Tuesday, March 30, 2010

On the Warpath

Afghanistan and Iraq War films don't sell. This is the message that Hollywood is getting after a string of recent high-profile bombs, including "Body of Lies," "In the Valley of Elah," "Stop Loss," "Rendition," and "Brothers." "The Hurt Locker," has the dubious distinction of being the Best Picture winner with smallest box office earnings in history. The most recent casualty is the Matt Damon vehicle "Green Zone," which tried to invoke the "Bourne" series in its marketing and still fell flat.

I can understand the urge of filmmakers to tackle the Middle-East conflicts, and the willingness of the studios to fund these pictures. War films have traditionally been popular box-office draws, and include some of the most influential and critically acclaimed films in American cinema. The closest analogue to Iraq and Afghanistan is undeniably the Vietnam War, which gave us "Apocalypse Now" and the "Deer Hunter" in the 70s, "Platoon" and "Full Metal Jacket" in the 80s, and served as the backdrop for the Rambo films and dozens of cheesy action flicks. Vietnam influenced every corner of popular culture from Bruce Springsteen to "The A-Team." Decades later, the loving spoof "Tropic Thunder" is still feeding off the nostalgia.

But looking at the timeline of the Vietnam War films, the reason for the tepid response to the recent crop of Middle East war films becomes pretty clear. It's far too soon for these movies to find any sort of audience. People just aren't ready for them. The quagmire of Afghanistan is still ongoing and Iraq has only barely recovered some stability over the past year. There's been no time for people to gain any distance from the events, to step back and assess the extent of the damage, or evaluate the psychic scars. Moreover, any serious social commentary in these films is still inevitably viewed through a political lens, and no doubt will be for years to come.

It's important to remember that few of the Vietnam films actually made during the Vietnam War had much success. The war films that were hits in that era were fairly positive adventure stories about World War II, like "Patton," "The Dirty Dozen," and "The Great Escape." The only Vietnam War film of the 60s that ever got much press was the John Wayne film, "The Green Berets," and that was because it was fairly sympathetic to the Viet Cong and memorably controversial. It wasn't until the rise of the New Hollywood directors in the 70s after conflict ceased, that the most iconic Vietnam War films were produced. Notable among them was Oliver Stone, a Vietnam veteran.

I expect the Middle East war films will follow a similar trajectory, though probably accelerated slightly, as the idea of portraying an ongoing war in a mainstream Hollywood film has lost most of its taboo nature since the 60s. Also, the studios seem more eager to commercialize the conflict this time, rolling out slick action-adventure films set in Baghdad and Kabul. There's been nothing as crassly commercial as "Rambo: First Blood Part II" yet, but you can sense the film executives salivating over the possibilities. If John Rambo could rack up millions by going back to Vietnam to track down missing American POWs, there's no reason Jason Bourne couldn't do something similar in Iraq. But as the failure of "Green Zone" signals, they're probably about a decade too early. The mainstream culture is still in the early stages of processing the Middle East wars, and there's no rushing it.

For another recent example, there's the outrage over the ending of the recently released "Remember Me," which invoked the 9/11 tragedy. After eight years, apparently it's still too soon to be mining the collapse of the World Trade Center towers for dramatic material, or at least to be springing it upon unsuspecting Robert Pattinson fans. A glut of 9/11 themed prestige projects have already passed through theaters, but only "United 93" made any real critical impact by capturing some of the horror and emotional intensity of the day. But to date, there have been no 9/11 films that have managed to adequately address with the impact of the event, because even now the impact is still being felt.

Still, I don't think the studios should rush to junk all of their remaining Iraq and Afghanistan projects. The wars are now a permanent part of this era of the American experience, and will be a major influence on artists of all stripes for a very long time. Eventually, after some of the wounds have closed and the political fallout is over and done with, the commercialization of the modern wartime experience through entertainment will become more palatable to the mainstream public - say, by the fifth or sixth Bourne movie.

And more serious film lovers shouldn't give up on the new breed of war films either. Just as it proved impossible to convey the Vietnam War experience through the conventions of older war films, the Middle East War films will be a different animal too. At the moment, the genre is characterized by didactic political pieces, frenzied action thrillers, and suburban sob stories, but recently acclaimed entries like "The Hurt Locker" and "The Messenger" promise better to come.

After all, a country doesn't go to war for seven plus years and come out of it without any worthwhile stories to tell.

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