Tak­ing a chance on war films Is turn­ing point pos­si­ble in pub­lic view on Iraq movies?

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. - BY SONNY BUNCH

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.”

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