Americans may be divided on many subjects but they seem to agree on one thing: they will not buy tickets to see this year's crop of war films. Rarely have film critics and moviegoers, conservatives and liberals, been in such agreement - the big-screen lecturing that underscores Hollywood's approach to Iraq war-related films has rendered this crop of multimillion-dollar movies with top-star casts a critical and financial flop.
Oscar-winning director Paul Haggis's In the Valley of Elah, about a father investigating the death of his son in Iraq, has taken just $6.5m in two months; the political drama Lambs for Lions starring Tom Cruise and Meryl Streep, and directed by Robert Redford, has been called 'the most inert, predictable and unnecessary political film this year'; Rendition, starring Reese Witherspoon and Jake Gyllenhaal, a $50m thriller, has taken less than $10m since it was released in October.
Even films that are not war-themed but touch on Middle East issues have suffered. The Kingdom, starring Jamie Foxx and Jennifer Garner, about an FBI squad targeting Saudi terrorists, has made less than $7 million. Prospects for Brian De Palma's Redacted, on general release in the US this weekend, look similarly dire.
Critic Michael Medved said 'it could be the worst movie I've ever seen', but Bill O'Reilly, the Fox News pundit, went much further by urging filmgoers to boycott it. He called it 'vile' and warned that it could get American troops killed. Filmgoers have delivered their own verdict: on limited release to 15 cities last weekend, Redacted took $25,000 at the box office. The story about the rape and murder of an Iraqi girl by US troops appeals neither to conservatives nor to liberals, who say it is bad movie but good propaganda.
The failure of this era's war films is a blow to Hollywood's confidence, especially given the industry's broad opposition to the war. Liberal orthodoxy holds that Americans are so sick of the war they cannot bring themselves to watch films about it - Steven Bochco, who produced a short-lived TV series Over There about a platoon in Iraq, says it is hard to win audiences to the subject of a 'hugely unpopular war'.
Conservatives typically say that it's simply a bad idea to lecture people, or to demoralise the war effort at a time when young Americans are returning home wounded or in coffins.
In previous conflicts in which the morality of the enterprise was less confused, Hollywood displayed a more even grasp of the subject. Whether it was Top Gun in the closing years of the Cold War, or Apocalypse Now, Coming Home and The Deer Hunter in the aftermath of Vietnam, audiences and critics embraced both the depiction and sentiment. Audiences also knew less about the politics of the actors.
But this time audiences also seem to be reacting against the lazy uniformity of Hollywood liberalism. As New York Times critic Manohla Dargis noted in her review of Lions for Lambs, the assertion that you can support the troops even if you don't support the war isn't the problem. 'The problem is the film reflexively embraces it, much as it does every single other cliche, without inquiry, challenge or a single ounce of real risk.'
Still, the failure of these films gives pleasure to right-wing pundits. 'I'm glad Hollywood is taking a bath on its anti-war tsunami of movies,' says Fox critic John Gibson. 'Maybe Hollywood will learn again that audiences want to be entertained, and they will go elsewhere for lectures.'
Audiences have voted convincingly that they do not want the war in Iraq depicted at all - or at least not yet. As Variety editor Peter Bart recently noted in one of his columns: 'I applaud filmmakers for dealing with real issues in the real world. At the same time the feel-bad genre (which is only in its early stages) is becoming downright oppressive. Filmgoers have a right to ask: When are we going to get some comic relief?'
But there is one war film left to come this season that looks likely to be a crowd pleaser. Charlie Wilson's War is primed for Oscar nominations and stars Tom Hanks as a Democratic Texas congressman who conspires to supply anti-aircraft missiles to the Mujahideen during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s. It has all the ingredients for a hit - Hanks as a womanising alcoholic and hero; Julia Roberts, as one of the wealthiest women in Texas, Charlie's lover and avid anti-communist. Unlike the current crop of films about Iraq, it is a reminder of the nation's last clear strategic and moral victory: the defeat of communism. America as hero is uncomplicated, fun - and good for the box office. ( Guardian )