Hollywood’s Lost War

NOTE: This is a piece that was originally published a few days ago, but was lost to a server move.

Ross Douthat has a great piece in The Atlantic on how Hollywood is returning to the themes of the 1970s due in large part to the Iraq War:

Nothing in this commentary, however, bears much resemblance to the way American popular culture actually has evolved since 9/11. The latter-day cowboys have conspicuously failed to materialize: in the past six years, the movie industry has produced exactly zero major motion pictures dedicated to lionizing American soldiers fighting on the ground in Iraq or Afghanistan. Tears of the Sun proved to be an outlier; more typical of our cultural moment are the movies that its director and star turned out early last year. In Fuqua’s Shooter, a redneck sniper goes up against a conspiracy that’s headed by a villainous right-wing Montana senator (who happens to be a Dick Cheney look-alike) and aimed at covering up an oil company’s human-rights abuses. In Robert Rodriguez’s B-movie homage, Planet Terror, Willis plays another military man, but this time the plot, such as it is, turns on a zombie-creating nerve agent that may have been tested on Willis and his soldiers, the movie hints, as punishment for their having killed Osama bin Laden when the government wanted him kept alive and at large.

Such self-conscious nods to contemporary controversies should be taken, in part, as proof that our popular culture is more impervious to real-world tragedy than most critics would care to admit. The machine that churns out Hollywood blockbusters grinds on remorselessly, and nothing so minor as a terrorist attack is going to keep the next Pirates of the Caribbean from its date with box-office destiny.

But it wasn’t just the reassertion of America’s usual frivolity that caused the 9/11 moment to be stillborn; it was the swiftness with which the Iraq War replaced the fall of the Twin Towers as this decade’s cultural touchstone. It’s Halliburton, Abu Ghraib, and the missing WMDs that have summoned up a cultural moment in which bin Laden is a tongue-in-cheek punch line for a zombie movie and the film industry’s typical take on geopolitics traces all the world’s evils to the machinations of a White Male enemy at home.

Conservatives such as Noonan hoped that 9/11 would bring back the best of the 1940s and ’50s, playing Pearl Harbor to a new era of patriotism and solidarity. Many on the left feared that it would restore the worst of the same era, returning us to the shackles of censorship and conformism, jingoism and Joe McCarthy. But as far as Hollywood is concerned, another decade entirely seems to have slouched round again: the paranoid, cynical, end-of-empire 1970s.

We expected John Wayne; we got Jason Bourne instead.

What’s interesting is how all of Hollywood’s attempts to portray the war in Iraq have failed. Redacted was an absolute bomb. Ditto Lions for Lambs. Same for In the Valley of Elah. No doubt Stop Loss, the latest anti-war polemic will do no better. Hollywood is a town where the dollar is king, yet the studios keep churning out the same stories and keep getting the same results.

There’s no shortage of amazing stories coming out of Iraq and Afghanistan—including those that could offer a balance perspective on the horrors of war. Yet Hollywood keeps spitting out predictable, preachy anti-war films in which the military are either sadists or treated as pawns. The idea of actually telling a story without constantly having to insert a political message that has all the subtlety and nuance of a kick to the testicles seems totally alien to Hollywood these days. It’s as though the directors want to take a rhetorical bullhorn and say LOOK! I’M BEING TOTALLY RELEVANT NOW! CAN’T YOU FEEL THE OUTRAGE! Meanwhile, everyone’s gone home and turned on The Office.

What Hollywood doesn’t get is that it’s not that audiences are too stupid to see the greatness of their work, it’s that Hollywood is too sanctimonious to realize that their work isn’t great at all. It’s a sad commentary on Hollywood today that one of the most relevant shows in terms of exploring this war is Battlestar Galactica in which the terrorists are inexplicably attractive, yet evil robot clones. In Galactica the military and the government are not a bunch of moustache-twirling villains, but are portrayed as three-dimensional characters dealing with an impossible situation. (It helps that the showrunning, Ronald D. Moore, actually served in the military and offers a great deal of authenticity.) Hollywood can be relevant, at least in metaphorical form.

The reason why most of the Iraq War movies have failed is that they constantly try to be “message” movies. War is bad. Halliburton is bad. Bush is bad. Cheney is really, really bad. If the American people wanted to hear stories about how incompetent our government is, we’d watch the news. Hollywood keeps coming back to the same old clichés—the sadistic soldier, the heartless military bureaucracy, the “rogue agent.” All of those clichés have been used up more than Britney Spears, and don’t look any better.

The War Movie That Nobody’s Making

If anyone wants to make a truly great war movie, here’s what they need to do. Don’t try to give us a “message.” Don’t try to push an agenda. Just tell a story. You know, the thing that Hollywood is supposed to do well? You don’t have to create some scathing indictment of war—if you just show war it indicts itself. Saving Private Ryan is one of the greatest war movies ever made because it never flinches from showing the horrors of war. It’s not a “pro-war” movie, nor is it an “anti-war” movie. It’s just a movie about war. You don’t need to create the character of Col. Evil McHitler who secretly sells the organs of Iraqi children to Halliburton to be used to grease oil drills to expose the horrors of war. War is itself horrible, and by creating all these silly little contrivances Hollywood doesn’t add to their message, they detract from it.

The best films coming out of the Iraq War are documentaries. Gunner Palace is one of the best movies about this war, not because the filmmakers went in to push an agenda, but because they just turned the cameras on and let things happen. The real-life soldiers in Gunner Palace are more fascinating than the cardboard-cutouts in movies like Jarhead. The situations they face don’t require elaborate and silly conspiracy theories. Instead, they’re in the middle of an unfamiliar country filled with unfamiliar people. The lines between friend and foe are frequently blurred. There’s an amazing effective scene in Gunner Palace in which the unit arrests the Iraqi man that had been working with them as a translator for months. They arrest him for working with the same insurgents that were trying to kill them. Nothing in any Hollywood war film in the last few years is as powerful as the sense of betrayal and confusion that those real-world soldiers displayed. There are thousands of stories like that happening in Iraq—yet instead of letting those stories be told, Hollywood just generates more crude propaganda.

Douthat’s lengthy piece goes much deeper into the return of the culture of the 1970s in Hollywood, including how it’s effected more than just war movies. Still, we don’t need films that hearken back to the 70s any more than we need a return to avacado-green appliances and orange shag carpet. What we need are movies that are relevant to today. The reason why Hollywood’s effort to make war movies have led to box office death is that they keep missing the real stories. In trying to damn war in general and this war in particular they keep undermining themselves by replacing the complex horrors of war with crude stereotypes. It’s like trying to say that Nightmare on Elm Street is a deep exploration of Sigmund Freud.

Just because the war in Iraq is unpopular doesn’t mean it’s not worth exploring through film—and exploring well. Hollywood’s attempts at “relevance” are ham-handed and self-defeating. Hollywood is supposed to be good at telling stories. Yet they are nowhere near as good as the men and women who have served in Iraq in understanding what this war is really about. For all Hollywood’s obsession with their own “bravery” none are so bold as to let the truly brave tell their own stories. Hollywood isn’t brave enough to create a movie told from the Iraqi perspective that depicts the systematic brutalization of the Hussein regime followed by the uncertainty and chaos. For all Hollywood’s bravery, few in Hollywood are so brave as to make a movie in which al-Qaeda is the enemies. It’s safe to indict your own government. We live in a free society. A film that indicts al-Qaeda could get you killed. So much for bravery. Instead, Hollywood gives us a steady diet of polemics that are designed to make sure we all think the right way about this war. Instead, they should simply show the reality and let us decide for ourselves.

There are a million stories coming from Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s time that Hollywood told their stories, not the ones that our insulated Hollywood elites think will get them pats on the back from their own ilk. This war is becoming a “lost war,” and that does no service to the men and women who put their lives on the line for a conflict few of us can even begin to understand.

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