John Zavesky: It

By John Zavesky
Special to

Fall is when Hollywood traditionally begins to roll out their “big guns,” the films that are aimed at garnering an Oscar. The summer may be for blockbusters, sequels and sick and silly comedies, but from late September through December the studios concentrate on the serious, the profound and the dramatic. For those who enjoy big spectacles, epic tales and fine drama starring big name actors directed by big name directors this is the time of the year for you. The fall and winter holiday season is second only to summer when it comes to box office receipts.

Nothing says “holidays” better than war, and this year Hollywood has no less than six major releases dealing with the subject. All of these films deal with the goings on in the Middle East and Afghanistan. While the war film is one of the oldest and most durable of Hollywood genres, with the first best picture Oscar going in 1927 to William Wellman’s Wings, the industry has not been known for portraying a current conflict while it still rages.

Not since WWII has Hollywood embraced a war so quickly and with such creative fervor. Hollywood shunned the Korean War as a film subject until a cease fire was declared. With the exception of John Wayne’s 1968 Green Berets the studios and stars steered clear of the Vietnam War like it was the plague. Not until 1978, and three years after that war ended, did Burt Lancaster’s Go Tell the Spartans, Jane Fonda’s Coming Home and Robert DeNiro’ s Deer Hunter hit the screens. Clint took on Grenada long after our boys had secured that magnificent menace to democracy. Ridley Scott reproduced the conflict in Somalia in glorious color and kinetic energy some years after we had departed the country. Even Iraq I’s Desert Storm didn’t see films like Three Kings and Jarhead until after that exercise in hostilities ended.

This is not the case with George W. Bush’s war. While the present conflict is currently in its fourth year, Hollywood has latched onto it like a junkyard dog gnawing on a bone. From Hollywood’s standpoint what’s not to like? The subject is serious, it offers a great dramatic backdrop and can end either upbeat or downbeat depending on the writer and director’s preference. It is also about the only subject in town that allows those involved to appear patriotic, no matter which side of the political fence they stand. Even anti-war writers and directors support the troops. They just don’t care to see young Americans dying for oil company and contractor profits.

The War on Terror is a win, win situation when it comes to Hollywood. In the past only those who promoted America’s latest conflict in a positive view while hostilities raged where given the green light by the studios. That is a big reason why Columbia took a pass on Green Berets, a book they held the option to. How do you make a positive film about an extremely unpopular war? The Duke did. The film stank and it made a ton of cash. But then that’s what waging wars and making movies have in common, profits.

Two films dealing with conflicts in the Middle East are already out of the gate. In the Valley of Elah, Tommy Lee Jones and Academy Award winning screenwriter/director Paul Haggis team up on a talkie and rather musty take on what can happen to someone who does their duty and serves their country. In the Valley of Elah tackles its Iraq War subject matter with what basically amounts to a whodunit. Based on actual 2004 events, Haggis’ directorial follow-up to Crash has Jones as a retired military policeman searching for his soldier son after he mysteriously disappears following his return home from an 18-month tour of duty in Iraq.

The second and bigger bang for your buck movie is The Kingdom. This is one of those war movies for which the War on Terror was made. Even though there is a real war being waged in Iraq and Afghanistan that has eight million real stories to be told, why bother? Instead get the writer to make up a fictitious terrorist incident and stereotype the heck out of the villains. In this case Arabs. The Kingdom is really all about having your cake and eating it too. Jamie Foxx stars as whip-smart FBI Special Agent Ronald Fleury, who receives the assignment of his career: assemble an elite team (played by Jennifer Garner, Oscar winner Chris Cooper and Jason Bateman) to hunt down and capture the terrorist mastermind responsible for a deadly attack on Americans working in Saudi Arabia. The feds have only one week to infiltrate and cripple a cell bent on jihad to western society. Bound by handlers who refuse to play ball with the U.S., the agents quickly find the local law enforcement more hindrance than help and soon grow uncertain of anybody’s allegiance. But when a sympathetic Saudi police captain helps them navigate Riyadh politics and investigate the true cause of the attack, Fleury finds an unexpected comrade-in-arms. In their attempt to crack the case, the partners’ search leads them straight to the killer’s front door. Now in a fight for their own lives, two teams on opposite sides of the war on terror won’t stop until vengeance is found. This is taken nearly verbatim from the film’s website. If only Universal had released the film in the spring, then maybe Bush would not have had to say goodbye to Gonzales, Rummy and Rove.

The Kingdom is also the perfect example of Hollywood’s penchant for stock characters. Not since Hollywood’s WWII portrayals of myopic Japanese and raw meat eating, salivating Huns have such base stereotypes been so readily employed on a single group. The media on the whole is culpable for fanning the current racist flames when depicting all things Muslim. The recent campaign condemning Columbia University for allowing Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to speak at the campus is one of the more glaring examples of this bias being acted out. That is what institutions of higher learning are supposed to do; present a challenging set of diverse viewpoints, especially when it comes to the political science arena. Fox News’ coverage of the war is being broadcast from some alternate universe. Most major newspapers regularly print political cartoons depicting Arabs as unshaven, bandillaro wearing miscreants like a Middle Eastern version of the Frito Bandito. Hollywood certainly goes along with this except when they want the “good Arab.” Like a stand-in for Tonto, the good Arab is one of those mysterious characters that has knowledge and insight mere Americans lack. In most cases the good Arab character is generally written about as deep as The Simpson’s Apu. He’s the sidekick that can be killed to set up the third act, or the native who comes to the rescue resolving the third act.

Reese Witherspoon’s Rendition is the latest example of the good Arab character. The movie also includes plenty of images of swarthy Arabs bent on terrorism to make their point. Witherspoon plays the American wife of an Egyptian-born chemical engineer who disappears on a flight from South Africa to Washington. She desperately tries to track her husband down unaware that the CIA has spirited him out of the country for an interrogation Gonzales style. Jake Gyllenhaal plays a Company man who is begins to question his assignment as he becomes party to the man’s unorthodox interrogation.

Using the war as backdrop is another tried and true Hollywood convention. This proved to be a box-office success and a winner at the awards for Best Years of Our Lives, but then that film had Fredric March and Myrna Loy with William Wyler at the director’s helm. This year’s model is the Indy film, Grace is Gone. John Cusack plays, Stanley Phillips, a regular kinda guy. Upon receiving word of his wife’s death while serving in Iraq Cusack’s character decides to take his two daughters on a road trip to their favorite amusement park as a way of healing and bonding. If only Walt Disney had thought of such a plot during the early days of Vietnam. The company would now know what to do with their corporate unpopular Tom Sawyer’s Island at its Anaheim amusement park; recreate it as VC Island, complete with caves and a fort.

Director Brian De Palma weighs in with the obvious antiwar, Redacted. The film recently won De Palma Best Director at the Venice Film Festival. The story centers on perhaps the most horrendous known atrocity involving U.S. troops, the gang rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl and four members of her family in March 2006. DePalma is abundantly familiar with this type of story having directed 1989’s Casualties of War, a movie about a rape by U.S. soldiers of a Vietnamese girl that starred Sean Penn and Michael J. Fox.

When going for Oscar gold the gloves come off and the big guns come out with Robert Redford’s December release of Lions for Lambs. The film diverges from the war in the Middle East to that other war, the one which barely registers a blip of the American public’s radar, Afghanistan. In addition to starring, the Sundance Kid directs, Meryl Streep, and Tom Cruise in a convoluted plot that revolves around three separate stories. It also gives Cruise another one of those scene chewing “You can’t stand the truth” moments when he faces off with Streep and demands, “Do you want to win the war on terror? Yes or no. This is the quintessential yes or no question of our time.” If that doesn’t say “Oscar,” nothing does. It is also endemic of the simplicity that Hollywood tends to place on complex issues.

Whether it is the Vietnam War, the war in the Middle East, or the war on terror, Hollywood by its conventions and fundamentalist adherence to the three act structure is forced to generally employ stock characters in stock situations. Occasionally a film like last year’s Babel sneaks out. While this was not a war film it used the media’s insatiable appetite for ‘the get’ and for labeling all violent encounters Americans have in exotic locales terrorist attacks.

This is undoubtedly why Mike Nichols and Tom Hanks, two of Hollywood’s biggest players, chose to do their holiday film about Afghanistan that is set during the Cold War. The ambiguities are fewer or are they? At that particular time it was the Russians who had invaded the country and were perceived as the bad guys. Hanks does his “good time Charlie” routine with Julia Roberts and Philip Seymour Hoffman in tow as the trio globe-trots to raise money for the beleaguered rebels fighting the dirty Russkies. The film shies away from dealing realistically with such political ambiguous realities as our funding members of the Taliban and Bin Laden at that time. That would be extremely confusing for a holiday movie audience, and with the exception of possibly Orson Wells, Hollywood does not generally care to confound its audience with political contradictions.

Americans have time and again they have no sense of history. That is precisely why after six years there are still over 38% of this country’s citizens who continue to believe that Saddam Hussein was directly responsible for 9/11. Like Slim Pickens riding on the back of an A-bomb, many Americans prefer to envision Saddam piloting one of the 747’s and miraculously getting away before impact. That type of audience makes it simple for Hollywood and Washington to deconstruct and twist the war on terror into damn near anything they want it to be. It also can not be over looked as to who green lights a studio picture in Hollywood. The logos on the films might be MGM’s roaring lion or Columbia’s Ms. Liberty, but the studios are part of huge corporations whose holdings include Vegas hotels, cable and electronics companies. It is in their best interests to play on stereotypes and employ stock characters. They are selling a product, in this case the war as entertainment. The studios are in the business of making money, not art. Real art will always speak the truth, no matter the subject or the medium. Money, especially the amounts Hollywood throws around, tends to corrupt art. This is certainly as good an argument as any for why the studios regularly and readily put out so much crap.

This is not to say that the depictions in this holiday season’s crop of war movies should be summarily dismissed, on the contrary. What is necessary to understand is why the war on terror is being sold to the American public as entertainment. Much the same as those John Wayne, Humphrey Bogart and Errol Flynn films of the forties were used to instill patriotic fervor in their audiences, the contemporary batch of movies are accomplishing the same mission. Even the anti-war films dealing with the war on terror don’t directly fault the ones doing the killing. Rather those films attempt to grapple with larger issues and extenuating circumstances like culture clash, hidden agendas and those responsible for sending young Americans to war. The reality of war and all its attendant horrors can thankfully never be conveyed in two hours in the security of a multiplex. It can however, be condensed to make for one rip roaring action packed movie that says Oscar gold. This is exactly why the western may have fallen out of favor, but war movies will always have an audience. If we can’t be there to smell the napalm in the morning, we can certainly experience the next best thing.

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