Looking back on a year that many critics hail as one of Hollywood’s best ever, it’s difficult to ignore the fact that many of this season’s Oscar-nominated films bear political undercurrents. There Will Be Blood adapts Sinclair Lewis in its study of money- and power-grabbing in the oil industry; Michael Clayton concerns corporate abuses and high-level legal maneuvering; No Country for Old Men examines the chaos of policing the drug trade at the Texas-Mexico border; even Juno has managed to spark a few fresh salvos in the abortion debate. (Can’t we simply agree that Juno is both pro-choice and pro-life?)
But when future generations look back on this year’s nominees, they could be forgiven for wondering why Hollywood didn’t spend more time addressing what John McCain calls the “transcendent challenge of the 21st century” — i.e., the war on terror and its corollary/non-sequitur, the Iraq War. In fact, only one nominated performance — Tommy Lee Jones’ in In the Valley of Elah — comes from a film that directly concerns events in the Middle East over the last decade. (I’m discounting Charlie Wilson’s War here, and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s typically excellent performance in it, because the modern-day implications of that film’s plot are all implied, never discussed.)
Of course, we know better than our descendants will that Hollywood did address the war on terror in 2007 — but managed to do so in a uniquely forgettable way. Indeed, I’ve already forgotten the name of Brian DePalma’s entry in the Iraq-bashing sweepstakes — oh, right, it’s Redacted. In 25 years, will anyone remember the names The Kingdom, Valley of Elah, Grace Is Gone, Rendition, and Lions for Lambs?
And five weeks from now, will anyone turn up for screenings of Kimberley Peirce’s Stop-Loss, starring Ryan Philippe as a veteran who’s in the middle of restoring his ties to his hometown when the Army calls him back into action? Presumably Philippe will consider going AWOL; based on recent experience, moviegoers likely will, too.
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There has been much hand-wringing in Hollywood and the entertainment press over the failure of these films to attract an audience. Perhaps the public isn’t ready, some say. Americans go to the movies to escape realities like war, not confront them, others opine. A lot of these films just stink, critics argue.
The truth surely encompasses all these theories, and more. Take a film like The Kingdom, for example. Not exactly Oscar catnip, The Kingdom seemingly should have cleaned up at the box office anyway, featuring as it did Jamie Foxx and Jennifer Garner and a bunch of explosions and stuff. Meanwhile, Lions for Lambs may have been all talk, but it did feature three of the biggest stars of the last 40 years in Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep and director Robert Redford. And Rendition was Reese Witherspoon’s first starring role since winning an Oscar for Walk the Line. Yet all three received mediocre reviews (at best), and all three lost huge amounts of cash for the studios that financed them.
The failure of these films, critically and commercially — as well as the disappointment of Paul Haggis’ Crash follow-up In the Valley of Elah Á¢€” must not have come as much of a shock to Hollywood, since their distributors entombed them all in the early-autumn box office graveyard. Apparently more was expected from Redacted, which had made the rounds of major autumn film festivals in advance of its pre-Thanksgiving release — only to sink like a stone thereafter. Put aside, for the moment, arguments about the film’s disjointed narrative and choppy pacing — not to mention its blatant rip-off of plot elements from DePalma’s own Vietnam drama Casualties of War. The fact that Redacted came and went so quickly, and to so few theaters, seemed to symbolize Hollywood’s surrender to public indifference regarding contemporary war stories.
But why is the public indifferent? For one thing, I believe it is true that audiences aren’t psychologically prepared to see fictionalized depictions or analyses of this war. This may be because the debate over Bush’s wars has been thrust in our faces every night on television for five years now, and fatigue sets in on the way to the theater. (In fact, the punditry available during a typical evening in front of MSNBC offers far more compelling viewing than did the unbelievably boring Lions for Lambs; even though I have no problems with the film’s general point of view, I found both Redford’s activist-professor shtick and the cliched Cruise/Streep face-off insufferable.)
And that’s a view from a liberal. None of these movies ever stood a chance with the portion of the populace that still supports the war (hello out there, if you’re willing to admit it) or simply doesn’t care to be confronted with any more stridency on the subject. The Hollywood-auteur school of fictional-filmmaking-as truth-telling has lost considerable power in the face of a conservative media (and craven Bush PR mouthpieces) who have conspired to create a parallel universe of “facts” and indicators of “success” in our military endeavors. How can a filmmaker hope to show the truth about Iraq when well-intentioned observers on both sides of the political fence have entirely different notions of what the hell is going on over there?
Until some consensus is reached on both the morality and the efficacy of Bush’s wars — a consensus that likely won’t be reached for a number of years — films like Redacted and Lions for Lambs will be seen to serve as little more than polemics, preaching to the choir who also make up the ever-shrinking audiences for documentaries like Gunnar Palace, No End in Sight and Taxi to the Dark Side.
Considering that it consists largely of “talking head” interviews with former Bush/military apparatchiks laying out how the Iraq “reconstruction” went awry, it’s difficult to argue with the case made by No End in Sight — so conservatives simply ignore its existence, and will continue to do so even after director Charles Ferguson claims his likely Oscar on Sunday night. Still, whether or not one “agrees” with the points of view offered in these films, Americans have proven time and again that they’re uncomfortable with failure. As a result, films that point out the human-rights abuses endemic to Bush policies such as rendition and torture, or that explore the complexities of Mideast politics (as the excellent, yet occasionally inexplicable Syriana did), are unlikely to find acceptance either as vehicles for moving the political debate forward, or as simple entertainment.
Perhaps filmmakers soon will find ways to couch their political points within the confines of popular film genres, the way Hollywood did during the Cold War through films as diverse as High Noon, Kiss Me Deadly and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Indeed, the two most popular (if not universally noticed) filmic dissections of the Bush years may be Star Wars, Episode 3: Revenge of the Sith (“So this is how liberty dies — to thunderous applause,” Amidala says; Vader tells Obi-Wan, “If you’re not with me, you’re my enemy”) and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (Dolores Umbridge’s swift suppression of dissent, Voldemort’s Cheney-like presence). Of course, depending on your political persuasion, films such as 28 Days Later, Children of Men and The Day After Tomorrow also have seemed like cautionary tales of where Bush’s radical ideology, carelessness and criminality might lead.
Don’t be surprised if you find more such references in upcoming blockbusters-to-be like M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening, the new Batman entry The Dark Knight…even Horton Hears a Who. In the meantime, I’ll be hoping that sometime in the next few years — under President Obama, President Clinton or, really, even under a President McCain — the current real-life tragedy will end and we can all gain enough perspective that we’ll be ready for an Iraq-War Coming Home or Platoon sometime around 2015.