MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

The Oscars and Iraq

Not surprisingly, perhaps, movies about the war in Iraq have failed to capture the attention of the movie-going American public, commercially or otherwise. In the competition for Academy and Spirit awards, theatrical releases inspired by W and Dick’s Excellent Misadventure have been virtually ignored, as well.

Michael Winterbottom’s Daniel Pearlbiopic, A Mighty Heart, earned three nominations from Film Independent judges, while Best Actor finalist Tommy Lee Jonesis the sole Oscar finalist, for his wrenching portrayal of the father of an Iraq veteran slain on American soil, in In the Valley of Elah.While Marc Forster’s adaptation of the best-selling novel, The Kite Runner, was nominated in the Best Original Score category, it was set in Taliban-era Afghanistan and, likewise, tanked.

Is there something to be gleaned from the perceived lack of interest in such topical subjects, or did the movies simply fail to measure up to the hype emanating from the festival circuit?

Three compelling non-fiction titles, inspired by U.S. policy in Iraq and Afghanistan, will compete in the academy’s Best Documentary category: No End in Sight, Taxi to the Dark Side and Operation Homecoming … four, if one counts Michael Moore’s trip to Gitmo in Sicko. Although no similarly themed documentary made the cut for Saturday’s beach-side tent show, Winterbottom’s The Road to Guantanamo won the 2007 award and P.O.V. was among the runners-up.

In the Valley of Elah, Rendition and Lions for Lambs had all the star power a marketing team could desire, and Redacted was directed by an A-list filmmaker. The acting was uniformly impressive, the films looked good and the storylines were familiar to anyone who still reads a newspaper. None could be characterized as being entertaining, exactly, but their ability to provoke visceral responses to the material was undeniable.

The American public simply wasn’t interested in being insinuated into a debate on military and political policy, especially Hollywood filmmakers widely perceived as being anti-administration, if not openly communist. Even if opinion surveys attested to the citizenry’s growing distaste with our involvement in a civil war, with no end in sight, audiences remained skeptical about the filmmakers’ motive.

The amazing success of Fahrenheit 9/11 may have blinded studio execs to the reality that mainstream audiences aren’t anxious to watch American military and intelligence personnel rape, plunder and torture innocent non-combatants. The new edition of Rambohardly set box-offices on fire, either. Heroic acts may occur on a regular basis in Iraq and Afghanistan, but, in light of the Pat Tillman fiasco, the exploits of legitimate heroes remain largely unsung.

“Where have you gone, Audie Murphy? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you … Ooo, ooo, ooo. ”

At its core, Paul Haggis’ heart-wrenching In the Valley of Elah is a work of crime fiction, in which Tommy Lee Jones’s Hank Deerfield ostensibly plays the P.I. and Charlize Theron’s beleaguered small-town cop informs the procedural angle. The disappearance of Jones’ soldier son, almost immediately upon his return from Iraq, provides the mystery to be solved. Haggis’ political point – that war can corrupt innocent souls – is almost too obvious and clichéd to mention.

The elder Deerfield is a proud veteran of a foreign war that was as different from the conflict in Iraq as Vietnam was dissimilar to Korea and World War II. Although he doesn’t have to be reminded that war is hell, he becomes increasingly confounded by a mission that turns patriotic volunteers into Adrenaline-fueled sadists. Deerfield thinks he knows his son, but it isn’t until he discovers images shot by him in combat, on his cellphone camera, that he learns how much he was twisted by the cold realities of war. An even clearer portrait is sketched by the soldiers who served with Mike Deerfield in Bosnia and Iraq, and nicknamed him Doc for reasons that shock his dad. Susan Sarandon isn’t given much to do here, besides play the anxious mother of a missing child and the disillusioned wife of a gung-ho lifer. But, she does it well.

In Gavin Hood’s similarly disturbing Rendition, Reese Witherspoon plays the pregnant wife of an Egyptian-born chemical engineer, abducted by CIA types upon his return from a business trip. His crime was being in possession of a name that closely resembles that of a suspected terrorist, and, as in real life, government officials want us to believe that’s sufficient reason to ruin his life. Almost immediately, a hood is placed over Anwar’s head and he’s whisked away to an unnamed Arab nation, where he’ll be subject to legalized torture. His wife, Isabella, is told that Anwar never boarded the plane to America, and he’ll turn up sooner or later. She doesn’t buy it, and uncovers evidence that he had, which she presents to a friendly aide to a key senator. When it becomes obvious the CIA is stonewalling the aide’s investigation, Isabella portrays the unctuous spook overseeing the rendition program. Meryl Streep portrays Corrine Whitman as a heartless martinet, who might have shared the same ethical womb as Vice President Cheney. In a story that parallels the necessarily fruitless interrogation of Anwar, the daughter of his torturer has fallen in love with a Jihadist and left home. Overseeing the ordeal is a prematurely jaded intelligence agent (Jake Gyllenhaal) who finally loses his religion when electric-shock treatments replace the waterboarding. It’s an exciting movie, and the portrayals of the CIA’s authorized out-sourcing of torture might seem implausible, if it weren’t for investigative pieces in newspapers and such documentaries as The Road to Guantanamo and Alex Gibney’s Taxi to the Dark Side.

Lest anyone argue Winterbottom and Gibney are on Osama Bin Laden’s payroll, remember that the former also directed A Mighty Heart, an adaptation of Mariane Pearl’s account of the work and assassination at the hands of terrorists of her husband, Daniel. Gibney’s father served as an interrogator for the Navy in World War II, and his distress over reports of the use of torture by Americans inspired Gibney to take on the project.

It was from him that Gibney learned information beaten out of suspects can rarely be trusted. In Rendition, Anwar’s confession revealed the names of champion soccer squad.

A Taxi to the Dark Side chronicled the abduction of an innocent, 22-year-old Afghani taxi-driver, Dilawar, who died in custody at Bagram Air Base in 2002. An official investigation into the death found Dilawar had been repeatedly kicked and punched, and was chained to the ceiling of his cell for days.

If you study Osama Bin Laden’s words, if you study other terrorist groups throughout history, the goal is to get liberal democratic societies to publicly undermine their own principles, Gibney has argued. Well, in this case? Mission accomplished.

In the film, we hear Cheney argue, soon after 9/11, “We have to work the dark side.”

How far on the dark side, the Vice President didn’t say. Where do we, as a nation, draw the line?

Most of us wouldn’t blanch at torturing Bin Laden and other known Al Qaeda operatives to extract information. Many Americans probably wouldn’t attempt to block the advance of a lynch mob, as was required of heroes in Westerns. Must we, however, condone with our votes the beating of suspects who almost certainly don’t have anything to offer?

Certainly, we were horrified by the beheadings of Pearl and other westerners. If terrorists or operatives for an enemy nation abducted a high-ranking Pentagon or CIA official and renditioned them to North Korea or Iran, the least we’d demand was a trial.

Dilawar, and the prisoners forced to pose naked for photographs, at Abu Ghraib, weren’t as fortunate. The officers who pretended not to be aware of such treatment have yet to punished, leaving the buck to stop on the laps of ill-trained reservists and over-extended grunts.

After Redacted was awarded the Silver Lion at last year’s Venice Film Festival – and received an ecstatic early review in the Hollywood Reporter – it appeared as if Brian De Palma had raised the ante on movies about America’s continuing presence in Iraq. Three months later, the movie was accorded an anemic limited release, and its lack of success became emblematic of the public’s perceived ambivalence over movies about the war.

Maybe so, but Redacted was a purposefully experimental project, and an unlikely candidate for commercial success, by anyone’s standards. Beyond any desire on De Palma’s part to make a statement about the war – or remind viewers of the ugliness exacted on innocents in his Vietnam-set drama, Casualties of War – he seemed equally as curious about the impact of digital technology used by embedded reporters, media-savvy terrorists and cell-phone-equipped soldiers. For the first time, perhaps, unfiltered images of combat and occupation could be relayed not only to television stations and other media interests, but also to Internet sites, blogs, drinking buddies, relatives and war fetishists.

Some uploads provided evidence of the chaos in the streets and perils of driving vehicles not fully protected by armor. Ambushes and raids were accompanied by rap and heavy-metal music.

Several of the earliest and best documentaries about the war were informed by this raw footage. In Redacted, De Palma put hand-held digital and lipstick cameras are front and center in nearly all of the scenes. They’re used by reporters, soldiers and terrorists.

It’s a worthwhile subject for discussion and analysis, to be sure. In his attempt to make his soldiers’ dispatches look homemade, however, De Palma’s resorted to far-fetched portrayals of the individual soldiers in front of and behind the lens. This is especially evident during the revenge attack on an Iraqi family and the rape of a 15-year-old girl. As ugly and difficult as it is to watch, the incident also feels absurdly amateurish and gratuitous.

The first-hand testimony of Iraqi refugees, gathered in a screening room in Lebanon and added to the bonus package, far more successfully demonstrates how the American liberation of Iraq opened the gates of hell, allowing Satan’s minions to destroy what was left of Iraq, after the American invasion. Compounding the misery, Magnolia Films forced the director to black out the faces of dead Iraqis in a photo montage, presumably fearing the dead would rise again and demand royalties. Redacted was financed by HDNet’sMark Cuban, who limited De Palma’s budget to $5 million and required him to shoot in HD, a format most grunts likely wouldn’t be able to afford. Gunner Palace, The War Tapes and Operation: Dreamland are far better options.

The other nominated documentaries are Charles Ferguson’s No End in Sight andRichard Robbins’ Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience. An influential policy wonk, Ferguson readily admits that he supported the Iraqi invasion, but became appalled by the management of its aftermath. The evidence of malfeasance by administration, CIA and Pentagon officials, and the media, is insurmountable.

Robbins’ film, which aired on HBO, represents a collection of poetry, letters and essays written by soldiers returning from the war. Many were read by well-known actors.

Lest we forget previous American military engagements – some of which turned out better than others — the History Channel has packaged archival material and interviews for its two-disc TV-to-DVD, The Vietnam War. The set takes a more comprehensive than rhetorical approach to the material, much of which was captured for television audiences by photojournalists and cameramen on the front lines of the conflict. Now that we’ve become trading and tourism partners with our former enemy, it’s especially sad to recall the folly of a conflagration based primary on the since-discredited Domino Theory.

History Channel also has released a 14-disc America at War mega-set, which chronicles this country’s military history, from the Revolutionary War to the present conflict. The chronological collection enlisted historians, military authorities, engineers and war correspondents to amplify on the 30 hours worth of archival material, documents and news footage.

It’s important to remember that monstrous acts committed by leaders of great armies no longer need go unpunished, unless, of course, they were perpetrated by members of the winning team. Christian Delage’s Nuremberg is a documentary reminder of the judgments rendered on the architects of the Second World War’s European theater. Also included in the set are That Justice Be Done, Nazi Concentration Camps andAtrocities Committed by the German Fascists in the USSR, films that were used as evidence in the tribunals.

February 22, 2008
– Gary Dretzka

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