good-for-you-even-if-it-isn’t-very-well-done attitude is in the concluding paragraph of A.O. Scott’s (no relation) review of Redacted in The New York Times: “…I am grateful that Mr. De Palma brought such conviction to the task. ‘Redacted’ is certainly a painful document of its time, a record of anguish, confusion and uncertainty. And if Mr. De Palma has in the end failed to transcend those feelings or to address them with the clarity and freshness of perspective that art requires and that the times so desperately demand, the failure is hardly his alone.” In other words, good intentions trump quality.

So are any of these movies any good? Are any actually worth seeing if apathetic Americans would just get off their keisters and go see them? I would be happy to offer my own personal opinion on the quality of these movies but, of course, I haven’t seen any of them. And, in any event, we know that plenty of good movies get made all the time and are unjustly ignored by the movie-going public. So the fact that small numbers go to the Iraq movies is no clear indictment on their quality. Sometimes the public is collectively in the mood for certain kinds of movies at certain times and at other times not. Something similar happened during the time of the Vietnam war. People weren’t much interested in movies about that war while it was going, but once the war was over, they did go to see movies like Coming Home and The Deer Hunter. And those, by the way, were fairly good movies.

During World War II, on the other hand, Hollywood movies were more or less seen as part of the morale effort on the home front. In the wars since then, there was been no morale effort on the home front. But maybe, just maybe, it’s in many people’s DNA to want one. And, if they don’t get one, maybe the best they can do is to avoid things that will sap their morale. The main and strongest criticism one hears of the Iraq movies is, after all, the way they portray America’s people in uniform. And they have a point. While most contemporary war movies can be considered sympathetic to U.S. soldiers, that sympathy frequently takes the form of portraying them as hapless victims of violence directly or else victims who are so brutalized that they become overly violent themselves. Soldiers are by no means the only demographic to be portrayed in a less than statistically representative way, and filmmakers are certainly entitled to portray them in any way that suits their story. But the paying public are likewise entitled not to queue up for those stories.

For those who hunger for more positive portrayals of soldiers, there is good news—if they don’t mind traveling to see movies. Beginning on the 14th of this month (the same day as Cannes) and continuing through the 18th, the second GI Film Festival will be held in Washington DC. Its roster of movies include documentaries about Iraq, but it also includes movies about other wars or other GI situations. Its declared purpose is to “celebrate the successes and sacrifices of the American military through the medium of film.” Among the films in the line-up are Ron Maxwell’s Gods and Generals (about the Civil War); Gary Mortensen’s documentary This Is War: Memories of Iraq; Fred Zinnemann’s 1950 movie The Men, which featuress Marlon Brando in his onscreen debut as a paralyzed veteran going through rehab; Abbie Kealy’s The Last Ridge (about World War II); J.D. Johannes’s documentary Outside the Wire: Danger Close; James C. Strouse’s Grace Is Gone, starring John Cusack as the husband of a soldier killed in Iraq; and Mitch Anderson’s The World Without Us, which explores what might happen if all U.S. troops around the world were all brought home. Guests at the festival will include actors Robert Duvall, Stephen Baldwin, Gary Sinise and Jon Voigt.

The festival web site did not mention whether Brian De Palma or Robert Redford would be attending.

-S.L., 8 May 2008

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