Movie Mix

Why Iraq Is Bombing at the Box Office

If you haven't been asked to pay for a war with money or blood, why would you buy a ticket to watch a simulation of it?
Moving to L.A. from San Francisco threw off my movie viewing -- or, rather, temporarily reduced it from the ludicrous to the merely insane; I saw a few things during the process of relocating, but there were plenty of things I skipped. One of the films I missed was Stop-Loss, Kimberley Pierce's first film after the excellent Boys Don't Cry, starring Ryan Phillippe as a soldier home from Iraq who's called back to the front thanks to the loopholes and legalities of his service agreement. I could have gone and seen it at any time its opening weekend -- it was screening less than two miles away from my apartment -- but I didn't. Too depressing. Too flashy-looking. Too much like homework. Whatever. I had things to do.

And, in doing so I helped make sure that a well-reviewed film about the central political issue of our time came ranked, at the box office, in eighth place behind a group of card-counters, a talking elephant, a superhero parody, Tyler Perry's latest, a kid-bodyguard comedy, a Japanese-horror film remake and a wildly inaccurate historical epic. I also helped continue a trend: Other films about Iraq or Afghanistan -- Redacted, In the Valley of Elah, Lions for Lambs -- have also made little to no money.

So why are the Iraq movies failing? A few possibilities:

1) It's Too Soon

At Nikki Finke's Deadline Hollywood, an unnamed studio source explained Stop-Loss's low opening week box office in no uncertain terms: "No one wants to see Iraq war movies. No matter what we put out there in terms of great cast or trailers, people were completely turned off. It's a function of the marketplace not being ready to address this conflict in a dramatic way because the war itself is something that's unresolved yet. It's a shame because it's a good movie that's just ahead of its time." Following this logic, I guess we can't expect an Iraq or Afghanistan movie to do well at the box office for the next ... what, 8-10 years? This argument also raises why people would pay at the box office for what they could watch at home on the news for free. (This suggests, of course, that people watch news reports from Iraq. ... ) Of course, there were plenty of films made about World War II during World War II, and they did okay business. So, maybe it's not too soon. Maybe it's because ...

2) They're Not Good

Redacted: Preachy, clunky and over-the-top, with De Palma recycling one of his own films. Lions for Lambs: Painfully earnest and talky, with Redford shooting everything with the cheap, clammy look and feel of an incredibly self-righteous production by the Max Fischer Players. In the Valley of Elah: Riddled with junk storytelling, belabored coincidences, obvious symbols and the creepy intimation that everyone who goes to Iraq and is lucky enough to return winds up a permanently-damaged sociopath -- plus, some of the worst writing imaginable. ("They shouldn't send heroes to a place like Iraq," one character notes, mournfully. Aaah, the mark of Paul Haggis: If you worry about the audience missing the subtext, just make it text.) Stop-Loss? Haven't seen it. And while a few interesting fresher talents are warming up to shoot stories about Iraq (Kathryn Bigelow, Paul Greengrass, Ed Burns & David Simon) it's worth noting that Redacted, Lions and Elah are all made by directors whose best years may be behind them or (in Haggis's case) never happened. Maybe people aren't rejecting Iraq movies; maybe they're just rejecting bad Iraq movies. But the public sees bad movies all the time -- I call on Optimus Prime as a witness -- so that can't be it, either. Wait, what if it's because ...

3) It's Too Late

If you're against the Iraq war, why see a movie about it that only rakes up all your anger and resentment about being lied to? If you're in favor of the Iraq war, why would you see a film that suggests it's a horrible thing? And if you have family actually serving in Iraq (and if you do, please let me note firmly and fervently that my thoughts and best wishes are with you and them), why would you go see an actor -- Ryan Phillippe or Derek Luke or whoever -- going through a fake version of the real mortal danger your loved ones face all the time? But people don't only go to the movies to see things that are pleasant, or solely to hear positions they agree with; what if it's because ...

4) Buying a Ticket Would Be Buying In

We're at war, and yet we're not paying higher taxes. We're not being asked to ration vital material. If you don't have a loved one or friend in service in Iraq or Afghanistan, there's no reason to think about the war -- we're deferring paying for it on the national equivalent of a credit card, and the American economy is humming along with plenty of tax cuts to encourage us to keep shopping. (Of course, the fact that those tax rebate checks will probably be used solely to pay off credit card debt or buy things made abroad means that the slight cough under that hum is just going to get louder, but never mind. ... ) As Tommy Lee Jones pointed out in a surprisingly blunt interview with the Harvard alumni magazine 02138 recently, "We had the draft in '68, we had a bullshit war, and it ultimately ended. And there were terrific repercussions throughout the government. The Bush administration has escaped those repercussions because the American people have a way to turn their head and say, "It doesn't really affect my family. My daughter is in no threat of having her legs blown off. My son is in no threat of coming back with no face, no ears, no nose -- because he didn't volunteer." If somebody were making them incur those risks, the votership might change radically." If you haven't been asked to pay for a war with money or blood, why would you pay at the box office for the simulation of it? I'll probably go see Stop-Loss -- at some point, a matinee when I can fit it in my schedule -- and the ugly reality is that'll be the most money and the most time I'll have invested in the Iraq war in a long time, and the most money and time I'll have to put toward the Iraq war for a long time. That's not merely sad; it's shameful. And the only cold consolation I can apply to my sad, shameful misery is the undeniable, inescapable fact that I have plenty of company.
James Rocchi lives and works in Los Angeles. He writes for and the San Francisco Chronicle's, and was the official film critic for Netflix from 2001 - 2005 and the film critic for San Francisco's CBS-5 from 2005 - 2008.