Topical films failing at box office

Despite intial surge, later titles fell flat

As with the war in Iraq, the early signs on Hollywood’s wave of topical and war-related films were misleading.

The success of Michael Moore’s Oscar-winning 2004 doc “Fahrenheit 9/11” ($119 million), followed in 2005 by Participant’s two Oscar winners — the political thriller “Syriana” ($50.8 million) starring George Clooney, and Al Gore’s global-warming screed “An Inconvenient Truth” ($24 million) — indicated a greater appetite for hot-button pics than really existed. It was the Hollywood equivalent of unfurling a “mission accomplished” banner.

Filmmakers, mindful that it took more than a decade for Hollywood to effectively tackle the Vietnam War onscreen, were eager to embrace the topicality of Iraq while it was still hot. And both indies and studio speciality divisions jumped in headfirst.

In retrospect, it’s easy to see why they failed, and why the next round — yes, there are more on the way — faces an uphill battle.

First, what was timely at one stage of the Iraq War became more painful as the conflict wore on. The American public grew weary of a 24/7 news cycle that bombarded them with unpleasant war news, so dramas and docs that revealed the war’s dark side — soldiers misbehaving or wounded or victimized — became most unwelcome.

“People want something cheering and uplifting right now,” says press agent Fredell Pogodin. “The economy’s bad, and whenever you turn on the news and see this stuff, you feel helpless. People don’t know what to make of this situation, and seeing a film about it throws it right back in your face.”

Then, a self-perpetuating group-think among the media virtually doomed any movie that was stamped with the toxic Iraq label. As hard as marketers tried to duck and cover, audiences stayed away in droves from one movie after another, from Michael Winterbottom’s “A Mighty Heart” to Peter Berg’s $70 million Saudi Arabian FBI thriller “The Kingdom.”

Success, when it could be had, came on a much more limited scale. Magnolia Films prexy Eamonn Bowles was somehow able to position Charles Ferguson’s “No End in Sight” as a policy movie about the White House’s missteps. It also helped that “No End in Sight” was critically hailed; the film wound up the year’s second-highest grossing doc, taking in $1.4 million, and was an Oscar doc contender. “We were resolute about making it about the gleaming halls of power,” Bowles says. “We stayed as far away as possible from the disgusting bloody war.”

Paramount and producer Scott Rudin delayed the release of Kimberly Peirce’s “Stop-Loss” nearly a year to March, but even the New York Times’ A.O. Scott’s largely upbeat review described the movie’s “grim, accidental timeliness” and suggested that “the prospect of another Iraq movie, like so much else about the war, is likely to be more wearying than galvanizing.” Scott then listed the Iraq movie flops of the autumn of 2007, including Paul Haggis’ “In the Valley of Elah” and Brian DePalma’s “Redacted.”

That wasn’t likely to send moviegoers flocking to the cinema.

“Anything about Iraq, people aren’t going to go there,” says actor Michael Sheen (“Frost/Nixon”). “I distrust any film that says, ‘This is what’s going on.'”

Similarly, the New Yorker’s David Denby admired “Stop-Loss,” but also listed the “not very good” Iraq features (“Rendition,” “Lions for Lambs,” “Redacted”) that caused the public to stay away. And he noted that the way Peirce uses the soldiers’ experience is “inherently political.”

That’s part of the problem: Any Iraq movie that comes out during an unpopular war is bound to be tinged by politics.

Movies that are critical of the war, like “Elah” and “Redacted,” which showed American soldiers committing atrocities, were leapt upon by rightwing commentators like Bill O’Reilly, who also accused “Stop-Loss” of being anti-soldier, which it’s not. (Peirce’s younger brother served in Iraq.)

“Elah” was reviewed differently around the world than it was in the States, Haggis says. “Americans love to point at easy targets. The films are saying, ‘Maybe we’re at fault here,’ instead of pointing the finger at a more simply clear villain. They don’t like the villains to be us.”

Looking back, “Kingdom” director Peter Berg realizes how risky his picture really was. ” ‘A Mighty Heart,’ ‘In the Valley of Elah,’ anything that feels political in orientation toward the Middle East is tough,” he says. “‘The Kingdom’ did about as well as we could have expected. We were trying to get an action audience onboard without turning our back on politics.”

What will it take to make a commercially viable Iraq War movie?

“Something that goes with opposite elements from what you expect from a gritty war film,” says Bowles. “Something with intense wartime sex. Or that deals with the absurdist, ‘Dr. Strangelove’ aspects of war, like ‘Three Kings.’ It’s not going to be a John Wayne Vietnam film right now.”

But would people go? “The climate of this war is so unpopular,” adds Bowles. “It’s a huge national nightmare and headache. Why would anyone go in the middle of it when people are dying? You’d have to pull off a balancing act with something striking and out of the ordinary.”

Producer James Jacks (“The Mummy” series) thinks audiences might go for war movies that presented soldiers as more heroic. From a military family, Jacks knows many veterans. In Hollywood’s Iraq films, he says, “either the soldiers are victims or criminals doing something terrible like ‘Redacted’ or victims like ‘Home of the Brave’ or ‘Stop-Loss.’ But for most soldiers, it’s about making sure their teammates get out alive. The best movies are about a single unit on a single mission. Otherwise movies get too big, into sweeping issues of politics and morality.”

Berg still hopes to get a greenlight from Universal for an Afghanistan true rescue story that was hotly sought after: “Lone Survivor,” about real-life Navy Seal Marcus Luttrell, who crawled out of an impossible crash site alive.

Universal is shooting Paul Greengrass’ tentatively titled “Green Zone Thriller” in London with his “Bourne” star Matt Damon as a WMD hunter in the earlydays of America’s involvement in Iraq. Gregg Kinnear and Amy Ryan co-star. The budget is in the $50 million range.

Perhaps only time, distance and emotional clarity will allow Hollywood to address these issues in a way that’s palatable to audiences. Vietnam War classics from “Deer Hunter” and “Coming Home” to “Apocalypse Now” and “Platoon” were all made well after the war was over.

The films that are still warily entering this battle zone are more vulnerable than ever.

Errol Morris is bracing for politicized attacks on his Abu Ghraib doc “Standard Operating Procedure,” partly because he refuses to fix blame on the seven “bad apples” scapegoated by the Bush administration. Frank Rich in the New York Times helpfully pointed out that we don’t have to wait until April 25 “to know its fate. … ‘Standard Operating Procedure’ will reach the director’s avid audience, but it is likely to be avoided by most everyone else no matter what praise or controversy it whips up.”

Morris’ distributor, Sony Pictures Classics, certainly knows that even with an Oscar win, Alex Gibney’s doc “Taxi to the Dark Side” was unable to lure many moviegoers. “It’s not an easy thing on a Friday night to get them to see a film about torture,” Gibney admitted from the start.

Nick Broomfield’s docudrama about yet more bad behavior from American troops, “Battle for Haditha,” has bookings at New York’s Film Forum but is still looking for a domestic distrib.

And it remains to be seen how Lionsgate will handle Neil Burger’s black comedy “The Lucky Ones,” starring Rachel McAdams, Tim Robbins and Michael Pena as soldiers returned from Iraq. That film has been pushed back yet again, to an October release.

If this spring’s lighthearted Morgan Spurlock doc “Where in the World Is Osama Bin Laden?” and the comedy “Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay” click with audiences, it may be that comedy is the next best approach to Iraq subject matter.

For h
is part, Morris is happily leaving his two grim war docs behind to escape into fiction for the first time: he’s writing the whimsical comedy “The End of Everything.”

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