We've all heard the stories, many true, some apocryphal, of soldiers returning home from Vietnam only to be disrespected and shunned by an ungrateful nation. How many were called war criminals or spat upon is as controversial as it is unknowable. But there's one thing we know our troops never experienced. We never filled the movie theaters during wartime with films calling them war criminals, rapists and, figuratively, spitting on them or on their mission.
Not so today.
Hollywood has been churning out anti-war movies at a blistering pace of late, with more to come. We've already had "Rendition," a tendentious, plodding assault on the war on terror, seemingly as-told-to by the ACLU, starring Reese Witherspoon, Peter Sarsgaard, Meryl Streep and Jake Gyllenhaal. There's the meandering "In the Valley of Elah," written and directed by Paul Haggis, about a family dealing with a cover-up of their soldier-son's death in an unnecessary war. "The Kingdom," more exciting than most, deals with an FBI team's attempt to investigate a terrorist attack on Americans in Saudi Arabia. Its anti-war credentials come from suggesting that the sworn lawmen (and women) investigating the slaughter of families playing softball are no better than the murderers.
Coming next month: "Lions for Lambs," starring Tom Cruise, Robert Redford and Meryl Streep which gives every indication of being a theatrical version of a loaded question from Helen Thomas at a White House briefing and "Redacted," a fake documentary directed by Brian De Palma, in which U.S. troops are depicted as dehumanized rapists. Next spring comes "Stop Loss," starring Ryan Phillippe, the supposedly heroic soldier who refuses to fight. And there are a whole slew of anti-war books being adapted for the screen as well.
To be sure, many of these films don't attack the troops directly. Some are thoughtful in their critiques, others less so. Regardless, this is still uncharted territory. "These movies certainly are more willing to be critical of the military and misconduct of individual soldiers. Certainly no such feature was made like these during . . . the Vietnam War," Charles Ferguson, a political scientist and creator of the anti-Iraq war documentary, "No End In Sight," recently told The Philadelphia Inquirer. But here's the interesting part: So far, these movies are tanking. "Rendition" opened on 2,250 screens, with three Oscar winners in the cast, and it was beaten its opening weekend by a re-release of the 14-year-old "A Nightmare Before Christmas." "Elah" was a bigger bomb than those used in the "shock and awe" campaign. "The Kingdom" earned less than $50 million, and surely only did that well because it was marketed as an action movie rather than an anti-war one. Jeanine Basinger, a film historian at Wesleyan University, speculates that "these films are coming forward during the progress of a war and questioning it sooner may mean that the general public is rejecting what our leaders are telling us ... and want to know more about the war."
This is an odd, yet unsurprising, interpretation in an age when "The Daily Show" is a primary news source.
The public doesn't get to decide what movies are made. As President Bush might say, Hollywood is the "decider." The public determines which movies are successful. Perhaps the studios of yesteryear knew something today's moguls don't. Maybe Americans don't like to see America and her troops run down, even during an unpopular war.
When Peter Berg tested "The Kingdom" on Americans, he was horrified when the audience cheered when the FBI killed the terrorists at the end. "Am I experiencing American bloodlust?" the director agonized. Berg's contemptuous reaction toward American audiences may point to a few of the reasons these movies are faring poorly at American box offices.
First, economics. Hollywood cares less and less about what Americans think of their products because as domestic movie attendance has declined, Hollywood shifted its aim to foreign markets. In America, filmmakers are at pains to insist their anti-war fare isn't anti-American. No such distinctions need be made when these films open at Cannes, Venice and Toronto. Denouncing the war isn't only good marketing in Europe, it's the fastest route to critical acclaim.
Second, Americans may not be as passionately opposed to the war as the polls have led Hollywood to believe. Left-wing bloggers, hyper-rich Democratic donors and anti-war activists hate the war with biblical fury. But many average Americans are depressed by the war because, until recently, it was going so badly. The polls don't capture this distinction very well.
This illuminates an underdiscussed dynamic of our times. Americans are both anti-war and anti-anti-war. Polls show they are disgusted with Republicans and Democrats. Hollywood and the left generally have misread this political discontent thinking there's a mandate for their trite Vietnam-era nostalgia for mass protest and Joan Baez speechifying. But few Americans are eager to spend their money to listen to the Jane Fonda set say, "I told you so!" for two hours. Especially not when we've heard it all before. (Indeed, "Redacted" is essentially a remake of his Vietnam movie "Casualties of War.")
By confusing the public's war-weariness with their own carefully cultivated rage they've badly overreached. Rage may be a good box office draw; exhaustion isn't. The late film critic Pauline Kael is reported to have said that Nixon couldn't have won because she didn't know anybody who voted for him. Similarly, maybe everyone Paul Haggis knows shares his hatred for the war, but he just doesn't know enough people to make a hit.