DON’T MEN­TION THE WAR

Cin­ema­go­ers are turn­ing their backs on the new wave of Iraq con­flict and Mid­dle East- themed of­fer­ings from Hol­ly­wood, re­ports Ed­die Cock­rell

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover -

ON April 9, 1979, di­rec­tor Michael Cimino’s har­row­ing yet pop­u­lar Viet­nam War drama The Deer Hunter won the Os­car for best pic­ture, one of five Academy awards it earned that night. Among the nom­i­nated films it surged past was an­other work about the ef­fects of the war on re­turn­ing sol­diers and their com­mu­ni­ties, the Jane Fonda pas­sion project Com­ing Home.

The cer­e­mony was three weeks shy of the fifth an­niver­sary of the fall of Saigon, that in­glo­ri­ous end to an un­de­clared US war in the jun­gles of South­east Asia that had dragged on for more than a decade.

In con­trast, the US- led Iraq war, which re­cently stum­bled into its sixth year, has al­ready been the sub­ject of a flurry of Hol­ly­wood films and fea­ture- length doc­u­men­taries: ‘‘ sand movies’’, some wags have dubbed this im­promptu sub­genre of films, cre­ated as the for­tunes of US mil­i­tary strat­egy con­tinue to wax and wane.

From De­cem­ber 2006 to March this year, about a dozen high- profile new dra­matic fea­tures re­volv­ing around that con­flict or events in other re­gional hot spots, and per­haps three times that num­ber of doc­u­men­taries, have re­ceived high- profile in­ter­na­tional film fes­ti­val pre­mieres and- or opened in the­atres.

One by one they’ve in­vaded Amer­i­can mul­ti­plexes and one by one they’ve beaten hasty re­treats: the staid re­turn­ing sol­dier drama Home of the Brave ; the Mar­i­ane Pearl mem­oir A Mighty Heart ; the tor­ture drama Ren­di­tion ; the Saudi- set ac­tion film The King­dom ; the re­turn­ing war vet mys­tery In the Val­ley of Elah ; the O. Henry- ish moral trea­tise Li­ons for Lambs ; The Kite Run­ner , set against the back­ground of con­flict in Afghanistan, and its darkly comic dis­tant cousin Char­lie Wil­son’s War; the blood­thirsty grunt shocker Redacted ; the re­flec­tive war wi­d­ower drama Grace is Gone ; the zom­bie movie with overt wartime ref­er­ences, Diary of the Dead .

Un­like their coun­ter­parts from the Viet­nam con­flict, which were solid box- of­fice per­form­ers in the US and across the world, th­ese movies about the war in Iraq, Mid­dle East ten­sions in gen­eral and even the toll taken on re­turn­ing sol­diers and their com­mu­ni­ties have made con­sci­en­tious ob­jec­tors of au­di­ences world­wide.

To no one’s sur­prise, not one of them came close to be­ing nom­i­nated for a best pic­ture Os­car. Though most of them were orig­i­nally en­vi­sioned as pres­tige pic­tures, their plots read more like cur­rent af­fairs television pro­gram­ming than epic war sto­ries.

What’s go­ing on? Are the films lack­ing in emo­tional punch or tech­ni­cal skill? Are US au­di­ences — as well as movie­go­ers in Aus­tralia and other in­ter­na­tional mar­kets — turn­ing their backs on the sub­ject of the Iraq war? Or is it just too soon for th­ese sto­ries to be told?

Los An­ge­les- based movie blog­ger and vet­eran in­dus­try watcher Jef­frey Wells of­fers three the­o­ries. ‘‘ One, Iraq war movies have all been guilt- trip­pers about an on­go­ing con­flict, whereas the Viet­nam movies were all made af­ter the last he­li­copter left the roof of the Amer­i­can em­bassy,’’ he points out. This is true: John Wayne’s jin­go­is­tic The Green Berets , re­leased in 1968, is the only high- profile Hol­ly­wood movie about Viet­nam made as that war was un­fold­ing. It wasn’t un­til the pe­riod from 1977 to 1979, at least three years af­ter the Viet­nam War’s con­clu­sion, that the hal­cyon days of the genre be­gan: Go Tell the Spar­tans , Rolling Thun­der , He­roes , The Boys in Com­pany C, Who’ll Stop the Rain? , The Deer Hunter , Com­ing Home, More Amer­i­can Graf­fiti and Apoc­a­lypse Now all of­fered vivid por­tray­als of boots- on- the- ground com­bat and its last­ing ef­fects on the young men who fought them.

A sub­se­quent wave of movies that grap­pled with the psy­cho­log­i­cal stress of war lasted from roughly 1986 to 1994 and in­cluded Pla­toon , Full Metal Jacket , Born on the Fourth of July , Ca­su­al­ties of War and, more tan­gen­tially, For­rest Gump ( the sound­track of which un­der­scores one ir­refutable fact: Viet­nam had bet­ter mu­sic). With the ben­e­fit of per­spec­tive, th­ese films were sharper in their fo­cus and thus more palat­able to the pub­lic.

Much of that dra­matic ten­sion arose from a key dif­fer­ence be­tween the wars: the US sol­diers serv­ing in Iraq and Afghanistan vol­un­teered for duty, while the sol­diers in Viet­nam were drafted. The re­sult­ing re­luc­tance in­forms the drama, ren­der­ing the life- and- death strug­gles for sur­vival that much more mul­ti­fac­eted and ab­sorb­ing.

Sec­ond, says Wells, who has wran­gled th­ese points re­peat­edly on his Hol­ly­wood Else­where site, ‘‘ there have been no sur­real, eye- pop­ping, epic- scaled Iraq war movies along the lines of Apoc­a­lypse Now or any­thing that has at­tempted to sum up the tragedy of the war, ex­cept for one, In the Val­ley of Elah , which de­served a bet­ter re­cep­tion.’’

That it did: In the Val­ley of Elah is the most cu­mu­la­tively mov­ing and dra­mat­i­cally sat­is­fy­ing of the Iraq- themed movies to date. When his newly re­turned sol­dier son goes miss­ing, tac­i­turn re­tired ca­reer of­fi­cer Hank Deer­field ( Tommy Lee Jones) forms an un­sta­ble al­liance with a lo­cal cop ( Char­l­ize Theron) to dis­cover

‘ There have been no sur­real, eye- pop­ping, epic- scaled Iraq war movies along the lines of Apoc­a­lypse Now’

the truth. Though ev­ery bit as schematic as di­rec­tor Paul Hag­gis’s pre­vi­ous films, Os­car win­ners Mil­lion Dol­lar Baby and Crash , Elah rises above them by virtue of a multi- lay­ered script and crisp per­for­mances.

In an only- in- Hol­ly­wood irony, Jones, whose work in Elah gar­nered him a best ac­tor nom­i­na­tion at this year’s Academy Awards, costarred with William De­vane as re­turned Viet­nam sol­diers with noth­ing to lose and out for re­venge in 1977’ s Rolling Thun­der , the rep­u­ta­tion of which has gained in stature in the years since its re­lease. And he’ll play a ’ Nam vet again, nov­el­ist James Lee Burke’s Louisiana gumshoe Dave Ro­bicheaux, in French di­rec­tor Ber­trand Tav­ernier’s up­com­ing drama In the Elec­tric Mist .

Equally as af­fect­ing is the pre­cisely crafted yet lit­tle seen Grace is Gone , in which John Cu­sack plays an av­er­age, pa­tri­otic, ex- mil­i­tary Min­nesotan whose wife has just been killed while sta­tioned in Iraq.

Un­able to break the news to his young girls, he takes them on a road trip to work up the nerve. The film re­ceived ‘‘ a thun­der­ous ova­tion af­ter its Sun­dance film fes­ti­val pre­miere’’, re­mem­bers USA To­day correspondent and vet­eran film critic Har­lan Ja­cob­son, who runs the Talk Cin­ema pre- re­lease screen­ing and dis­cus­sion pro­gram in 14 US cities. ‘‘ It then went on and made a scan­dalously small amount of money. No­body wanted to see that at all, just not at all.’’

Mind­ful of the need to en­ter­tain, even if that en­ter­tain­ment proves trau­matic, Wells of­fers his third point: ‘‘ Ev­ery­one is wait­ing for a fac­sim­ile of the last 40 per cent of Stan­ley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket , which is ar­guably the best Viet­nam War film.’’

While the lat­ter sen­ti­ment is a mat­ter of opin­ion, there’s no doubt­ing the ab­sence of the for­mer in movies ad­dress­ing Iraq and Mid­dle East un­rest. Wells is re­fer­ring to the ter­ri­fy­ing skir­mishes and fi­nal con­fronta­tion that con­cludes Kubrick’s film, which was shot in and around an aban­doned gas­works near Lon­don but is as re­al­is­tic and im­me­di­ate as any bat­tle se­quence put to film.

By stark con­trast, the mod­ern war movie re­fracts much of the fight­ing through new tech­nolo­gies, in­clud­ing mo­bile phone cam­eras, sur­veil­lance equip­ment and night- vi­sion gog­gles. ( James Cameron’s Aliens was one of the first mod­ern ac­tion films to har­ness this tech­nol­ogy.) View­ers are thus one step fur­ther re­moved from the fic­tion­alised theatre of war and an even greater dis­tance from the vi­car­i­ous thrills of­fered by the genre.

It’s al­most as if the film­mak­ers are so ner­vous about de­pict­ing the vi­o­lence of war that it is of­fered only in fleet­ing glimpses. This is par­tic­u­larly frus­trat­ing to the mo­ti­vated cin­ema­goer as, un­like in the press cov­er­age of Viet­nam, there’s lit­tle au­then­tic com­bat footage on the evening news. Also ab­sent with­out leave is the cross- cul­tural, class- bridg­ing ca­ma­raderie among war­riors found in the best com­bat films, the sense of mate­ship in the face of a com­mon en­emy that goes as far back as Henry V’s ‘‘ band of brothers’’ speech and is an es­sen­tial dra­matic build­ing block of war film plots.

For all its sec­ond- half weak­nesses, Sav­ing Private Ryan worked be­cause of th­ese bonds. In the same vein, Black Hawk Down pos­sesses both up­lift and an­guish pre­cisely be­cause the sol­diers refuse to leave their own be­hind.

Tak­ing a far dif­fer­ent tack, it’s the comic in­ter­play among the mot­ley band of mer­ce­nar­ies in the days fol­low­ing the 1991 Gulf War that makes Three Kings among the best of the war movies of the past decade: a clash of per­son­al­i­ties and mo­ti­va­tions in­spired, how­ever cir­cuitously, by the vir­tu­ally forgotten but im­mensely en­ter­tain­ing Clint East­wood World War II ca­per film Kelly’s He­roes , which was made in 1970.

And there’s an­other key el­e­ment miss­ing: hu­mour. Three Kings gets away with the laughs be­cause, in the short term, the US won the Gulf War. The gam­bit also works be­cause it ‘‘ plays with the male sense of con­trol’’, Ja­cob­son ex­plains. Not only is there a suf­fo­cat­ing sense of grav­i­tas in vir­tu­ally all of the con­tem­po­rary Iraq films but, he con­cludes of the down­beat sto­ry­lines and op­er­a­tional tur­moil, ‘‘ no­body re­gains con­trol to re­as­sure the pub­lic’’.

Once more dur­ing times of so­cial up­heaval, non­fic­tion films have pro­vided a valu­able cho­rus of voices. Melbourne- born Eva Orner re­cently re­ceived the doc­u­men­tary Os­car for Taxi to the Dark Side , di­rec­tor Alex Gib­ney’s ex­plo­ration of the mis­taken cap­ture, tor­ture and mur­der of an in­no­cent Afghan cab­bie by US forces in 2002.

Other sub­jects range from the plight of an Iraqi rock band, Heavy Metal in Bagh­dad, to ac­claimed doc­u­men­tar­ian Er­rol Mor­ris’s ex­am­i­na­tion of the Abu Ghraib scan­dal, Stan­dard Op­er­at­ing Pro­ce­dure .

Deb­o­rah Scran­ton’s The War Tapes is com­posed of filmed mis­sives from com­bat sol­diers, while a pair of am­bi­tious doc­u­men­tary fea­tures, Charles Fer­gu­son’s No End in Sight and the ex­haus­tively ti­tled War Made Easy: How Pres­i­dents & Pun­dits Keep Spin­ning Us to Death , of­fer well- re­searched the­ses on just how the US got into this predica­ment in the first place.

Vet­eran rocker Neil Young has even chimed in, break­ing out his di­rec­tor al­ter- ego Bernard Shakey for CSNY Deja Vu, which traces the su­per­group Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young on their 2006 re­union tour as they per­form a clutch of Young- penned anti- war songs with catchy ti­tles along the lines of Let’s Im­peach the Pres­i­dent .

To put this in his­tor­i­cal per­spec­tive, two Viet­nam- themed doc­u­men­taries won Os­cars in that cat­e­gory: the French- made The An­der­son Pla­toon in 1967 and Hearts and Minds in 1974. For the lat­ter, di­rec­tor Peter Davis took great pains to ex­plore the Viet­nam quag­mire from both sides of the is­sue, and at the time it was one of the few non­fic­tion films on the war to play the­atri­cally in the US.

In fiction and doc­u­men­tary alike, it’s one thing to talk about th­ese movies, but an al­to­gether dif­fer­ent propo­si­tion to see them. Are Aus­tralian dis­trib­u­tors step­ping up to re­lease this ma­te­rial?

‘‘ Peo­ple are ig­nor­ing the war in the real world, why would they go see it in a theatre?’’ says Troy Lum, co- owner of lead­ing Aus­tralian spe­cialty dis­trib­u­tor Hop­scotch Films.

Though no stranger to con­tro­versy, hav­ing re­leased Michael Moore’s Fahren­heit 9/ 11 and the Hitler movie Down­fall to Aus­tralian cine­mas, Lum has no in­ter­est in fea­tures or doc­u­men­taries in­volv­ing the Iraq con­flict and ex­plains that busi­ness- fu­elled de­ci­sion as ‘‘ com­pletely con­scious. I wouldn’t touch those with a barge pole. In 10 or 15 years, maybe we’ll be ready.’’

There are two high- profile Iraq war movies on the hori­zon far sooner than that. Boys Don’t Cry di­rec­tor Kim­berly Peirce’s Stop- Loss stars Ryan Phillippe as an Iraq war vet­eran forced to re­turn to ac­tive ser­vice who goes AWOL, with Aus­tralian Ab­bie Cor­nish as his best friend’s girl­friend and part­ner in AWOL flight. Its open­ing in the US late last month gar­nered mixed yet en­cour­ag­ing re­views. More likely to of­fer a tra­di­tional war movie ex­pe­ri­ence is the re­lease later this year of The Hurt Locker , from ac­tion movie vet­eran Kathryn Bigelow.

Oddly enough, the mid­dle of this year will bring a Viet­nam War com­edy to US screens, Tropic Thun­der , about a rag­tag group of ac­tors mak­ing a big- bud­get war movie who are forced to en­gage in the real thing. Some­one ap­par­ently be­lieves 33 years is the right amount of time for a light- hearted look at South­east Asian com­bat.

In the mean­time, dis­trib­u­tors are pro­ceed­ing with cau­tion. Stop- Loss is sched­uled for a midAu­gust re­lease in Aus­tralia; Grace is Gone sits in limbo af­ter be­ing shown to the press last year by dis­trib­u­tor Road­show; and Redacted has se­cured an Aus­tralian dis­trib­u­tor in Mad­man Films but no firm re­lease date.

But that’s not as grim as the sit­u­a­tion for doc­u­men­tary- maker Nick Broom­field’s first dra­matic fea­ture, the ex­cel­lent Bat­tle for Ha­ditha , which doesn’t have a dis­trib­u­tor here or in the US.

Television may or may not step up to the plate with air­ings of the doc­u­men­tary ma­te­rial.

Of course, The Deer Hunter isn’t the only war movie to have won the cov­eted best pic­ture Academy award.

Two of the first four best pic­ture Os­cars went to films de­pict­ing the chaos of World War I, Wings in 1927- 28 and All Quiet on the West­ern Front for 1929- 30.

Note that, once again, close to a decade had passed be­fore Hol­ly­wood tack­led the sub­ject. Us­ing this logic, for a film about the Iraq war to score with the pub­lic, the crit­ics and the in­dus­try, it would have to have the ben­e­fit of some years’ per­spec­tive fol­low­ing the con­flict.

‘‘ We’re not far enough away from the ex­pe­ri­ence yet,’’ Ja­cob­son says, echo­ing Lum’s sen­ti­ment but adding an el­e­ment of hope. ‘‘ Ev­ery­thing has its cy­cle.’’

But to be­gin gain­ing that per­spec­tive, the Iraq war would have to end.

Ed­die Cock­rell is a US film critic cov­er­ing in­ter­na­tional fes­ti­vals for the trade pa­per Variety who has re­cently moved to Syd­ney.

Don’t come too close: Clock­wise from main pic­ture, far left, Ge­orge Clooney, Mark Wahlberg and Ice Cube in Three Kings ; a scene from Full Metal Jacket ; John Wayne in The Green Berets ; Robert De Niro and Meryl Streep in The Deer Hunter ; and Den­nis Hop­per and Martin Sheen in Apoc­a­lypse Now Re­dux

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