It used to be so easy for Hollywood to make war movies. Back in the days when everyone in America could agree that chasing down Hitler was a good thing to do—and when everyone wanted to get revenge on the Japanese for attacking Pearl Harbor—it was a no-brainer to put a bunch of macho actors together to win one for God and country.
But things got murkier in the late 1970s, when the Vietnam War opened a great divide in the American psyche and the return of emotionally and physically damaged soldiers led to a new breed of war film. For while the 1946 classic The Best Years of Our Lives stood out for decades for its depiction of Marines, soldiers and sailors returning from war—one of them the remarkably adept and upbeat Harold Russell, a war-wounded double-amputee—suddenly there was a new wave of darker films embraced both at the box office and by Oscar, with Jon Voight winning the gold statue for Best Actor in Coming Home and The Deer Hunter winning Best Picture. Yet even those films emerged several years after the war was declared over.
That's why it's surprising to see Hollywood dishing out films tackling the complex, morally nebulous nature of the so-called “war on terror” as it's happening. It took nearly five years for the studios to release the first filmic responses to these times, with Syriana and United 93 emerging in spring 2006. Then the Charles Ferguson documentary No End in Sight, which illuminated the deceptions and distortions that the Bush administration used to get us into Iraq and keep us there, came out on July 29 and proved so incendiary that it provoked not only a New York Times op-ed piece by former Bush official L. Paul Bremer defending war policies but even inspired Ferguson to make a video rebuttal to Bremer's response.
But with the downbeat In the Valley of Elah and the rah-rah, go-America action rave-up The Kingdom in theaters now and the often-grim Rendition coming out on Oct. 19, the movie industry is shining a light into the darkness and illuminating some of the nation's biggest questions at a rapid-fire pace. And the Nov. 16 release of director Brian DePalma's Redacted—which claims to be based on real-life incidents and depicts U.S. soldiers raping and murdering a young Iraqi girl—promises to take things to an ever-higher level of controversy.
“There were far more war movies during the World War II era because there weren't as many media to witness things—there was no television or cable, so movies were the biggest way to give people a window into what it was like,” says Jonathan Kuntz, a visiting professor of film, television and visual arts at UCLA. “Now you're often overwhelmed with the visual information on TV and the Internet, so there's not as vital a need for films being made immediately.
“I think studios were afraid of controversy and that it would cost them money at the box office, but [2004 documentary smash] Fahrenheit 911 opened the floodgates for these films to be made because it showed that you can be controversial and still have a blockbuster,”
Indeed, the question of how to address the issues of the war on terror without turning off potential viewers is a thorny one. After all, when you're confronted with death and destruction each night on the news, how eager are you to see a film like In the Valley of Elah—about a father investigating the mysterious death of his soldier son, who was brutally murdered while on a furlough from Iraq?
Rendition takes viewers on an even darker journey, as it explores the morality of the controversial Bush-administration practice of extraordinary rendition. The policy has allowed hundreds of mostly Arab suspected terrorists to be captured without a warrant or explanation of charges before being flown without warning to other nations whose laws are far more lax about interrogation techniques.
That so many major players are eager to express their political views through their work is a boon to the studios. Elah proudly boasts Oscar-winning actors Tommy Lee Jones and Charlize Theron, as well as directing nominee and two-time screenwriting winner Paul Haggis at the helm of the film. And Rendition offers an almost ridiculous bounty of award-winners, with Oscar nominee Jake Gyllenhaal in the lead as a morally conflicted CIA agent and Oscar winners Reese Witherspoon, Alan Arkin and Meryl Streep in support under the direction of Gavin Hood, who took home a statue in 2005 as director of Best Foreign Film winner Tsotsi.
“It's clear that actors are often very publicly political people,” says Kuntz, who has yet to see the three films. “And when they get a chance to say something through their art, they'll jump onboard together even if the subject is grim.” For Rendition director Hood, who started directing after establishing a law career in his native South Africa, the biggest challenge lay in finding the fine line between educating audiences through entertainment and scaring them away from the tough subject. But in choosing the film from the more than 70 screenplays he was offered in the wake of his Oscar win, he realized that the script's take on current American judicial ethics was too important to pass up.“I feel we're living in a constitutional crisis. I really do,” says Hood, bouncing with energy in an interview at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. “I lived in a country, South Africa, when, as a law student in the 1980s, we had detentions without trial and not a lot of access to lawyers, and we looked at the U.S. Constitution as the type of document we really needed. So to be living in America right now, which I love and my kids have been born in, amid all this is a little bit of déjà vu.
“Are we sure that after 200-plus years of a Constitution and certain principles America has stood by through World War II and nuclear threats and the Cuban missile crisis—some major threats—is this threat so different that we might actually abandon the great founding principles of this nation?” he continues. “And I get really mad that those of us who wish to engage in this debate are being accused of being unpatriotic. Well, excuse me!”
Hood's most difficult call in filming Rendition lay in how much torture to show. In a world where the Hostel and Saw films offer up torture for titillation, he knew it was vital to not exploit the horrors involved in such well-documented situations as Abu Ghraib or the mysterious “black prisons” used in the CIA's rendition programs. At the same time, he couldn't shy away.
“If you look at what we did, we showed the victim hit with one strong hit from the side. I think the truth about violence is that once you realize it's real, and not ‘movie violence' of a hero pummeling the baddies, then it's so shocking to see one person hit another hard, even once, that you don't need to overdo it,” says Hood. “You really see just one hit, a guy pouring a bucket of water over the man's face while he's blindfolded to make him think he's drowning, stick him in a confined hole and then a quick shot of him being electrocuted. We literally discussed in the editing how long to stay on it, because we wanted to show it long enough to have an impact without losing people from the theater. We want to inspire a debate.”
One media critic who's ready to rumble with the Hollywood left is Michael Medved. After launching his film-criticism career with the highly amusing Golden Turkey Awards that spotlighted the worst films in Hollywood history, he was co-host of the PBS movie-review series Sneak Previews before embarking on his current career as a nationally syndicated conservative talk-radio host and author of cultural critiques such as Hollywood Vs. America.
Speaking by phone from Seattle, Medved said that he believes many of the bleaker films about the military and espionage worlds are driven by anti-American agendas. He notes that such films often defy all business logic, because the public often shuns films that portray the U.S. government in a negative light.
“One of the things that's revealing about Valley of Elah is that Paul Haggis has been prominently involved in extreme left-wing activity with groups like World Can't Wait! Drive Out the Bush Regime,” says Medved.
“When you read the real story of the real case that allegedly inspired this film, I have no idea what Elah has to do with it. Haggis has Tommy Lee Jones' character tell the story of David and Goliath and says it takes place in the valley of Elah, but the Bible makes no mention of Elah, and so Haggis is being dishonest even in his very title just so he can have a metaphor of Tommy Lee Jones being a David against the Goliath of a U.S. Army cover-up.”
But it's Medved himself who's wrong on this front: A quick Google search of “David, Goliath, Elah” reveals that the battle indeed took place in Elah. But Medved does make some salient points.
“When it comes to Hollywood's portrayal of the war on terror, what's truly striking is that I think most Americans—whether on the left, right or center—would agree that regardless of what you think of Bush and our Army and decision-making, the people we're fighting are really the worst, really bad people,” Medved says. “The main victims of the war are their fellow Muslims. Given the nature of the people arrayed against us, it's extraordinary that we are now six years into this struggle and The Kingdom may be the first movie—with the obvious exception of United 93—that does any sort of serious treatment of the Islamic terrorists as bad guys.
“I think part of what the slant of so many of these films reveals is that those people who say Hollywood is only in it for the money are crazy,” Medved adds. “If you're trying to make money with four Oscar winners, you don't make Elah. It's hardly a crowd-pleaser, so you have to ask: Why was this movie made? The Kingdom is easy to explain, because America is overdue for a rah-rah film showing our guys kicking ass. People want to see that.”
Medved's opinion that most Americans would rather see a pro-American take on the terror war than a negative one is reflected at the box office. While The Kingdom debuted strongly last weekend in second place with a solid $17.7 million take and $6,335 per-screen average, Elah struggled to perform in far fewer theaters, earning only $1.5 million at 762 locations for a $2,007 per-screen average.
“This clearly fills a desire by the American public to see something portrayed positively about our Middle East involvement, when in reality so little seems to be going right,” UCLA's Kuntz says. “Hollywood is able to make a positive ending in its fantasy, to give us something we can't seem to get in the real world, and people will respond to seeing Americans as heroes.”
Ultimately, USC political science professor Richard Dekmejian says, no political viewpoint can look to Hollywood films for the answers to questions that really matter.
“Entertainment is out to make money and therefore one cannot really rely on them for a genuine characterization of what's going on in the Middle East. One of the problems of both documentary films and the news we see every day is they don't like to ask ‘Why?'” says Dekmejian. “When the regular media doesn't ask why people behave the way they do, like our enemies, do you really expect the films to ask those questions?
“We need to be very serious about these things, especially in depictions of reality and showing the reasons why people behave the way they do,” Dekmejian continues. “Instead of understanding our enemy and responding in a way that can lead to conflict resolution, we're threatening people and very often these things end up like Iraq. These conflicts don't come out of the blue, and if Hollywood is going to deal with these issues, they need to do it in a way that truly enlightens.”