Hollywood's new mandate: Bring the Iraq war home

A brace of films about US foreign policy star big names such as Tom Cruise, Tom Hanks, Reese Witherspoon, and Jamie Foxx. But will that be enough of a draw for war-weary viewers?

After the end credits for "In the Valley of Elah," an antiwar drama starring Tommy Lee Jones and Charlize Theron, a visibly moved Iraq war veteran stands to address a hushed audience in the dim theater light.

"When I first went [to Iraq], I didn't necessarily agree with the reasons I went to war," says Ian LaVallée, a member of the organization Iraq Veterans Against the War. Fielding a question at the Kendall Square Cinema during a discussion after the film, he says he believes his fellow veterans died for the wrong cause. "For me, this movie resonates with some of the feeling I had coming back."

As sympathetic audience members wake from Hollywood's spell, the film's message about America ignoring the war's psychological effect on soldiers starts to sink in. Here in the so-called "People's Republic of Cambridge," opposition to the conflict is palpable.

But how will "Elah" and several other Iraq war-themed films opening this fall – "Grace is Gone," "Lions for Lambs," "Redaction," and "The Kingdom" – play elsewhere in America?

On the heels of powerful documentaries such "No End in Sight" and "The Ground Truth: After the Killing Ends" (see story, page 15) comes this spate of "message" films laden with stars such as Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, Julia Roberts, Jamie Foxx, and John Cusack. Hollywood is on a mission to bring the war home. But critics, pundits, and the filmmakers themselves wonder if audiences might be indifferent to the war, fatigued by it, or not looking for films to engage them in serious topics.

"The challenge for these films is whether large numbers of Americans want to see [them]," says Owen Gleiberman, film critic at "Entertainment Weekly." "People are more apathetic now. It's easier to bury your head in the sand, bury your head in the entertainment."

Times have changed since the late 1970s when audiences, yearning to come to grips with the Vietnam War, flocked to social-protest cinema such as "Coming Home," "The Deer Hunter," and "Apocalypse Now." But those films didn't appear until after the conflict had ended. By contrast, movies released during the fighting tended to be pro-war.

"During Vietnam, we were getting 'Green Berets,' " says Charley Richardson of Military Families Speak Out, a nationwide network of 3,600 military families. John Wayne pushed the jingoistic "Green Berets" (1968) to counter the antiwar movement.

This current barrage of films arrives while the nation is still mired in Iraq. None of the films is particularly sympathetic to the US foreign policy or tactics in the war on terror, but they aren't terribly controversial, either. "Elah" shows patriotic veteran Hank Deerfield (Jones), who has lost a son in Iraq, becoming a jaded disbeliever, while "Rendition," starring Reese Witherspoon, questions torture. Now that widespread support for the current administration has faded, the ideas in these films may not strike today's audiences as subversive.

Filmmakers hope to cut through the clutter of daily news – bombings, violence, dead US soldiers – and tap into mainstream disenchantment. Yet some fear their messages may hit too close to home.

"It's like a bad marriage or bad relationship. We never want to get into the pain of it while it's happening," says Patricia Foulkrod, director of last year's documentary "The Ground Truth."

In her efforts to find an audience, Ms. Foulkrod feels conflicted. "You never want to feel like you have to sugarcoat these thing to get people into the theater. But you never want to be naive about what you have to do to get the largest possible audience."

To promote "Elah," Warner Independent Pictures enlisted Foulkrod to spread the word with antiwar groups such as Iraq Veterans Against the War and Military Families Speak Out, and organized screenings with panel discussions to rally an audience.

"If you're going to preach to people, you need to preach to the converted," says Charles Merzbacher, chairman of Boston University's Department of Film & Television. For political films to draw the largest audience, the nation's hearts and minds need time to process the events. Hollywood may want to change minds, but viewers may not yet be ready for such fare.

In the autumn, studios look to release pictures with weighty topics as Oscar bait (and are willing to gamble on a few money losers). This year, Iraq is that "800 pound gorilla you can't ignore," says Professor Merzbacher, who contends that producers – blinded by dreams of Academy Awards – aren't considering whether there's a demand for war movies. "That's what's wrong with these films."

Entertainment-seeking viewers may also be leery of "message films," even if support for the war is clearly waning. And conservative audiences may dismiss films driven by "liberal bias" – even those with star power, like the Robert Redford/Meryl Streep/Tom Cruise juggernaut "Lions for Lambs."

Peter Suderman, associate editor of "Doublethink" and blogger at theamericanscene.com, condemns "Elah" in the National Review Online for being a "lame-brained slam against soldiers." Mr. Suderman predicts Brian DePalma's "Redacted," which depicts US soldiers on a gory rampage, will be "activist screed." He's not against antiwar films, but finds the current crop too polemical. "It's sort of absurd to think a fairly large-budget Hollywood film will stop the war."

Not that James Strouse, writer-director of "Grace is Gone," wanted to march on Washington. Oddly, Strouse says, "both sides" found problems with his drama about a father (Cusack) struggling to tell his daughters that their mother has been killed in Iraq. "The left wanted more outrage and more indictment, and the far right [had] anxiety that it's another liberal agenda."

In the question of whether Hollywood can sell its antiwar agenda, perhaps the issue isn't liberal versus conservative, but earnest versus escapist. "Audiences would rather see something fun and nonconfrontational," writes Sean P. Means, movie critic for the Salt Lake Tribune, via e-mail. "Movies about serious topics usually become hits only after critics praise the film and awards are handed out."

It might be naive to think blockbuster films can change the nation. But movies can reflect a growing sentiment, or help focus a vague sense of disgruntlement. "Having respected institutions check in on this makes a huge difference," notes Mr. Richardson of Military Families Speak Out.

But Hollywood may not be the most reliable of institutions to serve as a national conscience. Movies are a business first, a harbinger second. Which might explain why, even with the participation of an Academy-Award winning director (Paul Haggis) and three Oscar-winning actors (Jones, Theron, and Susan Sarandon), "In the Valley of Elah" has not yet had a wide release.

"We still see the timidity," Richardson says, "until they run it up the flagpole and see who salutes."

At least one viewer, Marina Mihalakis of Portsmouth, R.I., found the antiwar statement of "In the Valley of Elah" "big" and "brave." "It gave substance to what is people's vague notion of what is going on," she says.

But she didn't see the film as changing hearts or minds. As for her Republican friends, she doesn't think they'd respond well. "If people are for the war and they see this film it's going to [upset them]."

Not the kind of agitation Hollywood is banking on.

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