Yesterday in the Globe and Mail Johanna Schneller raised some good points on why films on the Iraq war and related films on what, for a better term, we call the War on Terror, don’t do well at the box office. A good case in point for this phenomenon is The Hurt Locker, which may be the lowest grossing film ever to have won the Oscars. She makes the simple but telling point that films about World War Two, even strange ones like Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds, rely on the simple moral trope of “Allies good, Axis bad” and makes a more subtle but equally valid point, I think, about the moral chaos of films about the Iraq war. “Their stories are screaming bombs of chaos, mendacity, fear, misdirection, mismanagement, ugliness, shouting, grit, and the shattering of any illusions one may harbour about any possibility of world peace. The truer and more artful a film is about these wars, the harder it is to watch.”
Having recently seen Hurt Locker as well as Generation Kill, HBO’s excellent series on the first days of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, I agree. The false premise of that invasion (the missing WMDs), the descent into meaningless violence such as the Al-Muhmadiyah killings of 2006 make for preachy (Paul Greengrass’ laboured new film Green Zone) and depressing films that take audiences too far from the now half-remembered moral clarity of the days immediately after 9-11.
Less obvious but just as relevant, I think, is that films about contemporary, assymetric, counter-insurgency warfare are almost doomed at the start to be confusing and tedious. Thus, you get some excellent documentaries (such as PBS’ Frontline series) that explain how hard it is for NATO troops in some Afghan village to win hearts and minds and figure out who the bad guys are) but it’s too complex and slow-moving a story for audiences conditioned to simplistic blockbusters to want to follow (and why, he wonders parenthetically, aren’t there any movies about Afghanistan?).
Again, Scheller gets it right when she singles out the tight focus and suspense of Hurt Locker as the reason for that film’s limited commercial success. “It’s about one guy (a demolitions expert played by Jeremy Renner) doing one brave thing (defusing bombs). Its story – that to be a good, well-intentioned American soldier in these current wars requires that one be brave, short-sighted, and a little emotionally stunted – is palatable, but only just. About $15.7-million worth.”