Anger may be the only constant in films about the Iraq war.
One measure of the duration of the U.S. military involvement in Iraq is not just that movies have been made about the war in progress, but that waves of movies have been made. As the years have passed, filmmakers have formed different plans of attack; some critique the war head-on, with the majority addressing the war more obliquely, through satire or allegory. The unifying theme is their rage, which ranges from restrained to explosive.
The first wave of Iraq war films came in 2004. They were incandescent with bitter fury, with Michael Moore's documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 filled with indignation. Documentaries from Control Room to Uncovered: The War on Iraq were equally impassioned, if more subtle, while Hollywood offered such satires as The Manchurian Candidate and Team America: World Police.
More than four years after the invasion, the tone of the films has shifted to match the nation's mood about the war. Political debate focuses on missteps and exit strategies instead of justifications.
Filmmakers have been mobilizing another round of films for this fall, but in such films as Paul Haggis' In the Valley of Elah, their anger now seems marked by something like despair. We saw a defining moment of this phase earlier in the year with Charles Ferguson's documentary No End in Sight, which details the mistakes of the U.S. occupation with depressing eloquence.
Outside of Hollywood's mainstream, lower-profile Iraq films have been amassing prestigious awards. The documentary Body of War (co-directed by Ellen Spiro and former talk-show host Phil Donahue) was a People's Choice Award runner-up at this year's Toronto Film Festival for its portrait of wounded Iraq war veterans. Director Brian De Palma won the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival for Redacted, a faux documentary about the rape and murder of a 15-year-old Iraqi girl by two U.S. soldiers, loosely based on a true story from 2006.
Haggis, the Oscar-winning writer/director of Crash, also used the details of a real case to inform his drama In the Valley of Elah. (The film was inspired by the case of young Iraq veteran Richard Davis, who was murdered near Fort Benning, Ga., in 2003.) Tommy Lee Jones plays Hank Deerfield, a retired military policeman who discovers that his son Mike (played in flashbacks by Jonathan Tucker) has gone missing from an Army base in the South shortly after returning stateside. Despite military and local law enforcement's reluctance to pursue the case, Hank finds an ally (Charlize Theron) in the local sheriff's office.
In the Valley of Elah's most moving quality is its sympathy for the soldiers, and Haggis captures both the camaraderie of Mike's friends in the barracks and their respect for their elders: Hank seems held together by his old military habits. An increasingly disturbing portrait emerges about Mike and his experience in Iraq, captured partly through corrupted, blurry camera-phone footage. The dislocating glimpses of the war seem literally drawn from the title of the 2006 documentary Iraq in Fragments.
Haggis' film relies on clunky whodunit contrivances, but its devastating resolution hits the audience like an ambush. The director mourns not just the deaths of young servicemen and women, but the war's moral costs on the survivors' hearts and minds. Jones captures the sorrow of not just one father, but seemingly the entire nation. He softens his stoic expression and clipped delivery just enough to convey bottomless grief and the effort of reining it in. Near the end, a new soldier moves into Mike's old bunk and seems like yet another sacrifice.
Overall, a national anti-war consensus appears so strong that Hollywood is critiquing foreign policy more explicitly. Robert Redford's drama Lions for Lambs (opening this Friday) involves the war in Afghanistan, but the trailer makes it look literally like a two-hour Iraq debate between Redford as a college professor and Tom Cruise as a Republican senator. In the current Rendition, Reese Witherspoon plays the crusading wife of an Egyptian-American whom U.S. officials kidnap and ship overseas as an example of "extraordinary rendition" of suspected terrorists.
Even Julie Taymor's Beatles musical Across the Universe, with its depictions of Vietnam and the anti-war protest movement, is clearly informed by the conflict in Iraq. Draftee Max Carrigan (Joe Anderson) arrives at his U.S. Army induction to the strains of "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" from Abbey Road. Inside, the image of Uncle Sam leans out of a familiar poster to sing the "I Want You" part directly to Max. The song concludes with Max and the other raw recruits singing the "She's So Heavy" section while carrying a massive Statue of Liberty replica over a model of the Vietnamese jungle. They could just as easily be present-day reservists bearing the nation's burden across the ruins of Baghdad.
Whether explicitly or implicitly, in an elegy such as In the Valley of Elah or in a call to action like Across the Universe, the new films lament the harm the continuing war inflicts on the troops -- and, by extension, on the soul of America as well. And perhaps the latest Iraq war films also mourn their own inability to prevent the ongoing conflict from claiming more lives.
TRAILERS/PHOTOS: For trailers of In the Valley of Elah and Across the Universe, as well as photos of some of the other discussed movies, go to www.theclogblog.com.