Hollywood Quickly Bringing the Iraq War Home
LOS ANGELES, July 25 — On a night four years ago, five soldiers back from three months in Iraq went drinking at a Hooters restaurant and a topless bar near Fort Benning, Ga.
Before the night was over, one of them, Specialist Richard R. Davis, was dead of at least 33 stab wounds, his body doused with lighter fluid and burned. Two of the group would eventually be convicted of the murder, another pleaded guilty to manslaughter, and the last confessed to concealing the crime.
Now some in Hollywood want moviegoers to decide if the killing is emblematic of a war gone bad, part of a new and perhaps risky willingness in the entertainment business to push even the touchiest debates about post-9/11 security, Iraq and the troops’ status from the confines of documentaries into the realm of mainstream political drama.
On Sept. 14, Warner Independent Pictures expects to release “In the Valley of Elah,” a drama inspired by the Davis murder, written and directed by Paul Haggis, whose “Crash” won the Academy Award for best picture in 2006. The film stars Tommy Lee Jones as a retired veteran who defies Army bureaucrats and local officials in a search for his son’s killers. In one of the movie’s defining images, the American flag is flown upside down in the heartland, the signal of extreme distress.
Other coming films also use the damaged Iraq veteran to raise questions about a continuing war. In “Grace Is Gone,” directed by James C. Strouse and due in October from the Weinstein Company, John Cusack and two daughters struggle with the loss of a wife and mother who is killed on duty. Kimberly Peirce’s “Stop-Loss,” set for release in March by Paramount, meanwhile, casts Ryan Phillippe as a veteran who defies an order that would send him back to Iraq.
In the past, Hollywood usually gave the veteran more breathing space. William Wyler’s “Best Years of Our Lives,” about the travails of those returning from World War II, was released more than a year after the war’s end. Similarly Hal Ashby’s “Coming Home” and Oliver Stone’s “Born on the Fourth of July,” both stories of Vietnam veterans, came well after the fall of Saigon.
“Media in general responds much more quickly than ever before,” said Scott Rudin, a producer of “Stop-Loss.” “Why shouldn’t movies do the same?” He said his film was deliberately scheduled to be released in the middle of the presidential campaign season.
That impetus for immediacy is driving other filmmakers and studios as well. In October, for example, New Line Cinema will release “Rendition,” in which Reese Witherspoon plays a woman whose Egyptian-born husband is snared by a runaway counterterrorism apparatus. Paul Greengrass, the director of “The Bourne Ultimatum,” in which the bad guys belong to a similar rogue unit, is adapting Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s book about the Green Zone in Baghdad, “Imperial Life in the Emerald City,” for Universal Pictures.
Brian De Palma’s “Redacted,” focusing on an Army squad that persecutes an Iraqi family, is to be released in December by Magnolia Pictures. And Sony Pictures is developing a film based on the story of Richard A. Clarke, the former national security official and Bush administration critic.
Among the new films, “Valley of Elah” is sure to be one of the most closely examined, thanks to Mr. Haggis’s credentials — he shared an Oscar for writing “Million Dollar Baby” and was nominated for another as co-writer of “Letters From Iwo Jima” — and because of his opposition to United States policy in Iraq.
“This is not one of our brighter moments in America,” Mr. Haggis said in a telephone interview from London, where he is still working on the film’s music. “We should not have gotten involved.”
Still, Mr. Haggis insisted that “Valley of Elah” — the title refers to the site where David fought Goliath — was not intended to enforce his point of view. Rather, he said, it is meant to raise questions about “what it does to these kids” to be deployed in a situation where enemies are often indistinguishable from neutral civilians, and the rules of engagement may force decisions that are difficult to live with.
Despite some obvious fictionalization — the Fort Benning case did not involve the authority-challenging local detective and single mother played by Charlize Theron — the film hews closely enough to fact that Mr. Haggis is considering a dedication to Specialist Davis.
But whether the case truly speaks for returning veterans will not be easily settled, even with help from Warner Independent. The studio plans to supplement some of its promotional screenings with panel discussions of post-traumatic stress disorder, a factor raised in the movie.
“The issues are similar to what a lot of us are coping with,” said an approving Garett Reppenhagen, an Iraq veteran who saw “Valley of Elah” last week at one of the first such screenings in Washington. Mr. Reppenhagen, a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War, helped recruit viewers for the screening.
By contrast, Dennis Griffee, a wounded veteran who is national commander of the Iraq War Veterans Organization, said he turned down a request to become involved with the film after learning that Susan Sarandon, a vocal opponent of the war, had a prominent role.
“At the very least it is offensive,” Mr. Griffee said of what he sees as a widespread refusal to acknowledge the troops’ pride at achievements in Iraq. He added that virtually every member of his platoon wound up in college, not jail, on return.
Ilona Meagher, who wrote “Moving a Nation to Care: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and America’s Returning Troops” (Ig Publishing) and has joined Warner’s promotional effort, acknowledged that the Davis case was among the most extreme of some 170 stress-related episodes she had documented since 2005. “We all know that human beings respond/are moved by stories that are more extreme in nature,” Ms. Meagher wrote in a follow-up e-mail message.
In listing its Top 10 crime stories of last year, in fact, The Columbus Ledger-Enquirer in Georgia counted only two involving the 25,000 soldiers who are typically stationed at nearby Fort Benning.
Edging his film away from the real case, Mr. Haggis shot mostly in New Mexico and operated without military approvals that would have been required at Fort Benning. He originally wrote the script for Warner Brothers, which eventually agreed that the movie should be financed by Summit Entertainment and NALA Films on a budget that has been reported at about $23 million. The companies are clearly banking on the considerable appeal of Mr. Jones and the potential for awards to overcome perceived audience resistance to Iraq-theme movies.
MGM took in only about $44,000 in domestic ticket sales with Irwin Winkler’s “Home of the Brave,” another returning-vet picture that was released late last year. “We couldn’t get anybody to go see it” despite positive test screenings, Mr. Winkler said. He speculated that the audience might prefer a longer interval before viewing events as troubling as war.
Polly Cohen, president of Warner Independent, views Mr. Haggis’s film in broader terms. “To me, it’s a father-son story,” she said.
For Mr. Haggis, however, selling that story brings some complications: His movie does not see its son quite the way the real-life father sees his own.
“My son saw some war atrocities over in Iraq, and they had to murder him in order to keep it quiet,” said Lanny Davis, a retired Army staff sergeant whose efforts sparked the investigation at a time when his son was assumed to be absent without leave. The atrocity question did not figure significantly in the real-life trial, but the movie puts a twist of its own on the issue.
On another point, however, Mr. Davis had no quarrel with Mr. Haggis. “I’ve been thinking about flying my own flag upside down,” Mr. Davis said. “This isn’t my America, the one I stood up for.”