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First came the documentaries. As the assumptions behind the American invasion of Iraq were pulverized by IEDs, filmmakers responded with a flood of nonfiction treatments of the war, its causes, and its victims—on both sides of the fight. Making Hollywood movies takes longer, so it wasn’t until 2007 that filmgoers had the chance to see features on the “war on terror” and related subjects.
It’s not an opportunity that many took. Star power brought some viewers to these films, which feature box-office champs such as Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, and Tommy Lee Jones, as well as Jamie Foxx and Reese Witherspoon. But the Iraq War genre hasn’t proved popular; its least successful example, Brian De Palma’s Redacted, vanished from its local screen in less than a week.
Meanwhile, another sort of war flick, exemplified by 300, entered into the pitched multiplex combat. Partially computer-generated and brazenly unrealistic, director Zack Snyder’s account of the battle of Thermopylae is one of the year’s more striking attempts to bend traditional storytelling to a video-game aesthetic. Yet the movie—like its stylistic fellow traveler, Beowulf—is derived from a classic work of Western literature. And where the anti-Iraq films offer grief, regret, and second thoughts, 300 is unambiguous: “Freedom isn’t free at all. It comes with the highest of costs.” Chickenhawks like Dick Cheney couldn’t have put it any better.
Defenders of 300 have argued that the script is largely faithful to the writings of Herodotus, the “father of history.” (Never mind that Herodotus is also sometimes called the “father of lies,” and that his account of the Greek wars with Persia was written for Greeks.) Historically, the movie’s claim that oligarchic Sparta stands for “reason and justice” while culturally tolerant Persia represents “mysticism and tyranny” is dubious. But these words matter less than the images, which present the invaders not merely as dark-skinned and alien but as actual monsters. The Persians’ shock troops, the “Immortals,” appear to be Chinese ninja vampires, and King Xerxes is a sexually ambiguous giant who seduces a Spartan defector in a Studio 54-style tent, and whose piercings and chains look more 1985 than 480 B.C.
But however absurd, 300’s spectacle is more gleefully cinematic than the sections of Rendition, Lions for Lambs, and The Walker that are set in Washington, where people chatter about what’s gone wrong with Iraq, the Bush administration, and American foreign policy. Some of the greatest films ever made are full of talk, but such movies require wit and grace, qualities that are generally rare in Hollywood scripts. Charlie Wilson’s War has them, but its commentary on Iraq is indirect. When the film ends, the Afghanistan that would host Osama bin Laden is just beginning to take shape.
The U.S. campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan have forced Hollywood to expand its usually provincial worldview. Until quite recently, characters from such countries appeared in American movies only as vaguely defined “Middle Eastern terrorists.” This year, Rendition could turn on the fate of an Egyptian-born American resident and include a subplot about a sympathetic young woman in an unidentified North African land. Since it’s derived from a bestseller, The Kite Runner probably would have been made anyway, but its marketing team has to be perversely grateful for events that put Afghanistan on the map for moviegoers on this side of the world.
Still, the major studios retain their customary preference for films about people who could live in a nearby cul-de-sac, and which reduce their antagonists to ciphers. The battle episode in Lions for Lambs pits two regular (if ethnically diverse) Yanks against a shadowy menace, and Home of the Brave and In the Valley of Elah emphasize the travails of veterans who are haunted by their Iraq experiences. (The latter movie puts the war at a safe distance by rendering it entirely in flashback.) Set in Saudi Arabia, the U.S. ally that funds many of contemporary Islam’s advocates of extremism, The Kingdom is only about Iraq by not being about it: It’s a return to the reassuring fantasy that a handful of supercompetent Americans can drop into an alien culture and clean up a terrorist problem as easily as mopping up a little spilled ketchup.
The anti-war movie is a difficult genre. Evoking the horrors of combat too intensely can seem exploitative or even attract viewers who enjoy exactly what is being deplored. Thus the outraged Redacted gingerly depicts its central crime, the rape and murder of a teenage Iraqi girl. And it’s hard to balance sympathy toward people on both sides of
a conflict, especially an ongoing one in which Americans are dying. It’s not just for budgetary reasons that some directors decided to consider Iraq and Afghanistan from a distance.
Redacted invokes the multimedia bazaar of the Iraq War, in which Web sites, cell phones, and surveillance video instantaneously reveal events—or a misleading sliver of them. Yet the movie isn’t as all-encompassing a media meltdown as 300 or Beowulf, which both combine ancient literature, modern sensibilities, genre ready-mades, and a shooter-game worldview as they fuse live-action and animation. While some conscientious filmmakers attempted in 2007 to conjure war’s horrors, these cartoonish movies celebrate its glories. They could be shown to soldiers about to face battle.
That’s particularly true of 300, which arrays a few noble Greeks, the supposed forefathers of Western culture, against the hordes of “all Asia.” Most Americans probably don’t think of Iran, home to the film’s fanciful notion of Persians, as Asia. But 300 uses that phrase to evoke a teeming threat that owes less to history than to Chinese and Japanese action flicks. This formulation isn’t simply xenophobic. Like the Kill Bill movies, 300 considers the Eastern peril both dangerous and alluring. The Spartans—led by an Irish-accented king—must win, but that doesn’t mean that their enemies aren’t seriously cool. Much the same is true of Beowulf, which lacks the East-West tension but has a similarly beguiling villain. Defeating the hideous Grendel leads to his mother, who is sleek, gold-skinned Eros herself, played by who else but Angelina Jolie.
The animal pleasures of such films, silly as they are, easily trump the spectacle of Tom Cruise as a right-wing U.S. senator, Reese Witherspoon as an anxious wife, or Tommy Lee Jones as a bereaved dad. It’s no accident that the year’s most successful American anti-war movie is a largely
pro-war one: Charlie Wilson’s War toasts a handful of mavericks who manage to kick-start a counterattack against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The movie’s rueful epilogue, the rise of the Taliban and al-Qaeda, leaches little joy from the all-American pastimes of undermining authority, improvising an impossible success, and pasting one on a bully.
That’s a classic Hollywood narrative, but it’s a difficult one to apply to the Iraq War, in which the United States has hardly played the role of triumphant underdog. No wonder that this year’s features involving Iraq and Afghanistan have been problematic, both artistically and commercially. American filmmakers know what sort of story they tell best. But American foreign policy is following a different script altogether.
The 10 Best Films of 2007 (opening commercially in Washington)
While putting the World Bank on trial, Mauritanian-born director Abderrahmane Sissako doesn’t neglect the everyday lyricism of his previous work.
2. Charlie Wilson’s War
Using Aaron Sorkin’s sharpest script ever, Mike Nichols constructs an inside-Washington romp that’s deepened by a rueful postscript.
Turkish writer-director Nuri Bilge Ceylan tells a familiar art-film story—romantic confusion among the intellectual set—with grace and quietly innovative technique.
4. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
Based on a real-life memoir, Julian Schnabel’s film brilliantly evokes the experience of a man whose active mind is locked in a paralyzed body.
5. Election/Triad Election
Director Johnnie To’s bleak tale of a Hong Kong triad’s succession battle expands in its politically resonant second part to underscore the former colony’s ultimate dilemma.
6. Dans Paris
An unexpectedly warm and antic romp from French writer-director Christophe Honoré, this tale of two very different brothers is always open to what’s around the next corner.
Director Jafar Panahi again considers the status of women in Iran, using a soccer match that’s off-limits to them as his unseen backdrop. The film is lighter in tone than The Circle, yet no less trenchant.
8. Summer Palace
A stunning evocation of young Beijing in 1989, Lou Ye’s semi-autobiographical drama peaks at its midpoint with the Tiananmen Square crackdown but then sensitively charts the event’s psychic aftermath.
9. The Savages
In Tamara Jenkins’ piercing black comedy, estranged siblings are reunited for an essential but dismal task: dealing with their father’s senility.
10. This Is England
Writer-director Shane Meadows regains his balance by returning to the realm of autobiography; for all its specific details of ’80s British skinhead culture, the film’s depiction of adolescence is universal.