Movie Cycles: Iraq War Films

Hollywood studios are planning a whole cycle of political movies about the war in Iraq and the war on terrorism. The film industry can’t disregard the fact that right now we live in a world that’s very political–that politics enter into every aspect of our everyday lives.

But in the wake of the mediocre response to “United 93” and Oliver Stone’s “World Trade Center,” the crucial questions are: Is the audience ready to see such timely and sobbering films And how should the studios market them These questions are not new. They have been plugging studios during and after WWII, Korea, and Vietnam.

Paramount Vantage’s “A Mighty Heart” was a decent, emotional, well-crafted look at the assassination of journalist Daniel Peral in the Middle East, but its wide release and low per-screen average might have served as warning sign for the other studios.

The cycle of upcoming political-events movies display a variety of themes and styles, ranging from actioner to war films to political thrillers to satires.

The common themes about the studios’ marketing strategies is not to hide the subject matter, and to tailor a specific campaign for a specific film. Par Vantage execs admit they were wrong to open “Heart” in wide release, concentrating on Angelina Jolie’s star power, rather than acknowledging the film’s delicate subject matter.

The tide may have turned against the Iraq War and ratings for Bush area also in decline. But that doesn’t mean moviegoers want to see films about Iraq, terrorism, or related topics, especially when they can get coverage on CNN around the clock.

The current events craze is fairly new, fueled by the success of pictures like the Oscar-nominted “Babel,” “Syriana” “The Constant Gardener” and “Hotel Rwanda.”

Paul Greengrass

Universal production prexy Donna Langley concedes that it’s “always a challenge getting people to come to movies and see things they are trying to escape,” but says as a studio Universal tries to support filmmakers who want to make these type of films.

When the “Jason Bourne” franchise director Paul Greengrass wanted to make “United 93,” the studio overcame reservations about how receptive moviegoers would be to the re-creation of the 9/11 tragedy.

He is now adapting “Imperial Life in the Emerald City,” a book about chaos surrounding the fall of Baghdad, for the studio.

Universal also has the third “Bourne” movie, opening August 3, which is a thrilling actioner with strong political undertones.

Rendition

New Line prexy of marketing Russell Schwartz says the studio made sure to keep costs down for “Rendition,” about the U.S. government’s detaining and torturing of terror suspects. He noted that Reese Witherspoon and Jake Gyllenhaal reduced their fees to keep the budget under $30 million.

The studio is still fine-tuning its strategy, but plans a mid-October bow, after premiering at Toronto Film Festival, to avoid the competition. “We wanted to get ours out sooner, rather than later,” Schwartz says. “I don’t envision it a platform, and I don’t envision opening it on 3,000” screens.

Other Films

Three other war pictures will also vie for attention. Paul Haggis’ Warner Independent “In the Valley of Elah,” starring Tommy Lee Jones and Charlize Theron, is about a soldier who disappears after returning from Iraq.

“Grace Is Gone,” a Weinstein Co. drama, picked up at the Sundance Film Fest in January, starring John Cusack as a soldier who must tell his kids their mom died on duty in Iraq. (see Review).

Marc Forster’s “The Kite Runner,” is a Paramount Vantage adaptation of the bestseller about an emigre’s return to Afghanistan.

UA is counting on Robert Redford’s “Lions for Lambs,” a $35 million movie starring Redford as an anti-war professor whose students end up fighting in Afghanistan. The picture also stars Tom Cruise as a pro-Iraq war senator who tries to convince journalist Meryl Streep to support his views.

UA’s prexy of marketing Dennis Rice maintains that moviegoers will want to see the movie because the story is compelling and because of its all-star cast.

Universal has two war-related pictures. “The Kingdom,” an action-charged movie about FBI agents who investigate a bombing of an American facility in the Middle East, stars Jamie Foxx and Jennifer Garner. Originally slated for earlier this year, the $70 million movie was pushed back to September.

Director Mike Nichols is taking a more absurdist take in “Charlie Wilson’s War,” an adaptation of George Crile’s book about a congressman’s covert dealings with rebels in Afghanistan in 1980. It stars Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts and is due December 25, in time for Oscar considerations.

Also in the pipeline are Kimberly Peirce’s “Stop Loss,” her first feature after the 1999 “Boys Dont Cry.” The studios are also tackling other hot-button topics, including immigration, such as Foc Searchlight’s “Under the Same Moon” and Weinstein Co.’s “Crossing Over.”

Time and Distance

Casting stars certainly helps. But audiences sometimes need distance from the subject. The good movies about Vietnam–“Coming Home,” “Platoon,” “The Deer Hunter,” came years after the end of the lengthy war, when audiences knew the outcome of America’s involvement and pullout of Vietnam. The public needed time before showing willingness to revisit the painful experience on screen.

Irwin Winkler wrote and directed last year’s Iraq-themed “Home of the Brave,” a movie that was both an artistic and commmercial flop. While Universal’s “United 93” and Par’s “World Trade Center” met with the studios’ expectations, other political pictures like “Jarhead,” “Home of the Brave” and Jonathan Demme’s updated “Manchurian Candidate,” were not box-office hits, but not failures either.

Sam Mendes’ Operation Desert Storm “Jarhead” might have worked better if it had a clearer POV, if it presented up a more stinging indictment of war. Viewers expected that from Mendes after his sharp satire on suburbia in the 1999 Oscar-winning “American Beauty.”