“We live in a time where we have a man sending us to war for fictitious reasons. Whether it’s the ‘fictition’ of duct tape or ‘fictition’ of orange alerts, we are against this war, Mr. Bush. Shame on you, Mr. Bush, shame on you.”
—Michael Moore, in his 2003 Oscar acceptance speech for Best Documentary for Bowling for Columbine

At the time of the 75th annual Academy Awards, when Michael Moore brought the prestigious awards ceremony to a stunning halt, the political climate in the country was marching to a beat decidedly different from today’s. Saddam Hussein was still in command of Iraq, weapons of mass destruction were perceived to be lying dormant and Iraqi freedom was in jeopardy. In the years following the chorus of boos that rang throughout the Kodak Theatre that night, March 23, 2003, all of Hollywood became deathly silent.

It became so silent, in fact, that over the last four years only a handful of feature films have dealt with the conflict in Iraq head-on, most of them coming in the form of documentaries. Unsurprisingly, the most conspicuous was Moore’s scathing review of the Bush administration and the war itself in 2004’s Fahrenheit 9/11.

But there were others too, such as James Longley’s exploration of modern day Iraqi life in Iraq in Fragments and Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker’s Gunner Palace, which told the story of the field artillery soldiers who were holed up inside Hussein’s palace for months. And who could forget Robert Greenwald’s “Un” trilogy (Unprecedented, Uncovered and Unconstitutional)? The prolific documentarian was also responsible for Iraq for Sale: The War Profiteers, which catalogued the greed and excess of contracting firms in Iraq.

“The Iraq War is having a profound effect on every aspect of our country, from the economics to the jobs to the education to the people being killed to the people coming back here with injuries—psychological and physical,” says Greenwald. “And what creative people do is write and direct and talk about those things in the way they know how—with films.”

But very few traditional Hollywood films on this topic have seen the light of day. Among them is Irwin Winkler’s 2006 drama, Home of the Brave, about Iraq War veterans returning home and struggling to reintegrate into civilian life. “Everybody talks about supporting the soldiers, but they only seem to want to support the soldiers when they’re overseas,” observes Winkler. “When they get back, nobody seems to remember that they served. That seems to be the biggest issue.”

Unlike Vietnam, where films on the topic didn’t begin production until years after the war was over, the silence in Hollywood around Iraq is officially coming to an end, even though the war itself shows no immediate resolution. With a slate of films scheduled for release in late 2007, Hollywood is testing the waters with movies like Peter Berg’s The Kingdom, Neil Burger’s The Lucky Ones and James C. Strouse’s Grace is Gone, which use Iraq as a provocative lens to explore deeper issues within their characters.

“It’s more in the vein of Sideways or About Schmidt,” says Burger of The Lucky Ones. “It’s really less about Iraq and very much about the America of today—and how these three people experience it… It’s about three American soldiers on leave, taking a road trip across the country. It’s very much about America now, trying to take the temperature of the country, the changing American character and the changing landscape.”

In Grace is Gone, John Cusack (who also produced the film) plays Stanley Phillips, a former soldier agonizing over the loss of his wife and how to tell his children that their mother has died in war. Says director Strouse, “I was watching a news story about the war in Iraq that featured the parents of soldiers who had been killed, and it struck me: What would happen to your belief system if you lost a loved one to the cause?

I realized a story told from this perspective could be both timely and important.”

Burger and Strouse, of course, are only scratching the surface of Operation Iraqi Freedom. In 2008 and 2009, some of the biggest names in Hollywood, from Tom Cruise and Ridley Scott to Harrison Ford and Sean Penn, are jumping in headfirst, tackling everything from media coverage and journalistic risk to soldiers’ homecoming experiences and battlefield acts of heroism and courage. (See sidebar.)

But is the public really ready for dramatic films about the war in Iraq?

When the Kodak Theatre erupted with displeasure in 2003, the political temperament of the country was in a much different state—a state where it was deemed “unpatriotic” to be against the war. While many were in support, others remained quiet and skeptical. Hollywood, whose primary purpose lies with the masses, decided to stay put rather than to reach out to a divided audience coping with a controversial subject.

But the political winds have shifted since the fall of Baghdad on April 9, 2003. President Bush’s approval ratings have sunk to an all-time low, claims of weapons of mass destruction have been repudiated, Hussein has been ousted, tried and hanged, Democrats have secured Congress and, most significantly, the death toll of American troops has not stopped rising (3,834 officially at press time). Truth be told, the United States finds itself in a massive quagmire.
Recalls Winkler, “Frankly, when I started working on Home of the Brave, I thought the war would have been over a long time and we’d be reflecting on the war [by the time the film was released]. I couldn’t imagine that the war would still be going on a year after I finished making the movie.”

Yet, here we are. With international support waning, a humanitarian crisis worsening, human rights abuse cases rising, terrorism and its effects increasing and our inability to withdraw without sinking the region into civil war dawning on us, the situation has proven to be more complex and chaotic than originally thought. Now, with U.S. public opinion firmly against the Iraq War, a new perspective has formed—one that remains in favor of the troops but against the policy.

Consensus or not, Hollywood might be wise to err on the side of sensitivity and not jump in too early. After all, during the Vietnam War, the only distinguished film produced by Hollywood was John Wayne’s The Green Berets (1968). Even after America’s participation in the war ended in 1973, it wasn’t until 1978, with the release of both Hal Ashby’s Coming Home and Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter, that the public began to come to terms with Vietnam and its aftereffects and Hollywood moviemakers began to seriously examine the issues.

Ted Post’s Go Tell the Spartans and Sidney J. Furie’s The Boys in Company C followed, along with Francis Ford Coppola’s unforgettable war epic, Apocalypse Now, one year later.

Timing is essential, says Greenwald. “I think that with any subject that’s based on reality, if you’re doing it as these are, as large fiction movies, you need some time. You need some time to get a little perspective, and that doesn’t happen overnight.”

It certainly didn’t happen overnight with 9/11, an extremely fragile subject matter that was breached by Paul Greengrass and Oliver Stone in 2006’s United 93 and World Trade Center, respectively. Five years after the terrorist attacks on American soil, many felt that it was too soon—that the pain was too great. Yet the delicacy with which these films treated their subjects was key. While certainly not box office hits, both achieved modest success, earning the respect of those affected and, more importantly, facilitating the grieving process.

“Obviously, any movie that’s dealing with the Iraq War is a little bit more challenging and is not always an easy sell,” says Burger. “So those kinds of movies always take a little longer to find the proper financing or the proper outlet for them. Movies take a year to write, sometimes less, and another number of months to get going and a year to make. So, whatever feelings that were brewing in 2004 are just going to be getting to the screen now.”

Films that are going to be pro-soldier and not as political; films that are going to emphasize the human aspect, not the religious aspect; films that are not going to take sides on a particular issue, but will try and reach as large an audience as possible are all going to be hitting the big screen soon.

Aside from documentaries, which will always find an angle or an issue, traditional Holly­wood films will likely not tackle the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal, the refugee camps and Iraq health care situation or the damage to alliances and the deterioration of the American influence in the world. In the end, it all comes down to attracting an audience. Yet, even with a positive spin, getting audiences to the theaters for these movies may be a difficult task. Just ask Clint Eastwood, whose critically-acclaimed World War II epics, Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima, spoke eloquently about the truth and honor on both sides of war, yet didn’t bring people to the theaters in droves. Could it have been the result of a lack of interest in the story or the fact of overexposure of war in general through the media?

If the Vietnam War was “the first televised war,” the Iraq War has been, more or less, the first Internet war. With 24/7 news coverage via the Internet, newspapers, magazines, radio, television and even cell phones, never have so many media outlets been accessible in real time—all of which could dampen moviegoers’ appetites for big-screen productions. Yes, support for the war and President Bush is dwindling, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that audiences will want to see movies about Iraq, terrorism and global warfare. Especially when they are bombarded with it from every possible angle.

“I certainly think there’s been sort of an ‘Iraq overdose,’ particularly because it’s so painful,” offers Greenwald. “It’s not one of those things that people can get excited about: Americans and Iraqis are being killed every single day, and we’re seeing it on television and it’s horrible. That’s not something that people are running to see more of.”

Hollywood executives, of course, hope otherwise. They’ve been carefully scrutinizing the war in Iraq over the last few years, with studios monitoring public opinion polls, investors looking for risk-averse stories and moviemakers struggling to write and tell stories of personal tragedies and triumphs through documentaries and features.

Only time will tell whether their efforts have been in vain. By now, the silence is broken; the first stone has been cast. Ready or not, Hollywood is going to war. mm