The Iraq War, in Hollywood's Theater

A look at Hollywood's recent spate of movies that touch on the war on terror, a list that includes few bona fide box office hits.
By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 25, 2008

After five years of conflict in Iraq, Hollywood seems to have learned a sobering lesson: The only things less popular than the war itself are dramatic films and television shows about the conflict.

A spate of Iraq-themed movies and TV shows haven't just failed at the box office. They've usually failed spectacularly, despite big stars, big budgets and serious intentions.

The underwhelming reception from the public raises a question: Are audiences turned off by the war, or are they simply voting against the way filmmakers have depicted it?

The latest Iraq war film, the gritty "Stop-Loss," which opens Friday, focuses on a young American soldier (Ryan Phillippe) who returns home from combat only to be ordered back into service under the Army's involuntary "stop-loss" recruitment measure. The movie raises some pointed questions about the policy and about the war's impact on the minds and bodies of the people fighting it.

Which means, if recent history is any guide, that "Stop-Loss" could have a tough time finding an audience.

The Iraq war-themed "In the Valley of Elah," starring Tommy Lee Jones and Susan Sarandon, received mixed critical notices and did little business upon its release last September (total domestic gross: $6.8 million). "Redacted," a Brian De Palma-directed film about a renegade Army unit, was barely seen when it came out in limited release in November (it grossed just $65,388).

An even more paltry reception greeted "Grace Is Gone" (2007), in which star John Cusack deals with the aftermath of his wife's death in Iraq; "Home of the Brave" (2006), about a group of soldiers (including Samuel L. Jackson and Jessica Biel) adjusting to life after the war; and "The Situation" (2006), about a love triangle set amid the conflict.

The picture isn't much brighter when the frame is widened to include recent films dealing with the war on terrorism.

Meryl Streep appeared in two such flops last year, "Lions for Lambs" (with Tom Cruise and Robert Redford) and "Rendition" (with Reese Witherspoon and Jake Gyllenhaal). "The Kingdom," an anti-terrorism thriller set in Saudi Arabia, with Jamie Foxx and Jennifer Garner as FBI agents, fared somewhat better. It took in $47.5 million in its domestic release -- although that looks modest in light of "Kingdom's" $70 million production budget. (For the sake of comparison, "The Bourne Ultimatum," a big hit last summer, generated $227.5 million in domestic ticket sales.)

Comedy -- if there's anything to laugh about -- hasn't worked much better. Last summer's egregious "Delta Farce," about Iraq-bound soldiers who fail to realize they've actually landed in Mexico, ginned up only $8 million. (The San Francisco Chronicle summed up the film this way: "The characters are ignorant and borderline racists, but at least they're self-loathing borderline racists.") Next month's "Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay" promises a strange blend of stoner humor and mistaken-identity-terrorist antics.

Documentaries chronicling the war have been among the best-reviewed films of the past few years, but they, too, have struggled commercially. One example: "Taxi to the Dark Side," which in February won the Oscar for Best Documentary for its exploration of torture in Iraq and Afghanistan, has earned about $180,000 since its release, or roughly what "Spider-Man 3" took in at a couple of multiplexes during its opening weekend. Another acclaimed doc of 2007, "No End in Sight," earned a modest $1.4 million. (The gigantic exception in this category is, of course, Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11," which is the highest-grossing documentary ever; it has generated $222.4 million in ticket sales worldwide since its release in mid-2004.)

On television, the first and only series about Americans in Iraq, "Over There," lasted just 13 episodes in the summer of 2005 before being dropped by cable's FX channel.

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