Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Iraq War on the big screen

Anti-war march September 2007
In hindsight, it has become conventional wisdom to some that American (and European) television news let the public down in the run up to the Iraq war.  Hours and hours of broadcasting allowing politicians to ‘sell’ the war to the public, not scrutinising the evidence given for the war robustly enough, and sensationalising and dramatising the build up culminating in the live broadcast of war as it began in March, 2003. 

It could also be argued that 30 years of increasingly serious/realistic war cinema had managed to prep audiences for the inevitable mediated war that was to come out of 24 hours news channels and social networking.  Once the war was in full effect though there began to be a cautious effort from Hollywood to represent the war differently as public opinion began to change – looking at the chronology of Iraq war films shows a serious shift that begins with Lions for Lambs (2007) and culminates with Buried (2010).

The first interesting point is the lack of films produced that focus on the war.  There are plenty of violent films that could symbolically service the fatigue of a nation at war, as well as a huge rise in superhero Good vs. Evil narratives – but there are few films that are explicitly set during the occupation.  I want to mention a handful of them to make a point about the role of cinema in reflecting the mood of a nation:  Lions For Lambs (2007), The Hurt Locker (2008), W. (2008), Fair Game (2010), Green Zone (2010) Buried (2010).

The first point to make is that all of these films were commercial failures – either barely making their budget back in box office sales, or lost millions.  Even The Hurt Locker, which won six Oscars, only just made it’s money back.  This seems to suggest an air of indifference from that American public, or at least that they do not want to challenge their preconceptions of the war from the likes of Hollywood.
Someone once made the point to me that the American army is the opposite of the Occupy movement:  where as the Occupy movement wanted to highlight that the 99% of citizens were economically disenfranchised from the elitist billionaire 1%; the 99% of citizens are trained not to think about the active 1% in the military.  Americans love to watch fictional aggression on screen, but seem to dislike being presented with the actual war.

Now, I’m not suggesting that any of these films have captured the reality of war, yet there is a definite pessimism reflected in all of these films that reveal a deep distrust of senior army officials and politicians.

In Lions for Lambs, Tom Cruise plays a politician who is trying to sell a new initiative to a senior foreign affairs reporter (Meryl Streep).  It is the first film that attempts to attack journalism for being complicit in the run up to war, and does so by contrasting the bravery of the soldiers in the field with the lying politicians and journalists who put them there.  This is analogous to The Hurt Locker in showing the brutality of war on the ground, the latter presenting the situation with hyperrealism.

Later in W., the biopic of George W. Bush from seasoned lefty director Oliver Stone, Bush is presented in one scene as having lost control of the war and berating his fellow secretaries of state for not knowing “who’s in charge”.

By the time Bush is out of office then films begin to be even more critical.  This could be claimed by some as showing Hollywood’s apparent left-wing anti-war bias, but you could easily make the case that by waiting until Bush was out of power, what these films are actually doing is attacking the American army leadership and thereby harming the sitting commander-in-chief, Obama.  Anyway…

By 2010 the mood of the nation had largely soured permanently over Iraq and is reflected in three crucial films, each more critical that the last.  Fair Game is a drama based of the true story of Valarie Plame and is a too nuanced story to get into here, but needless to say savages the Bush administration for outing her as a C.I.A agent.  The second film is Green Zone from Paul Greengrass.  The story revolves around Sgt. Miller (Matt Damon), a solder put in charge of checking out WMD sites that keep turning up empty.  Green Zone questions the validity of the intelligence that led to the war and ends with Miller writing a damning report and leaking it to the media to denounce the version of events that led them there.  By this time, the audience is asked to view the army leadership from the point of view of an ordinary soldier – the film is overtly challenging the morality of the war and pointing the finger at Washington bureaucrats and corrupt corporate interests.

The critical film though in the condemnation of the war comes from the blindingly cynical Buried directed by Rodrigo Cortes.  The narrative entirely takes place within a coffin that a civilian contractor has been buried alive in after being ambushed in his truck.  Paul Conroy (Ryan Reynolds) awakes to find himself kidnapped and buried alive with only a phone and a Zippo lighter to help him.  

After ringing numerous unhelpful office types back in America and unable to convince them of his predicament he finally gets through to the Hostage Working Group, a real organization that dealt with kidnapped civilians during the war.  Here he is told that everything is being done to help him and that he should remain on the phone so that they can track the signal, although he later discovers that he is being lied to and that this is only to track the terrorists so that they can call in an airstrike for them.  The film ends with a deeply cynical attack on the motives of the corporations that are profiting from civilian contractors as well as the hierarchy of the US State department.

Obviously it is unfair to put all filmmakers in the same ideological camp, much like it is unfair to assume that all journalists are guilty of legitimizing the war in its early days.  But these films do clearly show a descent into cynicism and pessimism that is so universally acknowledged that to see a blockbuster film trying to defend the actions of the Bush Administration would make for uncomfortable and bizarre viewing – for the next decade or so at least.

The question remains then: do these films reflect a genuine ideological opposition to the war?  Are they a better-late-than-never repulsion to the conflict that simply took a while to produce?  Or are they simply a reaction to the mood of the nation and an attempt to give the audience what it wants when they got tired of seeing fallen US soldiers on television?


  1. There was also a lot of uncertainty surrounding the beginning of the Iraq War. A lot of American citizens who were initially pro-war changed their opinions once it was revealed that there were many lies told and the continued engagement. That's why you start seeing critical films popping up in 2007.

    Like Altman did with MASH, Mike Nichols did with Charlie Wilson's War, which was about the US's assisting the Afghans in fighting the Soviets. The film was also released in 2007, and said much more about the catalysts leading up to the Iraq War than about the time period of the film.

  2. I agree, 2007 seems to be the turning point though... I need to keep watching war films. Haven't seen CWW since its release

    Can you think of any others I need to watch?