Why Are Iraq War Movies Box-Office Flops?

The abundance of recent Hollywood films focusing on the Iraq War and its consequences has given journalists covering the entertainment business plenty to write about this fall -- from the significance of making political art during wartime to the financial risks that come with criticizing government leaders in the midst of an ongoing conflict. The early box-office results for such films as Paul Haggis' In the Valley of Elah and the Reese Witherspoon vehicle Rendition suggest that grappling with a current war is not a path that leads to financial success. Are audiences suffering from war fatigue, as many have suggested? Do they have little interest in following a war on the big screen when they are surrounded by images and stories of it on the small screens in their home?

Maybe. But it's not like the American news media have been particularly effective at saturating the public with images from Iraq and Afghanistan. And it is tough to argue that the often critical stance these films take on U.S. foreign policy is keeping people away -- it's hardly considered unpatriotic these days to claim the war is a policy failure. (And even when it might have been taboo to do so, Michal Moore managed to make a killing at the box office.)

But it is true that moviegoers will not leave their homes unless they're being offered something in the theater they cannot find elsewhere, and what is notable about many of this year's political films is that very few of them actually stand up as triumphs of cinematic art and storytelling. In many respects, the greatest risk of making political art during wartime is that heightened political passion will trump artistic judgment, which in the case of moviemaking means that expressing a political stance will take precedence over character development and plot structure. For example, in the heat of the political moment, with a war raging on, producing a movie that features Robert Redford lecturing on the importance of civic engagement just might seem like a good idea.

How else to explain Lions for Lambs, the most inert, predictable, and unnecessary political film to come out this year? Directed by Redford, the movie turns on the choices of three pairs of characters: A Republican senator (Tom Cruise) and a journalist (Meryl Streep) called to interview him about a new war strategy, two idealistic college graduates recently enlisted in the Army and deployed in Afghanistan (Michael Pena and Derek Luke) to employ that strategy, and a young student disenchanted with the American political process (Andrew Garfield) who must defend his apathy to his liberal political science professor (Redford). Lions for Lambs attempts to distill the debacle of the Iraq War through these characters, to demonstrate how the American public's (students') disillusionment with our political process allowed Washington elites (politicians and journalists) to deceive the country and send bright, well-intentioned men (young soldiers on the frontlines) to their death.

Such unsubtle frameworks usually work better in theater than in cinema, and it's no surprise that Lions for Lambs feels much less like a Hollywood movie than a well-financed play. Not a good play, mind you, but a play written by a precocious high school student who watches lots of CNN. Matthew Michael Carnahan, the screenwriter behind this dreck, litters his dialogue with allusions to Abu Ghraib and Iran's nuclear program but does little more than reference these real-world events. Cruise's slick Republican senator speaks about his new war strategy in such vague terms that one cannot help but wonder if Carnahan has ever heard a real policy speech or even read an article on the war that was longer than an entry on the Huffington Post.

It's probably a good thing for Streep and Cruise that neither looks particularly comfortable reciting Carnahan's heavy-handed dialogue, but it does make their scenes rather excruciating to watch. Cruise gives his standard performance as a shallow but smooth-talking charmer, but he never really sells the Republican talking points he spouts. Streep is a bit more effective, but she is saddled with a character that doesn't make a whole lot of sense. We are supposed to believe that she, a Beltway reporter who helped sell the war on her network, would have her faith in the war effort entirely derailed by one meeting with the senator, that after an hour spent in his presence she can no longer stand idly by and blindly report the news the way she had done so before. But instead of filing a skeptical piece about the new strategy and its implications -- a strategy that has already been implemented and that those two young soldiers are carrying out -- she goes to her editor and argues against reporting the story at all. Apparently keeping the public in the dark about failed strategies and war casualties is the more high-minded and progressive approach to reporting the news.

I'm not even going to bother detailing the clunky dialogue and off-key tone that pervade the other two storylines in Lions for Lambs. Needless to say, Redford and company have made a liberal film about the war that makes one ashamed to have their politics associated with such poor art. Of course, maybe I'm reading the intentions wrong and the movie is meant to diminish, rather than spark, political debate -- after all, if audiences aren't already bored with the war, Lions for Lambs should do the trick.

Another new Iraq War film from a big-name director, Brian De Palma's Redacted, is a far more interesting piece of work than Lions for Lambs, in part because it eschews high-mindedness for raw, naked emotion. Where Redford kept most of his action in classrooms and offices, De Palma takes the viewer to the Iraq battlefield, where soldiers are ill-equipped to deal with the moral complexity and emotional turmoil that surround the war. Similar to De Palma's Vietnam film Casualties of War, Redacted centers on the rape and murder of an Iraqi girl at the hands of American troops, a story that has its roots in a real event that occurred in April 2006 (prosecution in the case is ongoing). De Palma's interests, however, stretch beyond the moral decay brought on by the war. He wants to say something about the culpability of the American people in letting this happen and in watching the consequences from afar.

Redacted is a very crude piece of art. Its characters are poorly developed and amateurishly acted, its dialogue is obvious and unrealistic, and its plotting is often rough and schematic. But as an indictment of our actions abroad, it delivers a surprisingly emotional wallop. Unlike In the Valley of Elah, which employed a far more solemn approach to relay a similar message about the lapsing morality of our actions abroad and the psychological effects on our troops, Redacted forces the viewer to stare dead-on at the shocking emotional and physical costs of war. There is no debate in Redacted -- in De Palma's eyes, that ended when U.S. forces first inadvertently killed a civilian.

The anger that drives Redacted is easy to understand but ultimately very limiting -- it prevents De Palma from doing anything more with his characters than turning them into caricatures with a predetermined fate. De Palma has defended the weak dialogue in the film by saying he took lines straight from soldiers' testimony, but he speeds up the story and moves his characters in directions that don't ever feel organic. Moreover, he purposefully distances their experiences by framing most scenes through various forms of visual media, such as YouTube-like videos and home movies, to emphasize the voyeuristic nature of how the public now consumes its war news.

The interplay between the naked emotions at the heart of Redacted and the stylized method in which the story is told does makes the film interesting to watch, or at least difficult to dismiss. Early reports suggest that Redacted is failing at the box office like its predecessors in the Iraq War film genre, but for a film that offers little nuance and does everything in its power to provoke and appall, it does a much better job of engendering internal debate about one's political positions than its more high-minded counterparts. Redacted may be too cluttered with emotions and stylistic touches to have a particularly effective message, but in the process of tossing that mishmash onto the screen, De Palma does manage to show something that is difficult to find elsewhere.

And, given how stale many of the political films coming out of Hollywood feel these days, that is not a meaningless accomplishment.