Most Iraq War Movies Enjoy Little Box Office Success

April 7, 2008 at 6:35 PM EDT
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While a plethora of recent movies have focused on the Iraq war, few have succeeded at the box office. The director of the new film "Stop-Loss" and a film critic discuss this phenomenon.

ACTOR: You leave on the 22nd, shipping back to Iraq, subsection 12305 Title 10, by the authority of the president. You’ve been stop-lossed.

JEFFREY BROWN: “Stop-Loss,” the film, tells of young American soldiers who experience the trauma of war in Iraq, return to their Texas homes, and then face being sent back to combat under the Pentagon policy of that name. Reviews have been largely positive, crediting the film for its tough look at the human costs of war.

ACTRESS: I can’t go another year without having you touch my face.

JEFFREY BROWN: But “Stop-Loss” has had a harder time at the box office, taking in a little more than $8 million two weeks into its release. Other films about Iraq and terrorism have also had trouble attracting audiences, including “The Valley of Elah,” set in the home front.

ACTOR: Can I get a word?

TOMMY LEE JONES, actor: Yes, come on in. I’ll just be a minute.

JEFFREY BROWN: And “Redacted,” about the murder of a young Iraqi girl.

ACTOR: Enough is enough. You’ve had your fun. Let’s get out of here.

JEFFREY BROWN: Even films with major stars, like “Lions For Lambs,” have struggled.

MERYL STREEP, actress: Wow. You all must be panicked.

TOM CRUISE, actor: Oh, no, no, no, no. We’re determined.

ROBERT REDFORD, director: Films have gone to a place now where there is so much insecurity commercially about films that it seems like the only ones that are safe or the franchise films or the clear out-and-out comedies that appeal to the broad masses. So, political films and films that are more risky in nature, you know, make you maybe think or wonder or provoke are harder to come by.

JEFFREY BROWN: The war has also been the subject of a number of documentaries. Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11” achieved enormous success in 2004. Others have drawn smaller audiences, including “No End in Sight,” about the policy decisions made after the fall of Baghdad.

A new release, “Body of War” produced by Phil Donahue and Ellen Spiro, looks at challenges faced by an injured soldier upon returning home and revisits the political debates and votes prior to the invasion.

And an upcoming film by documentary-maker Errol Morris, “Standard Operating Procedure,” explores what happened at Abu Ghraib.

Several new feature films are also in the can and awaiting release, even as Hollywood studios keep a close eye on the reception for “Stop-Loss” and the appetite of the American public for films centered on the Iraq war.

Examining the soldier as a person

JEFFREY BROWN: And I'm joined now from Los Angeles by the director of "Stop-Loss," Kimberly Peirce. Her last film was the acclaimed "Boys Don't Cry." Also joining us is Stephen Farber, film critic and contributing editor of Hollywood Life magazine, and a regular contributor to The New York Times.

Well, Kimberly Peirce, first, why a film about Iraq? What story did you want to tell, and who are you trying to reach?

KIMBERLY PEIRCE, director: Well, I was in New York for 9/11. And I saw the towers fall. And when America entered the war, I knew immediately that I was really interested in who the soldiers were, why they were signing up, what their experience in combat was and upon coming home.

And I started to work on a project related to that. And then my baby brother signed up. So, really, being a military family and dealing with his deployment and what was happening to him on a daily basis, it really only brought home to me that this was like an incredibly important story for America. So, that's really where it comes from for me.

JEFFREY BROWN: And am I right? I read that you approached this almost like a documentary at first yourself, interviewing lots of soldiers and trying to figure out how you would tell the story.

KIMBERLY PEIRCE: I did, because, being a fan of war films, you know, the great ones, like "Best Years" and "Apocalypse Now" and -- and I could go on and on -- but I really wanted to take what they had taught us, but I also felt I needed to find out what the emblematic story for our generation was.

And I felt I would only know that by really availing myself to the soldiers and their families and everything that they were going through. So, I went around the country with my research partner, and we just interviewed soldiers. And that was how we came to tell the story that we came.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, of course, you're focusing on what is a policy, the stop-loss policy, but you had to figure out a way to make into a human drama.

KIMBERLY PEIRCE: Yes. Really, the human drama came first.

It was -- in interviewing all these soldiers, we found out that fundamentally the emblematic story was that of these patriotic soldiers who signed up after 9/11. They were willing to risk their lives to defend their country, their home and their family.

They go over there, and nearly every soldier that I interviewed said that when they got over there, the most profound experience that they had is that you're trying to survive and you're trying to protect the soldier to your left and the soldier to your right, so that the camaraderie among the troops really is what is at the heart and soul of their experience.

So, when they end up in a situation like what they're ending up in, in terms of what they told me, where they're having to go into the bedrooms and the hallways and the kitchens and figure out who the enemy is and who the enemy isn't, they're finding it really difficult to protect one another. So, that's why a lot of them come back and they want to put it behind them.

That was a story that we were telling. In the midst of creating that story, a patriotic soldier said to me, do you want to hear about something really messed up? And I was like, "well, sure. What is that?" He actually spelled out the word stop-loss. We were IMing. And he put S-T-O-P-L-O-S-S. And I was like, "well, I don't understand what that is."

And he said, it's a backdoor draft. And I was like, "OK, I still don't know what that means. I mean, I know what a draft is, but we don't have that now." And he said that they're extending soldiers past their agreed-upon term of service. In his words, they were breaking the contract.

And he said it was unfair that they were recycling the soldiers that had already done their time. And he was most upset because he was in combat, and this was happening to his best friend, who he said was going to be sent back to a third tour that would likely be deadly. And he didn't know if his marriage would survive it.

So, for us, we were already telling the story of the patriots. And stop-loss came in, and it really kind of focused everything for us.

Past war films more accepted

JEFFREY BROWN: Stephen Farber, I mentioned some of the other films that are out there, both feature films and documentaries, and the fact that audiences don't seem to be all that attracted to them. What do you think is going on?

STEPHEN FARBER, contributing editor, Hollywood Life: I think that it's unfortunate, but the public seems to have their heads in the sands regarding this war.

People do not want to look at it or think about it, even though we know that most people in this country think that the war was a bad idea in the first place, and that it's not going particularly well now. But it seems that people do not want to confront some of the harsher truths about what is going on there, what it's doing to young men in this country, as Kimberly's film points out.

"Stop-Loss" really shows the traumatic effect that it's having on people, which is going to be with us for many, many years to come. And I wish that people would look at it. Maybe people think these films are going to be too depressing or that they're going to be too much of like an educational film. But "Stop-Loss" is a very involving, human movie.

If people -- the people who do see it, I think, respond to it very passionately. And I just -- I wish that more people were concerned about these issues and wanted to look at some of the human costs of this war.

JEFFREY BROWN: She -- staying with you, she mentioned some of the familiar films from the past. How would you compare other wars, the films that came out from them, and the reception to those films?

STEPHEN FARBER: Well, I think, sometimes, those films were made after the wars ended, like the Vietnam films "Deer Hunter," "Coming Home," which were also -- dealt with soldiers coming back from a controversial wartime experience and the difficulties they had in readjusting to their lives and the horrendous impact that the war had had on them.

Now, those films, maybe because they -- both of them came out several years after the war itself ended, people were able to absorb it more easily.

I don't know what the reason is. But they were very comparable in terms of some of the issues that they were dealing with. Those were both Oscar-winning movies that were embraced by the public and also looked on as important films.

Viewers seek escape, not reality

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you think, Ms. Peirce, that the real-time aspect to your movie and other movies, that we're asked to look at it right as the war is going on, is part of the reason that people are having a hard time with it?

KIMBERLY PEIRCE: I'm not really sure.

I mean, certainly, we will know once the war is over if that was the case. I mean, you know, I'm in a situation, having gone around the country -- I went to like 24 cities -- and I dealt very, you know, in person with my audience. I screened it. I did Q&As. They stayed for it. There was a huge level of involvement. And that continues to this day.

So, I guess my take on it is, is that, when people see the movie, they're incredibly moved by it. They're so moved that they come back and they post on our Web site. They did it again all this weekend.

I don't think that it's hitting the numbers that we would like, but certainly when the people see it, there's an emotional response. And I don't know that that would be any different, you know, in five years' time. I feel like it's pretty genuine right now.

JEFFREY BROWN: But how do you think about -- I mean, as a filmmaker, it's commonplace to think that we go to the movies, we go to the Cineplex for a kind of escape or entertainment. And there you are, trying to tell a very hard story about something that is very much -- it's front-page news.

KIMBERLY PEIRCE: Well, that's very interesting. I mean, I certainly think, if you look at the box office nowadays vs. in the past, people probably have more of an escapist tendency. I think you're just -- you're seeing that week by week.

If you look at movies in the past, I think that they were probably able to entertain more difficult topics. I think dramas probably did better in the past, so that certainly is a concern. You know, again, it's -- you're talking to the person who, like many other directors, I really love making dramas.

So, while I see that there might be a decreasing audience for it, I also think it's -- I see the audiences being really satisfied when they do go to it.

Industry leery on 'serious drama'

JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Farber, what do you see in terms of looking ahead here? Hollywood studios, other producers must look at what's going on here and have to think about marketing the films that are already out there that have been shot, but not released yet, or think about making ones in the future.

STEPHEN FARBER: Well, I think that it is, unfortunately, going to discourage people from taking on films of substance of sort of current social issues.

And, as Kimberly said, dramas themselves are an endangered species. And that's very unfortunate, because what -- what I would like to emphasize is that these films, particularly "Stop-Loss,' because that's what we're talking about, is an entertaining movie, in the sense that it's a very involving movie. It's a very emotionally powerful, satisfying movie, when people see it.

To me, that is entertainment. It's not pure escapist fluff, but entertainment has always meant involving drama, where you care about the people and who are trapped in a very difficult situation. And, throughout history, people have been very caught up in stories like that.

And it would be very sad if audiences are no longer willing or able to invest in serious character dramas that touch on very universal human themes.

JEFFREY BROWN: But Hollywood, at the same time, I guess, looks at the numbers. So, you're worried about what this may mean for the future.

STEPHEN FARBER: I think it's already -- we have already seen evidence that studios are shying away from any serious dramatic films.

Fortunately, there are still independent, smaller independent companies that will make these. And maybe, on lower budgets, people will still go to see them in enough numbers to make them successful. But I think Hollywood, as a whole, is very, very nervous about any kind of serious drama right now.

And that wasn't always the case. I mean, you look at the history of Hollywood studios, they always made very intense current, timely, powerful dramas, in addition to lightweight comedies. They made a full range of movies. And the big studios are really doing that less and less today.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Stephen Farber and Kimberly Peirce, thank you both very much.

STEPHEN FARBER: Thanks a lot.