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Posts Tagged ‘Iraq’

When I was in high school there was a guy who was cut from a different mold and I always wondered what happened to him. I thought of him after seeing The Hurt Locker because to be on a bomb squad one has to come from a different mold.

Daws only weighed 135 pounds and he not only played football, he was a nose guard. (Not the place for little guys.) But he was tough. His helmet actually had the paint scratched off the front of it from hitting other helmets so hard. After one game which we lost we could hear him on the practice field in the dark hitting the blocking sled–which would not have the pads on it. Daws was a warrior and I’d be very surprised if he didn’t end up in the military.

One of the things I like best about The Hurt Locker is it isn’t about the war, but about the warrior. The kind of person that is more comfortable disarming a bomb than grocery shopping or updating his Facebook status.

Movies made in and around the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (In the Valley of Elah, Rendition, Lions for Lambs, The Kingdom, Brothers , Redacted ,  A Mighty Heart, The Messenger) have one thing in common–they don’t find much of an audience. Unfortunately, The Hurt Locker joins the club.

Unfortunately, because it’s a great film. Time magazine called it “A near-perfect movie” and recently it tied Avatar with nine Academy Award nominations. Perhaps it will find a life on DVD.

While audiences have supported many films about war (including the Civil War, WWI, WWII, Korea, & Viet Nam) Iraq appears to be a different monster. I’m not sure why this is the case, but I can speculate. Time would seem to be the first factor. I seem to recall an interview where screenwriter Douglas Day Stewart said that one of the troubles with getting An Officer and a Gentleman made was the lingering effect of the Viet Nam War.

Keep in mind that An Officer and a Gentleman was not a movie about Viet Nam, just military centered. The movie got made and was a box office hit, but it came out in 1982–eight years after US involvement ended. Granted The Green Berets was released in 1968 (during the war in Viet Nam) but that was because it was a film John Wayne wanted to make. But generally, the war in Viet Nam was avoided by Hollywood at first.

Certainly, The Deer Hunter (1978) dealt with the lingering effects of returning home from Viet Nam, but that is still four years removed from the conflict.  Apocalypse Now is almost its own genre that transcended Viet Nam, but still didn’t come out until 1979.

I think Platoon was the first movie that was a hard look at Viet Nam that found an audience, but that was 1986– a full 12 years after the war.  Then Viet Nam was in vogue in Hollywood, Good Morning Viet Nam (1987), Full Metal Jacket. (1987) , The Hanoi Hilton (1987), Hamburger Hill (1987), Casualties of War (1989) and Born on the Fourth of July(1989).

So I think time is needed for audiences to be comfortable reflecting on Iraq. When I last checked, we were still in Iraq. We’re still in Afghanistan.  And I think we now realize we will always be in a war with terrorism.

The second reason I think audiences aren’t fond of movies about Iraq is the shear politics of the matter. It’s hard for the word propaganda not to come up. People generally don’t like to heavy-handed arguments from either side. (Though I should point out that that Michael Moore’s documnetary Fahrenheit 9/11 made $119 million domestic/$222 million worldwide (on a $6 million budget.)

And thirdly, movies are largely about entertainment. Definitions usually include the words amusement, diversion, and pleasure. That doesn’t mean we don’t make difficult films–just pointing out that it is hard for those films to find an audience no matter how well they are made. We’ll see how Buried does this spring (about a an American contractor in Iraq) –sounds like an interesting twist and was well-received at Sundance.

The Gulf War was short lives and out of that came Three Kings and Jarhead that did find audiences but the expenses were so high that the domestic box office was below their budgets. Courage Under Fire (1996) had a solid cast Denzel Washington, Meg Ryan, and a newcomer named Matt Damon and the budget was estimated to be below $50. million and made $60 million domestic and topped $100 million worldwide.

But with all those statistics there are said to be over  100 Iraq/Afghanistan-centered war movies in development.

How has Dear John been able to have a big box office run? I haven’t seen the film, but words that reviewers are fond of using are “syrupy,” “sentimental” and “schmaltzy.” Not the kind of film my high school friend Daws would be interested in seeing, but enough people were for it to double its money in just two weeks.

Related post: Screenwriting from Hell

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“[Kathryn] Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal…have made the first fictional feature about American soldiers in Iraq that doesn’t fall apart, or preach to a choir, or turn into a position paper.”
Michael Phillips
Chicago Tribune

The Hurt Locker had a limited release last summer and never made it to my neck of the woods. Nor did the release in December. Which is too bad, because I think that the story which takes place in Iraq would have resonated well in a part of the country that attracts a lot of men and women into the military.

What’s worse though is it never found an audience in the theater so not many people got to see this great and well crafted film on the big screen. Fortunalty,  the film was nominated for nine Academy Awards which has helped it attracts more of a following. I watched the film this week and found this exchange on the commentary track between producer/director Kathryn Bigelow (K-19: Widowmaker, Point Break) and producer/screenwriter Mark Boal talking about the impetus of the film.

Mark Boal: (The Hurt Locker) sort of came out of a experience I had in Baghdad—in Iraq–where I was embedded as a journalist in 2004 covering the bomb squad and going out on daily missions with them and seeing the kinds of situations they got into. And it was a really eye-opening experience  just to witness the sheer onslaught of bombs that these three man teams would have to deal with at that time in the war. And I think that it took the military a little bit by surprise, it certainly took them by surprise. I wrote a article about the bomb squad and then felt that the story warrented a larger translation, perhaps into a film.

And when I came back from Iraq (I) presented the idea to Kathryn Bigelow, and I think you were intrigued–I don’t know if that’s putting words in your mouth…

Kathryn Bigelow: I was more than intrigued. I thought that these men have arguable the most dangerous job in the world, And that it’s a voluntary military, so that’s a very interesting psychological profile and I thought because we had an opportunity to look at this conflict through first hand observation of Mark’s embed I thought it was a pretty rare and extraordinary situation and could be a very interesting film. I also felt that the war was under reported and that I, being a member of the general public, I had very little idea what was going on over there. What EOD, IED–what these terms meant, And looking at a day in the life of a bomb tech really unpacked it.

Mark: So having secured Kathryn’s interest I set out to write a script on spec. Which means that there was no contract or money involved and we ended up producing the movie independently, raising the funds sort of outside the Hollywood system.

I hope that the film gains traction and I imagine as we look back on this era The Hurt Locker will be one of the defining film of the times.

A second rare and extraordinary situation is this is Mark Boal’s first screenplay.

And third rare and extraordinary thing surrounding The Hurt Locker is Kathryn Bigelow was once married to writer/director James Cameron who also has a little film out called Avatar which also has been nominated for nine Academy Awards. What are the odds of that combo ever happening again?

The Hurt Locker and Avatar are up against each other in the best picture category. Fantasy vs. reality. 3-D vs. 2-D.  Pandora vs. Baghdad. At the box office there is no question who the winner is–Avatar probably made more thanThe Hurt Locker in just its first weekend playing at the Archlight Cinema in Hollywood.

Avatar just became the top box office money-maker in the history of movies, and it would be poetic justice if The Hurt Locker took home the best picture Oscar next month. It would be well deserved.

Scott W. Smith

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