At Toronto film fest, even Reese's film is political

Amid the glamor of the Toronto Film Festival, our critic finds directors and actors focused on activism.

The Toronto Film Festival is renowned for its red-carpet galas, but this year the red also ran especially thick in the movies. Nowhere is the dissonance between show business and the workaday world more evident than at film festivals, and this week the glitz in Toronto shared the spotlight with a harrowing procession of movies about Iraq.

I was at the festival six years ago on Sept. 11, and the palpable dread that one felt on the streets that day is on the screens here in full force. Glitz notwithstanding, the festival has been transformed into a showcase for the murderous consequences of war.

You don't have to look very far to find suitable entries. Paul Haggis's In the Valley of Elah is about a father's search for his son, who has returned home from Iraq and gone AWOL. Brian De Palma's microbudgeted Redacted takes off from a real-life episode in Iraq in 2006 when American soldiers raped and killed a teenage girl near Baghdad and then murdered her family.

Nick Broomfield's Battle for Haditha re-creates a 2005 incident where US Marines, seeking revenge for a roadside bombing, killed 24 Iraqi men, women, and children. The affecting documentary Body of War, which was codirected by Ellen Spiro and Phil Donahue, who also personally financed the film, is about antiwar activist Tomas Young, who enlisted two days after 9/11, expecting to fight in Afghanistan. Instead, he was sent to Iraq where he was shot and paralyzed.

The occasionally powerful but Hollywoodized Rendition, starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Reese Witherspoon, is about an Egyptian-born American who is wrongly suspected of terrorism, snatched into custody, and extradited by the Central Intelligence Agency to North Africa where he is tortured.

The postscreening Q-and-A's for these films had the look and feel of antiwar rallies rather than movie events. When De Palma was asked by a Canadian viewer why there are no large scale Vietnam-style protests in America against the Iraq war, he answered, "Because we haven't seen any of the pictures. That's what the architects of this war learned from Vietnam. The media has been very carefully managed."

The ending of his film, which is an uneasy and sometimes effective blend of docudrama and high theatrics, features many such pictures of charred, maimed Iraqis.

For the public screening of "Body of War," which does not yet have theatrical distribution, Mr. Young wheeled himself onstage to the longest standing ovation I have ever heard in Toronto. Earlier at a private dinner, Donahue was nervously working the room. He's new to the film business and is appropriately wary of good tidings. "Nobody ever tells a mother her baby is ugly," he told me.

The outpouring at the public showing preceded a mini solo concert by Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam, who composed original songs for the documentary. He sang a revamped version of an old Phil Ochs civil rights anthem. "Here's to the land you tore out the heart of/ George W. find yourself another country to be part of," went the refrain.

Even the political-themed films not dealing with Iraq shared a similar outrage. The strongest I saw was Roger Spottiswoode's uneven Shake Hands With the Devil, about the 1993 Rwandan genocide told from the perspective of Gen. Roméo Dallaire who commanded the United Nations forces. Spottiswoode, who made the great "Under Fire," shot the film in Rwanda featuring many extras who survived the actual massacres, and it shows in their faces.

And what of the glitz? Brad Pitt was here to promote the elegiac, attenuated The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and the entire city seemed to be on a Brangelina alert. ("Pitt Stop" blared the headlines in a local tabloid above a picture of the star emerging from the Four Seasons.)

Atonement, which transforms Ian McEwan's novel into a high-end chick flick, wore down the red carpet when its star, Keira Knightley, came to town.

Ang Lee's NC-17 rated Lust, Caution, which could have been directed more lustily and less cautiously, won the Golden Lion at the Venice film festival while Lee was promoting the film in Toronto – a repeat of what happened with Lee's "Brokeback Mountain" here two years ago.

Cate Blanchett was in town for two films: Todd Haynes's I'm Not There, "where she plays – yes – Bob Dylan, and the bombastic Elizabeth: The Golden Age, where her royal get-ups are so outré that they verge on Kabuki.

Tommy Lee Jones, who was here to promote "In the Valley of Elah" and my favorite mainstream movie of the festival, the Coen brothers' No Country for Old Men, doesn't suffer fools gladly – or any other way – and has a reputation for giving journalists the willies. "Next to him," wrote a poor soul from The Toronto Star, "the sphinx is a blabbermouth."

Sean Penn was in town to push Into the Wild, which he directed and which is alternately breathtaking and sleep inducing.

Last year, Penn was fined for smoking indoors during his press conference. This year, he had to content himself with sucking ice cubes graciously provided by an assistant.

George Clooney was asked at the press conference for the corporate greed and environmental destruction drama Michael Clayton if he ever cried at a movie. "Yes," he answered straight away. "At the première of 'Batman and Robin.' "

Clooney is politically engaged and goofy – the perfect personality for this dissonant edition of the Toronto Film Festival.

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