In the midst of the most divisive American war since Vietnam, Hollywood has been uncharacteristically silent — at least the institutional Hollywood that will be on display during the Academy Awards Feb. 25.
Last year’s host, the pointedly political Jon Stewart, has been replaced by the decidedly upbeat Ellen DeGeneres. The year’s biggest war movies, “Flags of Our Fathers” and its companion piece, “Letters From Iwo Jima,” revisit a conflict, WWII, everyone can all get behind, even if the pair’s director, Clint Eastwood, comes at it from a perspective that is both critical and poignant.
At least one of this year’s films does address the miasma of the Middle East: Irwin Winkler’s “Home of the Brave” chronicles the struggles soldiers face upon returning from the war. In Winkler’s movie, however, Iraq serves as mere backdrop — substitute any modern war.
So why, when the war in Iraq is a top national concern, have Hollywood filmmakers buried their collective heads in the sand?
“They’re frightened, I would think,” says Gore Vidal. “You’re in real trouble if you take on the Bush gang.”
Vidal, the writer, World War II veteran and member of the Academy, pauses and notes that the American electorate, in handing the keys to both houses of Congress to the Democrats last month, unequivocally repudiated the war, so criticizing the administration is less dangerous than it was before the election.
Still, he says, “there would be real trouble for you and your investors.”
And he says that “the Academy Awards always stumbles when it gets anywhere near politics because the Academy by and large is extremely conservative.”
That’s putting it mildly, in the view of pioneering media critic Ben Bagdikian, whose 1983 tome “The Media Monopoly” powerfully chronicled the political and social impact of the mergers that have created overwhelming consolidation of media interests.
“Talking about Iraq would be an invitation to opening up a cesspool they’d rather avoid,” says Bagdikian. “A serious movie would have to include questions about the nature of the war, such as what business interests have a stake in the oil in Kirkuk, what is the future of the oil channels. The whole region is in a state of instability. The Emirates are worried. The Saudi royals want protection from their own people and their enemies in the Gulf. Should we be surprised that Hollywood is staying away from any discussion about our government’s policy of military aggression?”
Bagdikian also sees much more common, less sinister motives for Hollywood’s reticence to tackle Iraq. “A film about Iraq would almost by definition be the kind of production that wouldn’t make money. For instance, because you wouldn’t attract TV advertisers with this kind of film, you’d have a harder time making TV sales. This is why you have so many ’embarassing moments’ reality shows and almost no shows with any serious political themes.”
Others see the silence differently.
Robert Greenwald, the documentary maker and helmer of the 2004 “Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism,” says there’s plenty of stuff about Iraq — you just have to look for it.
Greenwald directed this year’s “Iraq for Sale: The War Profiteers,” and says that “big studio movies are not meant to be newscasts. They are not meant to instantly respond to what’s happening.”
He says he expects there to be many great films about the war in Iraq, but that it takes time to digest what’s happened and make a movie about it.
“I guarantee you in a few years we will be having a discussion about what amazing, fertile and rich stories have come from the Iraq war,” he says.
Until then, he says, Americans can find films about Iraq on YouTube and other emerging platforms — if not in their local megaplex.
“I find myself in the ironic position of being actually positive,” he says. “I see with the new technologies and the new tools an outburst … whether it’s the actual soldiers over there sending over footage to ‘The War Tapes’ or to ‘The Ground Truth,’ which is a brilliant movie about the soldiers.”
Michael Moore, whose 2002 “Bowling for Columbine” won the Academy Award for best documentary, was booed for calling Bush “a fictitious president” and the Iraq war “a war for fictitious reasons,” during the 2003 Oscar ceremony. But it’s different now, Greenwald says.
“That was at a time when people had been convinced by the administration and by the media that somehow it was not patriotic to be against the war.”
Now, he says, “we owe Michael and a great many of the people who stood up a great round of applause … I don’t know who would be booed unless it would be someone who said the war should go on longer and we should send more troops.” (Moore was not available for comment for this story.)
Oscar presenters don’t have much chance to invoke the war — they follow a script. But winners are free to talk about whatever they want, says Teni Melidonian, a publicist for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.
“It’s their 45 seconds,” she says. “We encourage them to be memorable and interesting and to speak from the heart and express what they’re feeling at the moment.”
That could be politics, says Mike Farrell, the actor who played Capt. B.J. Hunnicut on television’s “MASH.”
Farrell, who has been outspoken in his opposition to the war in Iraq, says that in the current political atmosphere, “‘MASH’ couldn’t be made now … I don’t think there’s the courage on the one hand and I don’t think there’s any interest on the parts of the networks to have that kind of political bite to it.”
He says it would be appropriate for an Oscar winner to mention the war.
“I would be thrilled if someone who was in a position to speak to how many millions of people through their television sets, could say something appropriately tasteful but pointed,” he says. “That would be the right thing to do.”
(Steven Gaydos contributed to this report.)