Taking a chance on war films Is turning point possible in public view on Iraq movies?
It’s no secret that movies about the Iraq war have been box office flops. The reason for these failures has been hotly debated: Some argue that the public simply has “Iraq fatigue,” while others suggest that the public isn’t interested in entertainment that disparages the military.
A new documentary, “Brothers at War,” and a highly rated recent HBO movie, “Taking Chance,” may shed surprising new light on the controversy.
Hollywood’s negative attitude toward the war and U.S. troops as reflected on the big screen has been cited as one of the reasons that the myriad features made about the Iraq war, both dramatic and documentary, have been box office disasters.
Since 2003 there have been a string of antiwar misses like “Redacted,” “Home of the Brave,” and “The Lucky Ones,” none of which broke $300,000 at the box office.
Even Tom Cruise and Robert Redford couldn’t save the genre: Their “Lions for Lambs” took in only $15 million domestically, less than half of the film’s budget and Mr. Cruise’s lowest grossing release since 1983’s “Losin’ It.”
On television the story was much the same: The first episode of HBO’s “Generation Kill,” a series that was, at best, ambivalent about the Iraq war and the soldiers fighting it, drew 1.3 million viewers when it debuted.
But the success of HBO’s “Taking Chance” suggests that audiences aren’t necessarily suffering from Iraq fatigue and that they will respond to material about the war if the tone is right.
“Taking Chance” follows the journey of Lt. Col. Michael Strobl as he escorts the body of Pfc. Chance Phelps on a cross-country trip, focusing on the way heartland America reacts as they come into contact with a fallen soldier. The HBO production went to great lengths to not take a stand on the war in which Pfc. Phelps died, but treats his sacrifice with great reverence.
That neutrality seems to have paid off, as the television film was seen by 2 million viewers on its first night, the premium cable channel’s highest rated original film in more than five years.
While critical opinion was largely favorable, some critics decried a perceived crypto-militarism implicit in the material.
Describing “Taking Chance” as “a powerful statement about duty and honor” and “a work of transcendent sorrow and infinite dignity,” the New York Post’s Kyle Smith mocked movie blogger Jeffrey Wells for writing that it “sells the honor and glory of combat death in a ‘sensitive’ way that is not only cloying but borders on hucksterish” and is “a kind of obscenity.”
Mr. Wells doubled down after Mr. Smith’s column, writing at his site, Hollywood Elsewhere, that “[. . . ] you can’t honor a tragically fallen soldier without paying a kind of oblique respect to the conflict he fell in. There’s no separating the two, and the people standing up for this film know this full well. ‘Taking Chance’ gives voice to red-state sentiments about the valor of war.”
Another film that examines the “valor of war” through the prism of Iraq is about to dip a toe in box office waters, and its fate will provide another test of audience interests.
“Brothers at War” opens today in Washington, Chicago, and three locales with heavy military populations: Columbus, Ga.; Fayetteville, N.C.; and Jacksonville, N.C. Director Jake Rademacher and actor Gary Sinise, executive producer on the film, hope that the documentary will confirm public interest in learning about military lives unfiltered through the lens of an unfriendly media.
Telling the story of his two brothers in the Army, Isaac and Joe, and the effect that the war has had on them and their family’s lives, Mr. Rademacher travels to Iraq, embedding first with Isaac’s long distance recon unit and then with a squad of snipers in order to understand where his brothers are coming from. In so doing, he has brought to the screen a perspective on military life that has been absent for much of the Iraq war: that of the grunt and his family.
“There seemed to be a pretty big discrepancy between what I was watching on the news and what they were telling me from the front lines,” Mr. Rademacher says. “What’s a little frustrating for [the soldiers] is that it’s very focused on the body count and if there is an explosion that day somewhere — and that’s pretty much the end of it.”
Mr. Sinise, a veteran of many USO tours, was struck by the movie’s unique point of view. “I’ve been going to Iraq since ‘03 and always have seen a different side of the story than what is constantly portrayed on the news,” he says.
For their part, Mr. Sinise and Mr. Rademacher have tried to distance the film from questions of politics or the justness of the Iraq war, just as HBO did with “Taking Chance.”
“This is just a truthful, personal look at military service, military families, about what’s going on in Iraq,” says Mr. Sinise.
“It doesn’t really take a political perspective, but it’s told from [the point of view of] a family member who wants to know the truth,” adds Mr. Rademacher.
Those in the industry will be watching the box office take of “Brothers at War” this weekend (and next, when distributor Samuel Goldwyn Films expands it to 25 markets), curious to see whether or not there’s a market for a movie with a sympathetic take on the troops.
Capt. Isaac Rademacher (above left) talks with his brother, director and producer Jake Rademacher, in “Brothers at War.” Kevin Bacon (below) appears in the highly rated HBO war film “Taking Chance.”