I've been meaning to post for a while on the disastrous performance of the various anti-Iraq war/War on Terror movies that have been released over the past few weeks. I'd not long started blogging when the buzz began about Lions for Lambs, Rendition, Redacted, In
The Valley of Elah and the rest, and I posted on the subject here and here.
At the time the Surge was just starting to show signs of success, and I wrote: ‘Hopefully continued progress in Iraq and Afghanistan will diminish the public's appetite for fictionalised bad news stories. […] and if movie-goers shun the anti-war polemics, then Hollywood will be hit where it hurts – at the box office – and might just get the message.’
Continued progress was far from guaranteed at that point. There was a real risk that a few terrorist 'spectaculars' could have reversed the momentum of the Surge, and that the aforementioned films would have been released against the backdrop of a growing chorus of calls for withdrawal, been hailed as reflecting the ‘mood’ of the nation and fed yet more disillusionment and defeatism back into the system.
Instead the opposite happened. Progress in Iraq exceeded the wildest expectations of most supporters of victory, and General Petraeus’s report to Congress did much to silence critics and rally the faithful, so that by the time the films were released the narrative was changing.
We’ll never know how the films would have fared had the US death toll continued to increase, and if President Bush had still been under widespread pressure to begin pulling the troops out. Maybe they’d have flopped anyway: if the situation in Iraq had continued to deteriorate there’s no reason to think that people would have flocked to the cinema for yet more bad news.
But with the tide turning so dramatically, Redford, Streep, De Palma and the rest never had a chance. Fittingly De Palma’s Redacted, by far the nastiest movie of the sorry bunch, has been the most spectacular flop of all, with an opening weekend audience of around 3,000 and receipts of £25,000.
Even In The Valley of Elah, directed by Oscar-winner Paul Haggis and starring Tommy Lee Jones and Charlize Theron, which was clearly meant to do big box office despite its ‘serious’ subject matter, took just $6.7m in its entire run, little more than The Kingdom – a straightforward action movie in which the Americans were the good guys – took in its opening weekend.
The films aren’t doing much better in the perceived ‘anti-American’ overseas markets either – The Ten O’Clock Scholar has a round-up of figures (it doesn't include Elah which has taken less that $4m). Elsewhere, Roger L. Simon of Pajamas Media has a two-part analysis of why the movies failed here and here.
It remains to be seen whether films due to be released next year – notably Imperial Life in the Emerald City, directed by Paul Greengrass and based on the book by journalist and Saddam crony Rajiv Chandrasekaran – will do any better, particularly if progress is maintained in Iraq, and whether filmmakers will heed the message from audiences and rethink their attitude to filming the war.
As Roger L. Simon points out, no one in Hollywood is likely to lose their shirt as a result of the poor performance of these movies, but those who fund them – whether studio bosses or millionaire activists – are unlikely to keep throwing money away indefinitely, however badly they want to make a 'statement'.