Shame of a nation
Hollywood is finally getting to grips with Iraq - but can the flood of movies save the industry's reputation? By John Patterson Friday August 24, 2007The Guardian
Diluted political content... Jamie Foxx in The Kingdom.
The Hollywood studios have taken their own sweet time facing up to the Iraq war. The conflict has dragged on for four and a half years, longer than America's involvement in the second world war, yet only now is Hollywood beginning to address it head on. And even though documentarists have been tearing into the subject almost from the beginning - to say nothing of novelists, musicians, artists and even videogame designers - Iraq seems to have utterly paralysed Hollywood's ability to address war with its usual vigour and bloodthirsty enthusiasm.
In each month between now and March, however, American cinemas will release two movies dealing in different ways with Iraq, the Middle East, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, the war on terror, "extraordinary rendition" and returning war veterans, among other topics - which include grief, desertion, battlefield murder, rape, post-traumatic stress disorder and so-called "blowback", repercussions from botched, covert interference abroad - until recently considered too raw to be recreated on film for a nation at war.
Yet most of these big-budget movies seem weirdly apolitical in this deeply political time, never addressing the heart of the matter. The hard work of criticism and political analysis is actually being left to the small-budget, indie realm, or is done instead, like much other labour that Americans should be doing for themselves, by foreigners.
The long peace that America experienced between the fall of Saigon and 9/11 never dimmed its studios' enthusiasm for the war movie; indeed by the eve of the invasion in 2003, Hollywood was in the last throes of a five-year-long wave, initiated by Saving Private Ryan, of simultaneously revisionist and nostalgic Second World War movies. Essentially these were 1950s, Go-USA! flag-wavers with added Peckinpah blood and horror-movie mutilation, salted with the usual bogus war-is-hell bromides. The boomlet culminated with the D-Day episode of Band of Brothers, which premiered two nights before the invasion of Iraq began. And since then, almost nothing.
So what has made the difference over the past year? What has been dislodged to permit this sudden flood of movies that deal with the world we live in? Obviously the Congressional elections of 2006 were a sure sign that the triumphalist mission-accomplished mood had irrevocably dissipated and Bush was now a lame-duck president. A movie greenlighted the day after those elections would naturally now be reaching its release date, which maybe too glibly explains why the studio efforts are all arriving simultaneously: because there was nothing left to be afraid of.
But down below decks, where movies are dreamed up, clusters of writers, artists and directors have impatiently waited for Hollywood to get a clue about Iraq and the post-9/11 environment. Paul Greengrass, an indie sensibility with access to serious studio money, put it to me like this: "We have a requirement to speak of these things on film, because they are being explored endlessly on TV, in magazines, in books, the internet, everywhere. Somewhere, film, the principal way that we tell stories to each other, has got to engage with this cataclysmic event that drives our lives and our politics and has filled them both with so much fear."
That energy has been in the air since 9/12, but the avenues for its expression have only opened recently in Hollywood. With his post-Bourne stock on the rise, Greengrass now moves on to Imperial Life in the Emerald City, a docudrama account of the calamitously managed Iraq occupation. Many film-makers must envy him.
Someone who has already grappled with some of the issues of Iraq is writer-director James C Strouse, who had a hit at Sundance this spring with Grace Is Gone. He had the film's screenplay in the works for nearly two years before it was read by John Cusack in early 2006, meaning that his difficult theme - a man must work out how to tell his children their mother has died in Iraq, and for a cause he still believes in - had been on Strouse's mind since the first year of the war. "It's difficult to tell a story as it's developing," he says, "and I wasn't aiming to offer any definitive view of this war, because I don't think that's possible at this point. We are going to need time and distance for the story to be adequately told." But he felt that the war could still be approached from an oblique angle, on an intimate scale. Tellingly, in this time of political and social division, he sought to transcend politics.
"I thought there was a way of emotionally connecting with people on an issue that, at the time I started writing it, seemed really to have divided the country. I thought there was a common ground where everybody could come to the story and agree that this is a tragedy, and more complicated than my own political beliefs."
Cusack has previously said he was drawn to the piece because of the Pentagon's policy regarding soldiers' coffins. "When they banned photos of the dead coming home, I thought, 'My God, they think they can control death.' I've always thought you want to be in and of your time as an artist, so it seemed clear we've got to do stories about coffins coming home."
Grace's financing came from a consortium of politically progressive investors, but once the project was up and running - which happened very fast once Cusack signed on - help came from interesting quarters in Hollywood. "After Sundance we got the film to Clint Eastwood and - it was really kind of mind-blowing that he did this - he came on to score the movie for us," says Strouse. Eastwood's offer was too good to refuse, and his work replaced an earlier score by Max Richter.
One can understand why Eastwood got involved. Within the studio orbit, he has of late been making movies that mark a major break from the prevailing attitudes of the Republican party he supports. His Iwo Jima pictures went out of their way to depict war as a big lie, or to look at ourselves through our enemy's eyes - two unpardonable offences on the American right. This may be dissidence-lite on Eastwood's part, but it's still dissidence, hence his magnanimous commitment to a little movie that matters to him.
Eastwood's protégé, writer-director Paul Haggis, who co-wrote Letters from Iwo Jima, is about to release In the Valley of Elah, in which Tommy Lee Jones and Susan Sarandon (still the flame-haired bane of the right) are searching for their awol son after he gets back from Iraq. One senses here a visible section of a much larger community in Hollywood straining to express itself on the subject.
The Iwo Jima diptych also illustrates tendencies long embraced by Hollywood: displace the now into the past, the actual into the metaphorical, the centre to the edge. Although Hollywood didn't get around to dealing directly with Vietnam until 1978, with Go Tell the Spartans and The Boys in Company C, the war was nonetheless spectrally omnipresent in Hollywood movies from 1965 until the mid-1980s. Bonnie and Clyde, The Wild Bunch, The Last Detail, and Soldier Blue were all Vietnam movies. Catch-22 and M*A*S*H may have been set in the second world war and Korea, but no one doubted which war they were really addressing.
Since the onset of war in Iraq, many movies have fallen into a similar category. The Eastwood movies, Jarhead, the HBO prelude-to-Vietnam movie Path to War, Mel Gibson's Vietnam battlefield movie We Were Soldiers: these all wanted to be Iraq movies, but they didn't quite dare. Elsewhere, the 2003 remake of the rancid imperialist pot boiler The Four Feathers was surely the studios' ditziest response yet to 9/11, while Ridley Scott's confused, revisionist Crusades movie Kingdom of Heaven sought, however obscurely, to read the new conflict through an ancient one. Troy and 300 both looked at Iraq through the corner of one eye. Likewise those Ugly-American horror movies, such as Hostel and Paradise Lost, ponder that perennial post-9/11 American lament: "Why do they hate us so?"
The studios - the only people with enough money to do real cinematic justice to the enormity of war - are continuing in this vein today. Charlie Wilson's War takes the 25-year-old story of how a lowly Texas congressman with a taste for Playboy centrefolds and belly-dancers armed the Afghan mujahideen with the weapons that are now being pointed at American troops in that country. It's an epic of corruption and malfeasance, but with Tom Hanks in the role, rascality rather than villainy will no doubt be the order of the day.
The Kingdom, staring Jamie Foxx, is a big-budget thriller about American police officers investigating the bombing of an American installation in Saudi Arabia, and becoming targets themselves. It has the whiff of The Siege and Syriana, but with diluted political content. Lions for Lambs, Robert Redford's new movie about two idealistic soldiers in Afghanistan and their professor back in the States, has the same writer, Matthew Michael Carnahan, as The Kingdom, and the kind of stars (Meryl Streep, Tom Cruise) who, like Redford, never take very serious risks with political material. The only studio offering with any bite seems to be Kimberly Peirce's Stop Loss, which culminates with a soldier being murdered by his own platoon.
None of this impresses Andrew Eaton, who has produced dissident, non-studio, non-American movies about the post-9/11 environment under the old dispensation and the new: The Road to Guantánamo and A Mighty Heart. The American reception last year to the former was slanderous, contemptible and quite nakedly political, while the latter, despite its scenes of American officials present at torture sessions, has encountered no such opposition.
"Iraq's turning out to be a lot like last time," says Eaton. "Like with Vietnam, people are suddenly waking up four years later and saying, 'I ought to make a movie about this.' Maybe they're running out of exciting story material and the war offers good new stuff for them, but I'm not sure there's a massive curiosity about the politics themselves in America. Having made two movies like this, we're now getting every Iraq script under the sun sent to us, and most of them are dreadful: things like I Was Saddam's Body-Double.
We got a pitch the other day from our agents in America: 'What if Prince Harry had gone to Iraq with the SAS?' Well first off, he wasn't in the SAS. And second, who cares? Yet clearly they think that's a brilliant idea, and I'm sure someone's working hard on a script right this minute. The pitch they gave us was incredible: 'It's The Queen meets Black Hawk Down!'"
In European-UK financing, dissent is almost a virtue, he says. "In Hollywood, no matter how many intelligent people you meet, the bottom line is: you have to make money. With Guantánamo and A Mighty Heart, bizarrely, it's easier to get money here [in the UK]. It has its own topicality, and we're close to the TV world, where there's always more money than in film. And working on a small scale is easier - you get more freedom, in a way. Anything over five million, though, will struggle for finance without American money, which puts a limit on things."
Eaton acknowledges that raw political stories always get a frosty reception in Hollywood, even among the studio hierarchy. "Someone I thought of up to that point as a very well-read, well-educated executive at Fox actually said to me about Road to Guantánamo: 'I simply don't believe that American troops ever behaved in that way.' And it's slightly scary when you meet someone who's not even prepared to consider that those things might have occurred." And even scarier when their hand controls the green light.
· The Kingdom is released on October 5. Grace Is Gone is screened as part of the London film festival on October 25. In the Valley of Elah is released on January 18