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
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