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.
Steven Bochco, the celebrated TV writer-producer who created "Over There," says it's difficult to create a drama about a war when viewers are witnessing the real thing in real time. "In hindsight," Bochco says, "my general feeling is that people were seeing horrific images [from the war] on TV every day on the news, and it was depressing, and it was very realistic." With that as backdrop, he says, a series about the war "was more than people wanted to take in."
Bochco suggests that Americans feel "a certain sense of powerlessness" about the war's direction that may fuel their indifference to dramatic portrayals of it.
With an eye toward America's war-weariness, Paramount Pictures has downplayed Iraq in its marketing of "Stop-Loss." The trailer for the film, which was directed by Kimberly Peirce ("Boys Don't Cry"), contains a few scenes of combat, but emphasizes the attractive young cast and the small-town Texas setting. The theatrical poster shows the film's leads lounging on the hood of a car. It looks more like a scene from TV's "Friday Night Lights" than a military drama.
That's a smart approach, says Brandon Gray, president and publisher of Box Office Mojo, a movie-tracking online publication. Gray thinks "Stop-Loss," which has been heavily marketed to teens and 20-somethings through MTV Films, could be the first film to escape the fate of other Iraq movies. "It's a more intimate human drama than a preachy political film," Gray says. "It seems to be a more relatable picture than what we've seen so far about Iraq."
Peirce says the subject of Iraq isn't as problematic as the way it has been sold by movie marketers. "It's my job to entertain the audience," the director says. "That to me seemed to be the thing they didn't seem to find -- the thing that touches your heart or makes you say, 'I want to go see this because I want to get involved in that emotional experience.' "
She adds, "If you go back to the great war movies [she cites 'The Best Years of Our Lives' and 'Patton,' among others], I don't think it's an inherently difficult topic. I just think you have to find the humanity in it. There's a huge amount of humanity in conflict, in the families who are sending people over, what the culture here goes through and what goes on over there. You just have to find a way in."
Even with such an erratic track record, more films about the war are on their way. "The Hurt Locker," about an elite American bomb-disposal squad, recently completed production. "The Return," with Rachel McAdams as an Iraq war veteran, is scheduled for release early next year. In July, HBO will air a seven-part miniseries, "Generation Kill," based on journalist Evan Wright's account of the first few weeks of the American invasion. And Paul Greengrass ("The Bourne Ultimatum," "United 93") is currently filming a movie version of the book "Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone," by Washington Post staffer Rajiv Chandrasekaran. It stars Matt Damon.
Film historian Jonathan Kuntz of UCLA points out that most memorable war films appear many years after a conflict ends, when the nation has had time to reflect on the experience and a historical consensus emerges about the war's successes and failures.
The classic films about Vietnam -- starting with "The Deer Hunter," "Coming Home" and "Apocalypse Now" in 1978 and 1979 and ending with "Born on the Fourth of July" in 1989 -- came out years after the last U.S. serviceman had left the battlefield. "M*A*S*H," which was essentially an anti-Vietnam film but set in the Korean War, was released nearly 20 years after the Korean armistice.
But the outcome in Iraq remains an open question, with America's military commitment to the country under constant debate.
For now, Kuntz agrees with Bochco: "We're bombarded by information about [Iraq] 24 hours a day," he says. "We already know plenty about it. We don't need to learn more about it from the movies. Right now, it's something people want to forget and escape from. I speak for the American public when I say, 'What a bummer.' "
John Anderson contributed to this report.