Why are the Iraq War movies tanking? | Film Review | Indy Week
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Why are the Iraq War movies tanking? 

Brian De Palma's Redacted illustrates why Iraq movies aren't as good as Vietnam movies

click to enlarge North Carolina School of the Arts graduate Daniel Stewart Sherman, bundled with gear as B.B. Rush in Redacted - PHOTO COURTESY OF MAGNOLIA PICTURES

A few weeks ago, Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks and a maverick in the movie distribution business, was singled out by Bill O'Reilly for distributing Redacted, a new movie set in Iraq. The O'Reilly Factor host charged Cuban with "having a grudge against this country" and suggested that the film would put American troops in danger. Cuban's company, Magnolia Pictures, embraced this free publicity and trumpeted other quotes that called the film "essential" and "incendiary."

But how incendiary can a film be if no one sees it? Redacted is based on an actual war atrocity committed by members of the U.S. Army a mere 20 months ago in Iraq. The incidents dramatized in the film are upsetting, but even goosing the free publicity of Fox News blowhards hasn't been enough to generate heat for it.

In its initial release two weekends ago, Redacted managed to do worse than failing to meet expectations. It sank without a trace, earning about $25,000 in its first three days of release in New York, Los Angeles and a dozen other major markets. This is particularly startling because Redacted is the work of Brian De Palma, a major Hollywood director with many hits to his name, including Carrie, The Untouchables and Mission: Impossible.

The evident failure of Redacted, then, makes it the latest addition to the uniformly miserable box office fate of an entire generation of movies dealing with the present troubles in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Global War on Terror (G.W.O.T.). Furthermore, the continued failure of G.W.O.T. movies stands in marked contrast to the far superior and much more popular Vietnam movies.

click to enlarge Reese Witherspoon in Rendition - PHOTO BY SAM EMERSON/NEW LINE CINEMA
  • Photo by Sam Emerson/New Line Cinema
  • Reese Witherspoon in Rendition

Just look at this season: Did you see Rendition, the Reese Witherspoon vehicle, in which she played a character named Isabella Fields El-Ibrihimi, which also featured such A-listers as Meryl Streep and Jake Gyllenhaal? That film concerned the practice of illegally kidnapping suspect individuals and transporting them to secret prisons, and not many people saw it. Rendition grossed just under $10 million—an abject flop.

How about Lions for Lambs, a film with Robert Redford, Tom Cruise and, again, Meryl Streep, that tried to sort out the causal relationship between Washington policy and bloodshed in Afghanistan? This intelligent but dramatically moribund, glorified TV movie is still in theaters, barely, and it's made about $12 million.

To be fair, neither Rendition nor Lions for Lambs received many enthusiastic reviews, but that wasn't the case with a documentary about the conduct of the Iraq War called No End in Sight, released last summer to uniformly excellent notices. To date, it has earned about $400,000—not so bad for a documentary ... about birds or esoteric architects.

To this brief list of recent noble failures, we can add A Mighty Heart, about Daniel Pearl with Angelina Jolie, which failed despite generally positive reviews; In the Valley of Elah, a home-front murder story that grossed a disappointing $7 million despite a top-shelf creative team that included writer/ director Paul Haggis (Crash), Tommy Lee Jones, Susan Sarandon and Charlize Theron—and now Redacted. Later this season, we'll see a couple more movies on this theme: Grace is Gone, with John Cusack, which concerns a civilian father who needs to tell his daughters that their mother has died in Iraq; and Charlie Wilson's War, with Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts, which purports to be the story of a swashbuckling operative who funneled guns to the Afghan mujahedeen in the 1980s (thus showing a shift in emphasis and tone that could help this film be the exception that proves the rule).

click to enlarge Sean Penn (left) and Michael J. Fox square off in Brian De Palma's 1989 film Casualties of War. - PHOTO COURTESY OF COLUMBIA PICTURES

So, what's going on? One might argue war fatigue, that we're tired of hearing what we already know and are powerless to change. That's undoubtedly true, as far as it goes. But consider the Vietnam War, an equally unpopular conflict, and the movies it produced: Coming Home, The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now, Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, Good Morning Vietnam and De Palma's Casualties of War. You might also add Robert Altman's MASH; although it was set during the Korean War, the fact that it was made in 1970 and featured such hipster actors as Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould marked it clearly as a response to Vietnam. And you might add Taxi Driver, which told the story of the most famous Vietnam vet the movies have created—with the possible exception of the action hero who would figure in the phenomenally popular, revisionist Rambo movies.

It's no contest, as you can see. It's true that most of the Vietnam movies were made after the end of hostilities there, but it's hard to imagine a similar generation of movies emerging from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, even after they end (whenever that might be). As it happens, De Palma's Redacted is, unintentionally, the perfect film with which to understand the difference in film quality and audience response.

click to enlarge Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney and George W. Bush, as seen in No End in Sight - PHOTO COURTESY OF MAGNOLIA PICTURES

From a moviemaking perspective, one crucial difference between the two wars, and one that makes drama difficult, is that Vietnam is a more interesting visual setting: Jungles and deltas, villages with thatched roofs and cities bustling with rickshaws—all of it is more picturesque than sand, flatness and bleached light. Redacted, like other Iraq films large and small, has little visual interest (with James Longley's documentary Iraq in Fragments being a valiant exception). Another technical problem is that soldiers in today's wars are heavily armored and laden with gear. Such equipment helps keep them safe, but it's hell on a movie in which we want to distinguish characters from one another.

More importantly, I think, the American culture of the 1960s infiltrated Vietnam in ways that were conducive to movie drama. Military discipline was slacker—soldiers went shirtless or wore their hair relatively long. Drug use was endemic and the fragging of superior officers was alarmingly commonplace. In short, Vietnam was a counterculture war, for the people who opposed it, for many who fought in it, and for the filmmakers who dramatized it. On the other hand, the G.W.O.T. is a subculture war—the fighting is being done by American from small rural communities who are largely invisible, unlike the middle-class college students who were vulnerable to the draft during Vietnam. Consequently, where does Iraq figure in our popular culture, or counterculture? What major decadent rock group will have a song associated with the G.W.O.T., the way we can't avoid thinking about Vietnam, napalm and the opening of Apocalypse Now when we hear "The End" by The Doors?

Another problem is that Iraq, as a cultural setting for movies, may simply be less engaging than Vietnam. This can hardly be held against the Iraqis, of course—they never asked to be the far-off backdrop for American war movies. Still, award-winning photojournalist Chris Hondros, an N.C. State graduate who has exhibited his Iraq work locally, spoke bluntly about his distaste for the land he has visited about a dozen times in a New York Times interview: "I don't like working in Iraq. The terrain is flat and uninteresting, the food is terrible, the weather is ridiculous, and to be honest, the people are not that charming or interesting."

While the Iraqis are understandably disinclined to be particularly hospitable, it's easy to see how Vietnam, with its Westernized, French colonial culture, its Western ideological struggle between Communism and colonialism, and its greater appeal to Western decadent pleasures—be it in the form of alcohol, drugs, sex or pho soup—makes for a relatively inviting environment for journalists and filmmakers, if not necessarily soldiers.

The Vietnam War coincided with the period that film critics never tire of celebrating, the New Hollywood of the 1970s. Spawned from the 1960s counterculture, and given a measure of creative freedom by sclerotic movie studios, filmmakers such as Robert Altman, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Hal Ashby and Michael Cimino churned out fresh, idiosyncratic and personal films (as did their financially more successful brethren, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas). Brian De Palma, too, was a member of this crowd. Armed with hippie attitude and an anything-goes spirit, such filmmakers were able to tell countercultural versions of the Vietnam conflict that were also consummately and excitingly crafted.

click to enlarge Meryl Streep and Tom Cruise in Lions for Lambs - PHOTO COURTESY OF UNITED ARTISTS INC.
  • Photo courtesy of United Artists Inc.
  • Meryl Streep and Tom Cruise in Lions for Lambs

This isn't the place to belabor the dearth of such talent today; although the existence of such young filmmakers as Andersons Wes and P.T. are cause for optimism in some quarters, it's hard to imagine either of them attempting an Iraqi Apocalypse Now (although I'd like to see them try). What's missing from the G.W.O.T. films that are being made is a sense of poetry, a sense of genuine drama and, above all, a sense of the surreal and the absurd. Movies like Lions for Lambs are so deadened by their earnest self-importance that they're dramatically inert. Would it occur to any of the present filmmakers to have a scene with Playboy bunnies on a U.S.O. tour, as in Apocalypse Now, for instance, or to create a mythic, Hemingway-esque narrative that connects men in their homes and on the battlefield, a la The Deer Hunter? To do that would take genuine creative spark on the part of filmmakers who are able to transcend the topicality of their material, and who aren't afraid of risks. (Strangely enough, the most compelling sketch of a soldier in the present conflict came last spring in the form of Justin Timberlake's frightened hillbilly in the otherwise risible Black Snake Moan, a film by a director, Craig Brewer, who is, for better and worse, unafraid of risk.)

This is why it's so dispiriting to see De Palma, a filmmaker from the New Hollywood generation, give up the scalpel (and magic wand) of his best work and take up today's bludgeon of conventional liberal outrage.

For much of De Palma's career, he has been notable for his willingness to belly-flop (and boy has he made people wet: Body Double, The Bonfire of the Vanities, Mission to Mars). He is, first, foremost and sometimes notoriously, a voluptuous film stylist. He's at his best in stories of sex and murder, and he likes nothing better than showing beautiful, semi-clad blondes like Angie Dickinson and Rebecca Romijn in the presence of deadly weapons. It's a talent that has sometimes been confused with importance, but there's no denying the lurid appeal of his best—and worst—films.

click to enlarge Sense of the surreal: the "Last Supper" in MASH - PHOTO COURTESY OF TWENTIETH-CENTURY FOX
  • Photo courtesy of Twentieth-Century Fox
  • Sense of the surreal: the "Last Supper" in MASH

But with Redacted, in which he tries to make a documentary-style film, using raw primary sources and intentionally crude videotaping techniques, De Palma unfortunately relinquishes his greatest asset as a filmmaker. He may consider Redacted a more important film than, say, Femme Fatale—and one supposes that it is—but it's not a better film.

De Palma came to this project when a representative of a Mark Cuban and Todd Wagner-owned video on-demand service called HDNet asked him to consider making a film for that distribution channel. De Palma agreed, if he could come up with material suited for it. At this time, in early 2006, news broke of a revolting crime committed by a group of American soldiers in Mahmoudiya, Iraq, in which they raped a 14-year-old girl, killed her and her family, and set fire to her corpse to dispose of the evidence. (The alleged ringleader—an apparently psychopathic 20-year-old punk—was discharged from the Army for a personality disorder and now faces prosecution as a civilian; he was apprehended for that purpose in Asheville, N.C.)

Redacted is a companion piece to De Palma's own Casualties of War, another entrée into the canon of Vietnam flicks that told of a similarly true violation of a Vietnamese girl. When I saw Casualties of War upon its 1989 release, the outrages committed against the girl horrified me; compared to the violence shown in Redacted that fails to shock us, it seems quaint. In addition to the rape and murder of a teenage civilian girl, Redacted gives us the casual (off-screen) slaughter of her family, the checkpoint shooting of a pregnant woman, a death by I.E.D., before-and-after beheading videos and, as a grand finale, a closing montage of dead and maimed Iraqi civilians—including at least one image by Hondros—with an excruciatingly inappropriate operatic accompaniment ("E lucevan le stele," from Puccini's Tosca). There's no denying that these pictures are horrible, but most of us have glimpsed these images before, and it's unclear why De Palma thinks showing them once again will elicit anything more than momentary pity.

click to enlarge The eye glasses mean he's the squad intellectual: Kel O'Neill as Gabe Blix in Redacted - PHOTO COURTESY OF MAGNOLIA PICTURES

The failures of Redacted are partly failures of craft. The screenplay clearly was written in great haste: Much of the dialogue is shockingly rhetorical and tone deaf, and everywhere it is unsurprising. Each scene builds to an expected narrative signpost, and there is no attempt to shade any of the five squad members: The two that initially appear to be racist, homicidal goons are, in fact, racist, homicidal goons, while the bookworm, the Boy Scout and the wannabe filmmaker behave with varying levels of humanity according to their type. The actors are mostly recent graduates of drama school and Law & Order, and it shows in their exaggerated gestures that seem to be imitative rather than inspired.

Only the filmmaker character is ambiguous—he's eager to catch some gnarly stuff for the video diary that will be his ticket to film school—but the complicity of the supposedly neutral observer is an old theme and De Palma has nothing new to add. If you're looking for a movie that explains how decent kids can turn into monsters under the stress of war, this isn't it.

These failures are not the interesting failures—although they are the kinds of failures that can earn bad reviews and leave viewers groaning at De Palma's mastery of the obvious. No, the more interesting failures in Redacted are the honorable ones, the result of De Palma conducting worthwhile experiments with his narrative materials. Redacted is not told as a conventional movie, with either an omniscient point of view or a restricted perspective. Instead, Redacted is designed to be a collection of documents—it tells its story with the uniquely 21st-century materials that have been used to broadcast the war. These primary sources include Internet video chats, al-Qaida Web sites (complete with videos of beheadings), an American antiwar Web site, surveillance videos from the base camp, the video diary that one soldier keeps, and so on. There is also a fake French documentary about the Iraq checkpoints, which catches a crucial incident in the story (much like the French filmmakers who happened to be following the FDNY on Sept. 11).

As worthy as this experimental narrative is, it doesn't work. The problem is that we're already so exhausted by the surfeit of information that feeds Redacted's script. While the modern tools of communication have their benefits, it's been disastrous for artists who think authenticity is a substitute for artistry. While reading dozens of military blogs can supply you with up-to-the-minute slang and quotidian detail, these factually correct presentations also demystify the subject. It's up to the artist to re-mystify the subject, to turn it into drama or tragedy or comedy. One artist who has used documentary research to brilliant effect is Garry Trudeau, whose compassionate Doonesbury strips about military life are essential reading.

The marketing of Redacted surely was hindered by its uninviting title. De Palma chose it because he wanted to stress all the information that Americans aren't getting, that's being redacted out of media narratives. "The true story of our Iraq War has been redacted from the Main Stream Corporate Media," De Palma writes in a director's statement. "If we are going to cause such disorder then we must face the horrendous images that are the consequences of these actions."

Lights out in Iraq, in Redacted - PHOTO COURTESY OF MAGNOLIA PICTURES

But, while the "Main Stream Corporate Media" deserves much of the criticism it gets, it's also true that there has been excellent reporting over the past few years by physically brave and morally courageous journalists. Photographers such as Hondros continue to work in Iraq, and, closer to home, Barbara Barrett's fine series in the News & Observer detailed the physical and psychological damage the war is inflicting on members of the N.C. National Guard. As for pictures of violence, an Internet search will turn up all the atrocity photos and videos you can stomach.

The information is out there, along with the horrendous images, for those who want to know. If anything, De Palma has it exactly backward: The problem may be too much information. That is to say, despite all this information, we have so little power to stop George Bush's dumb, destructive war.

If the supply of information increases without a concomitant increase in power, the information becomes devalued. Knowledge is no longer power. But maybe art is.

Redacted opens this Friday, Nov. 30, at Raleigh's Colony Theatre. Visit the film's official Web site at www.redactedmovie.com.

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