Directors utilize big names to get political points across, but risk alienating audiences
There's a new film genre making its way to theaters this fall: the Iraq War-themed movie. And though these features are fictionalized, it's no accident that their releases correspond with Americans' growing disenchantment with US politics in Iraq - and the upcoming presidential election.
Unlike their documentary predecessors, whose appeal was, for the most part, limited to members of the choir, these "inspired by" films by big-name directors are intended to draw moviegoers beyond the already-converted.
One of the most talked-about selections - fresh from the Telluride, Toronto, and Venice film festivals - is Paul Haggis' In the Valley of Elah, due for wide release on September 21. While the movie, Haggis' follow-up to 2005's Oscar-winning Crash, most certainly offers critical commentary on the psychological and emotional aftermath of the war, it's intended to be gripping as a mainstream murder-mystery.
The movie is "not overtly political," says Liam Madden, president of the Boston chapter of Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW), which helped recruit veterans, soldiers, and military families for advance Valley of Elah screenings and post-film Q&A sessions. "I don't think anybody would go to the movie and come away feeling like they've been preached to for two hours."
Still, Madden says the movie does give subtle exposure to "a very good message." And the Q&As have provided IVAW the opportunity to spread its action-oriented, anti-war message to a wider audience.
It's true that Haggis' reputation precedes him: His opposition to the Iraq War is no secret, nor is that of Valley of Elah co-star Susan Sarandon. Some veterans and military families have taken offense to their positions, but as Haggis told The New York Times, the film was not intended to enforce his view and blatantly criticize US policy. Instead, he said, it "is meant to raise questions."
Publicity efforts - orchestrated by Warner Independent with the assistance of PR partners, including LA-based mPRm Public Relations and New York-based Falco Ink - obviously do a little bit of both. And while In the Valley of Elah may well be approaching the Iraq War from a fictional perspective, one "can't deny that movies [play] a huge part in how a lot of people shape their opinions and perspectives," Madden notes.
Even if the Iraq War is only a strong subplot, the topic is "controversial, not something the whole country is supporting," says Bob Strauss, film critic at the LA Daily News. "Producers are understandably nervous about alienating half their audience."
Regardless, Strauss says, "the people making movies are probably pretty critical of this war [and] want to get their points of view across." That means studios must handle publicity "as carefully as they can," he explains. Cast members promoting In the Valley of Elah, for example, insist the movie doesn't really take a political stance.
Similarly, theatrical trailers on behalf of Grace Is Gone - due October 5 from The Weinstein Co. - have focused more on the story of family members recovering from the loss of their mother than the fact that she died in the Iraq War. But in an interview with the Associated Press, the movie's star, John Cusack, said he specifically looked for an Iraq-themed film because of the "Pentagon policy banning media coverage of America's returning war dead."
There are others on the horizon, as well: Brian De Palma's Redacted and Kimberly Peirce's Stop Loss among them. Like In the Valley of Elah and Grace Is Gone, each has the potential to engage documentary-resistant moviegoers - not just anti-war activists and left-leaning politicos - with its recognizable director or famous cast. Most of the directors hope that accessibility is the first step to influencing viewers to reconsider their thoughts about the war and ultimately effect social and political change.