When The Hurt Locker, perhaps the most significant film about the Iraq war, won best picture, it also made a dubious kind of story, posting the worst box office of any previous winner. It had grossed only $11 million at the time, and then several million more after the Oscars went up, despite arguments from critics who insisted, correctly, that director Kathryn Bigelow and her screenwriter, Mark Boal, they had made a carefully apolitical thriller about an army. bomb squad who spends his days defusing improvised explosive devices. And what could be more exciting than that? How many successful movies and TV shows have been built around the ticking of bombs about to go off? Too many to count.
And yet, five years after the war, Americans just didn’t want any of it. The dramatic events of the invasion had ended in a few months: Saddam Hussein’s regime had been toppled, along with his statue in Baghdad’s Firdos Square, and George W. Bush had flown on an aircraft carrier carrying a “Mission Accomplished” banner. “, declaring that the main combat operations were over. Minor combat operations would continue indefinitely, of course, while the power vacuum was filled with the chaos of a growing insurgency and great spasms of sectarian violence. That’s The Hurt Locker’s Iraq War: an aimless, dangerous and almost nihilistic effort that politicians couldn’t risk their careers to end. It didn’t matter that Bigelow and Boal weren’t making an explicitly anti-war movie, focused on visceral, thrilling, on-the-ground experiences. The backdrop was too annoying.
The cinematic history of the Iraq war has not been fully written, even 20 years after it began. Most of Hollywood’s major Vietnam films (The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now, Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, Casualties of War) were produced long after the war, when the urgency of an ongoing conflict could be reduced to a perspective on your costs. Yet there is reason to be pessimistic about IP-addicted, risk-averse 21st-century studios plunging back into a war they rarely bothered to participate in in the first place. Please note: The Hurt Locker was independently produced and distributed by Summit Entertainment, which made a fair bit of money off of the Twilight movies before being gobbled up by Lionsgate.
Like The Hurt Locker, many of the movies made about Iraq kept the focus on heroism and individual trauma, rather than the murkier and decidedly unheroic themes of how we got into this mess in the first place. Of the two most notable exceptions, the first was Oliver Stone’s 2008 biopic W, which incorporated the Iraq war into the larger story of George W. Bush’s life, as he made his unlikely rise from mediocre flop, rebellious and hard-drinking to a two-term president eager to settle the score for his father. Stone had earned his reputation in Vietnam movies like Platoon and Born on the Four of July, which reflected his own disillusionment as a war veteran. But W turned out to be more like Stone’s Nixon, a surprisingly sympathetic portrait of a leader isolated by scandal rather than the left-wing barrage people might have expected. Through Stone’s lens, the Iraq war boiled down to the unfortunate collateral damage of a father-son relationship.
Another biopic, Adam McKay’s semi-satirical Vice, devoted less time to Iraq than W in arguing that Dick Cheney, another wayward Ivy Leaguer with a drinking problem, sobered up in time to play Bush puppeteer to through various disasters, of which Iraq was only one. But McKay at least compromised on the dangers of unchecked executive power, which allows presidents to engineer wars like the one in Iraq and keep the military-industrial complex running without an exit strategy. Yet Vice is still more a movie about presidential privilege than it is about the blackest of black marks in the Bush/Cheney record. It was never a war that Hollywood could look straight in the eye.
Rather than get around the quagmire, the most feasible solution was to take a perspective on combat and the agonies of returning home. A hallmark of Iraq war movies that focused on the soldiers themselves was a greater understanding of post-traumatic stress disorder than previous generations could openly process. Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper was the bona fide success of the war, in part because its leading man, Navy Seal Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper), arguably achieved a kind of grim greatness, having racked up more than 160 kills in four tours. from Iraq. But Eastwood gauges the human cost of Kyle’s struggle to adjust to civilian life afterwards, and the fact that Kyle was killed by another veteran suffering from PTSD proves it. Still, the film’s eagerness to print the legend, rather than tackle the more disturbing points of Kyle’s resume, made it palatable enough to be a hit.
Other dramas from outside the studio system frayed on the fringes, like Grace is Gone, about a widower (John Cusack) who loses his wife in Iraq and needs to rebuild his family life around his two young daughters, or the underrated Last Last by Richard Linklater. Flag Flying, in which a Vietnam vet (Steve Carell) reunites with his old squad mates (Bryan Cranston and Laurence Fishburne) to help bury his son, who has been killed in the latest unexplained and unexplained war. Somehow it had become a family tradition to serve a country that was not worthy of their sacrifices.
The best American drama about the Iraq war ended up on a TV show and not a movie, that would be HBO’s Generation Kill, a seven-part limited series about the seeds of failure planted in the early stages of Operation Iraqi Freedom. but with a couple of documentaries, 2008’s Standard Operating Procedure and 2013’s The Unknown Known, director Errol Morris told a whole story about war and the moral rot seeping down the chain of command.
Standard Operating Procedure investigated the notorious photographs taken at Abu Ghraib prison and throws cold water on the idea that cruelty and torture on macabre display could be limited to “a few bad apples.” Morris climbed to the top of the leadership ladder with The Unknown Known, a companion piece to The Fog of War, his 2003 portrait of Robert McNamara, the former secretary of defense, one of the chief architects of the Vietnam War. This time, he talks to Donald Rumsfeld, who doesn’t share McNamara’s introspection and instead smirks through analyzed sentences, as if to cover his mistakes in a rhetorical fog of war. Critics complained that Rumsfeld, that crafty fox in the Pentagon newsroom, had managed to give Morris nothing. But there is another word for that kind of success, when you have no reason or responsibility for the serious mistakes you have made: failure.