By Gilbey, Ryan
New Statesman (1996) , Vol. 136, No. 4870
For those of us too young to remember the Vietnam War, our understanding of that conflict cannot help but be filtered through a showreel of iconic images and sounds--the "Ride of the Valkyries" sequence from Apocalypse Now, the Russian roulette tournament in The Deer Hunter, Samuel Barber's "Adagio for Strings" as used in Platoon. If we're really unlucky, we may find Sylvester Stallone as Rambo stumbling around in our subconscious, too.
The invasion of Iraq, with its escalating anarchy and swift fall from public favour, is commonly compared to Vietnam. But the manner in which film-makers have handled Iraq, from no-budget documentary crews all the way up (or down) to Hollywood studios, couldn't be more different. That they have approached the subject at all provides the most obvious contrast. If you wanted to see an American film about Vietnam while the war was still raging, you were limited to occasional gung-ho action (The Green Berets) and sporadic counter-cultural protest (Medium Cool). Any other commentary was delivered obliquely, with reference to bygone conflicts--Korea (M*A*S*H) or the US massacre of Native Americans (Soldier Blue). The smell of napalm in the morning was lost on the breeze by the time Apocalypse Now launched its assault on America's conscience.
Conversely, modern audiences who want to see a film that doesn't concern the current war will have their work cut out for them over the next 12 months. I even came across a blogger who claimed Knocked Up was an allegory about Iraq: an American gets himself in a terrible mess (for unplanned pregnancy, read the invasion of Iraq), but sticks around to sort it out. The "A" word (abortion) stands in for the equally taboo "W" word (withdrawal). Well, I'm convinced.
It's been a slow start for Iraq-watching cinema-goers, with only the excellent documentary Iraq in Fragments and the Hollywood thrillers The Kingdom and Rendition venturing into this territory. But brace yourselves. Causing a downturn in popcorn sales at a cinema near you soon are: In the Valley of Elah, in which a soldier goes missing after returning from Iraq; Brian De Palma's Redacted, which won the Silver Lion at this year's Venice Film Festival, and is based on the real incident of a 15-year-old Iraqi girl raped and murdered by US Marines; Stop Loss, about a soldier refusing to return to Iraq; and Grace Is Gone, with John Cusack as a man comforting his daughters after their mother is killed in action. (Cusack also co-wrote the forthcoming War, Inc--a black comedy partly inspired by Naomi Klein's article "Baghdad Year Zero".)
Then there are films that address Iraq and the "war on terror" indirectly, among them Robert Redford's Lions for Lambs, a star-studded precis of the arguments for and against war. And that's before you tally up the documentaries, including the award-winning No End in Sight, which exposes the shortcomings of the post-invasion strategy, or docudramas such as Nick Broomfield's Battle for Haditha, a reconstruction of the massacre of 24 Iraqi civilians by US soldiers in the immediate aftermath of the bombing of a military vehicle.
All this activity looks impressive on paper. But the rash of Iraq films feels too late, if not exactly too little, given that more than four years have elapsed since the commencement of hostilities. The turning point between the film industry adopting a "Don't mention the war" stance--remember how daring it felt when Michael Moore spoke out against the invasion during the 2003 Oscar ceremony?--and then countenancing any script with the word "Iraq" in its pages, came when the public mood changed palpably. Matthew Michael Carnahan, who wrote The Kingdom and Lions for Lambs, said recently: "In 2003, when [the war] looked like a cakewalk, a lot of people at Universal were like, 'Oh, I don't know about this.' But by the time that Lions for Lambs was out there, there was no problem. …