War-torn region makes way to movie theaters

As the four-year-old Iraq War becomes increasingly divisive in the run-up to the 2008 presidential election, Hollywood is betting that moviegoers are ready for a dose of harsh reality.

At least six films touching on the hotspot Middle East and its conflicts will roll out between June and early next year.

The most ambitious: Universal’s $70 million Saudi Arabian action thriller, “The Kingdom,” from helmer Peter Berg.

Universal execs likely had no idea when they greenlit the film in late 2005 that a spate of topical movies set in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq would be coming down the pipelines at other studios as well.

Paramount Vantage has two: Michael Winterbottom’s “A Mighty Heart,” which debuted at Cannes and opens Stateside June 22, stars Angelina Jolie as the widow of Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter slain in Karachi, Pakistan in 2002; and “The Kite Runner,” in which Marc Forster directs David Benioff’s screenplay of Khaled Hosseini’s global bestseller. It’s a drama filmed in the Dari dialect with unknowns, about a U.S. emigre from Kabul who returns to Afghanistan to seek his childhood friend.

Also in September, Warner Independent Pictures will open Paul Haggis’ “In the Valley of Elah,” starring Tommy Lee Jones as an officer investigating his son’s disappearance after his return from the Iraq War.

In the fall, the Weinstein Co. will release its Sundance pickup “Grace Is Gone,” starring John Cusack as a soldier posted Stateside who must tell his three daughters that their mother died in Iraq.

In November, the new United Artists will release its first production, Robert Redford’s timely $35 million “Lions for Lambs,” starring the actor-director as a contemporary university professor whose two former students (Michael Pena and Derek Luke) are Army officers marooned in Afghanistan. Tom Cruise plays a Republican senator who tries to convince journalist Meryl Streep to promote his pro-Iraq war views.

On Dec. 25, Universal opens Mike Nichols and Aaron Sorkin’s film adaptation of George Crile’s nonfiction book “Charlie Wilson’s War,” starring Tom Hanks as the Texas congressman who hooked up with a rogue CIA operative in 1980 to support the Mujahideen in Afghanistan.

Paramount Pictures is still deciding when to release Kimberly Peirce’s “Stop Loss,” about a soldier (Ryan Phillippe) who returns home and refuses to go straight back to Iraq.

“People want to engage,” says one veteran Oscar campaigner behind two of the upcoming pics. “People want films to be about something. We are living in dark times. They want films to reflect what’s going on.”

Despite the heavy competition, Universal isn’t second-guessing its decision to move “The Kingdom” from April to Sept. 28, when it opens wide on more than 2,500 screens.

As soon as studio co-chairmen Marc Shmuger and David Linde saw the actioner, they decided to screen it “as often as we can between now and the time of release,” says Universal marketing prexy Adam Fogelson, “to ensure that filmgoers hear and know that the movie is both entertaining and thoughtful.”

Fogelson compares the movie to “Black Hawk Down,” which earned $173 million worldwide. And while Universal’s “Jarhead” didn’t play long-term, it did open to $27 million in fall 2005.

“The Kingdom,” which stars Jamie Foxx as an FBI special agent in charge of a forensics team investigating a bombing in Saudi Arabia, is more overtly commercial than many of the other films, which will need to grab serious attention during awards season to get B.O. traction.

Actor-turned-director Berg (“Friday Night Lights”) was fascinated by a1996 attack on the Khobar Tower in Riyadh; by the time six FBI agents flew to Saudi Arabia to look for the killers of 19 American servicemen, the evidence was cold. “The Saudi Royals had asked the FBI not to come,” says Berg, “because they did not want to appear to be losing control.

“It is inevitable,” Berg says, “when something like this Middle East mess continues that filmmakers, authors, and songwriters will want to respond. Since the Iraq War body count had hit 2,000 and there was no end in sight, this film is a response to that.”

In June 2003, Berg asked filmmaker Michael Mannto produce the pic.

Mann usually produces movies that he has developed for himself but decides not to direct. But he became Berg’s champion. (Their next film together, “John Hancock,” starring Will Smith, starts filming in two weeks for Sony.)

As it happens, Berg has Saudi friends who introduced him to hundreds of Saudis, rich and poor, including Prince Turki Al-Faisal. “I pitched him the idea of a moderate Saudi police officer, an Arab who is motivated to battle extremism,” Berg recalls. “I wanted to take the audience into the culture in a way you can’t find in news coverage. You see the problem from all three sides: Saudi, American, terrorists.”

Mann and screenwriter Matthew Michael Carnahan also did extensive research inside the FBI and Washington’s corridors of power. As Mann started filming “Miami Vice,” Universal exec-turned-lot-producer Scott Stuber joined “The Kingdom” as it went into production.

The film drops FBI agents played by Foxx, Chris Cooper, Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman into Riyadh alongside a Saudi colonel (Ashraf Barhom), to find a serial bomber.

“When you’re working with procedural homicide detectives, they have more in common by virtue of their function than differences,” says Mann. “These guys get along regardless of the bureaucracy.”

Palestinian actor Barhom (“Paradise Now”) holds his own against Foxx. “The core of the movie is the two police officers” commonality as human beings,” says Stuber.

Shot with three constantly moving cameras in United Arab Emirates’ Abu Dhabi and the Arizona desert in just 55 days, “Kingdom” functions as both action thriller and emotional journey, as two foreign cultures learn to get along.

“This takes you behind the CNN headline news of the past 10 years,” says Mann. “There’s a human cost and anguish that’s not been externalized before. There’s nothing Pollyanna about it.”

As the Middle East threatens to explode, some of these topical pics may get a tad too close for audience comfort to the gritty conflicts of the real world.

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