March 19, 2008

War in Iraq: 5 Years, 116 Movies

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
Southland Tales
Lions for Lambs

In the Valley of Elah
No End in Sight

The Kingdom

My Country, My Country

Iraq in Fragments

The War Tapes

Protocols of Zion

Why We Fight

Turtles Can Fly

Fahrenhype 9/11

Fahrenheit 9/11

Gunner Palace

Control Room

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.


  1. 116? Really? That seems pretty high.

    My only comment would be on your sprinter analogy: it's not only like trying to take a picture of yourself while running, but then trying to figure out if it is in focus or not. I have no doubt some of the films being made are quite prescient - like you said, though, we won't be able to tell that until 10, 15, 20 years from now. Perhaps some of the pictures are in focus. But since we're still running, we can't tell the difference between the two.

    I agree, though. Films on the war in Iraq (with the exception of No End In Sight) have been dull, dull, dull.

  2. It may seem high, but I just took the number from that list without filtering them. Some of them have been TV docs and the like, but regardless it's a fairly large group and it's still missing some notables.

    Your addendum to my odd analogy is a sensible one. The picture will certainly become clearer after a few years, and some of the films so far will likely hold up. Those that have narrowed their focus are especially poignant - what's done is done and that won't change. Again, another reason No End in Sight worked so well. It's an analysis of a specific time and it doesn't color outside the lines by suggesting grand and unproven strategies in the midst of the chaos.

  3. Wow ... I never imagined it was quite that many films. A lot to think about. I appreciated how you split up the points about the Hollywood fictions vs the Documentaries. Excellent article, and great comment from Evan too.

    Looks like I have only seen about 1/3 of the films in your list, so I am definitely slacking in this category. I don't know if "enjoy" is the right word, but I did like In the Valley of Elah more than most people apparently did (although the ending definitely had issues). I seem to like whatever Paul Haggis does without intending to, and this film spoke to me personally somehow, even though I have no real-life connection whatsoever to either the themes or the characters.

    Has anyone here seen the "Alive Day" documentary that James Gandolfini did with HBO?? Sounded really interesting to me but I have not had a chance to see it. Hoping it will be available on NetFlix someday.

    Anyway overall I would emphatically agree with your last sentence; sometimes less really is more. A little bit more reflection and refraining would go a long way for all concerned, including the viewer.

  4. "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."

    I love that. Very astute.

  5. I don't have a problem with all these movies. With such a terminally long event, there are bound to be a ton of stories (ranginng from great to awful) to be told. Hollywood will continue to make them until they cease to make money, and then it will stop. I guess I don't understand the hullaballo. People are pissed about the war - heck, if the media were as onmipresent in the 60s and 70s, wouldn't it be safe to assume that their would be 1000s of Vietnam films by now (as if there aren't already)?

    The funny thing is that people thought they would be moneymakers in the first place - that is, if anyone really thought that. Aside from (going from what I've heard) generic movies like The Kingdom, which could be about any conflict and are more action-based, it's not like war is fun.

    My only "huh?" with your post is that you've included Southland Tales as one of the movies in question. I don't care if IMDb has that as a keyword for it - that'd be like saying that The Brady Bunch Movie is about overpopulation and/or real estate.

  6. Thanks, Josh. I wasn't really taken by Elah for some reason, but at least it brought the issue back stateside. Some people think he's pretentious, but I admire Paul Haggis' ambition in tackling some hot issues.

    Nayana, I'm glad it made sense to you! I couldn't think of another image for what I was trying to say. Evan touched it up a little better.

    Like I unclearly point out at the end, Fletch, I don't really have a problem with them either. I just wonder if we're not at a point where we're recycling content. You're right about the media and Vietnam (I think "Vietnam War" called up like 440 movies). I guess all I can say is that with as much access as we have (compared with Vietnam), the movies should really be better than they have so far. And since you mention them not making money - well, we're pretty much there. The Kingdom did the best with $47 M or something. Hardly a blockbuster for such a hot topic, and hardly worth its budget.

    Regarding Southland Tales - yeah, I wouldn't have thought of it either, but I threw it in because I thought it touched "enough" on Iraq vets in the future. Maybe not as insane of a future as Richard Kelly imagines, but a future nonetheless. The Constant Gardener was on the list too, but I left it off because I couldn't remember any connection to Iraq.


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