Today marks the five year "anniversary" of the War in Iraq, War on Terror, Iraq War, Gulf War II, Operation Iraqi Freedom, or whatever it's going to be called.
That number, 116, is not entirely exact - I just did a keyword search for "Iraq War" since 2003 on IMDb. Off the top of my head I know it's missing No End in Sight, Taxi to the Dark Side, and Operation Homecoming - all of which were nominated for Oscars last year. So the number may be a conservative estimate, but the exact figure isn't that important. The point is, Hollywood's churned out a lot of films related to Iraq in the last five years (I'm not even counting Afghanistan), and there are probably hundreds on the way in the next 20 years.
So, do any of them get it "right"? Or maybe the better question is, what's been the point of all of these movies?
For perspective, I'll start off by listing the ones I've seen, in reverse chronological order:
Taxi to the Dark Side
Lions for Lambs
In the Valley of Elah
No End in Sight
My Country, My Country
Iraq in Fragments
The War Tapes
Protocols of Zion
Why We Fight
Turtles Can Fly
Uncovered: The War in Iraq
The Fog of War
Have I learned anything from these films? Of course. Am I able to separate fiction from reality? I think so. Are any of the 100+ films convincing and convicting? Well...yes...but I don't think much differently about the war than I did five years ago while watching grainy video from embedded reporters driving up through the deserts of Iraq. Does that say something about my "politics"? That I'm stubborn and I only watch what I know I'm going to agree with? Maybe. But I would argue that it says more about the ineffectiveness of these films, and here are the reasons why:
Fictionalized Hollywood Films:
- They're polarizing when they try to be patriotic. My review of The Kingdom tells you what I think of these ridiculous movies and TV shows like "24." I don't know if I totally swallow the notion that such material makes our problems worse, but let's just say I wouldn't consider it very diplomatic either.
- The wrong people are making them. Consider Lions for Lambs, perhaps the biggest commercial dud of the 2007 Iraq group. Streep, Redford, and Cruise are career actors and Hollywood legends - not necessarily the people you want to hear lecturing you about foreign policy.
- It's too early. We could be at the halfway mark in this thing for all we know, and there is just no way to have a clear perspective of what's going on. Platoon won Best Picture more than 10 years after the war was over in Vietnam. There needs to be time and space; filming the war while you're fighting it is like trying to take a picture of yourself while you're sprinting - the picture is unfocused and incomplete.
- They're bad. It's simple - almost all of these have been critically panned, and with good reason. Besides keeping the crowds away, the message of the movie is going to be lost if the movie is poorly made. Case in point: Rendition.
- Our lives are already saturated with news about the war. The aforementioned embedded reporter videos were just a sign of things to come. Never has a war been so accessible to the public - foreign news bureaus, soldier blogs, live webcams, and at times, 25 hour a day coverage on cable news. This was my main criticism of Taxi to the Dark Side - Alex Gibney didn't have much to tell us that we didn't already know.
- Their focus is too broad. The strength of No End in Sight was that it picked a singular moment in time (the first month after Saddam's regime fell) and successfully dissected it. While it's an extreme example, Fahrenheit 9/11 was as scattered as a Jackson Pollock painting.
- It's too early, or too late. See above. Though last year's The War Tapes was a frightening look into the soldiers' experiences, many of the circumstances have changed. Same with Iraq in Fragments, which, while beautiful to look at, was dated before it was even released. With a war as dynamic as this one it's incredibly difficult to nail down a static story.
- They only focus on Iraq. We Americans are a self-centered group, and we want to see and think about ourselves. How is the war affecting families and communities back home? What's been the effect on the economy, and what will it be in 10 years? How are we preparing to deal with the hundreds of thousands of veterans who will depend on our tax dollars for care and support for the rest of their lives? OK, so maybe people won't flock to the theater for a documentary about those issues, but it would at least be a new angle on the war.
I'm not complaining - with the exception of some senseless provocations like Redacted, I've watched as much as I've been able to watch. I think I know what's going on and I've learned a good deal about the demographics of Iraq, if not the ever-changing issues. Of course I'm not looking to get my international education from Hollywood, but many of these films offer a better glimpse into the situation than we could otherwise hope to get. Indeed, some of the well-made documentaries have helped educate all of us.
But with well over 20 movies about the war being made each year, maybe it's time to consider whether we should sit back, collect our thoughts, and focus on the actual stories instead of the celluloid ones.