YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

FOCUS: THE WAR : fall sneaks

This time, Hollywood offers real-time analysis

September 09, 2007|Michael Ordoña | Special to The Times

Hollywood didn't seriously explore the Vietnam War until years after it was over. During the fighting, the film industry's most notable salvo was John Wayne's "The Green Berets" (1968), which offered a black hats-and-white-hats interpretation of a complex military entanglement. Four decades later, filmmakers are responding to America's various fronts in the "war on terror" while the bullets are still flying and bombs exploding. Many of these stories are anything but black and white, with their murky moralities, shattered families and questioning of U.S. policy.

"A lot of these films started three or four years ago, so it's a much faster response than people think," said writer-director Paul Haggis, whose new film, "In the Valley of Elah," opens Sept. 21. "I was going to do a nice comedy, but … for me, personally, I just know that my own internal clock said it was time to do this."

Writer-director James C. Strouse, whose "Grace Is Gone" (Oct. 5) won the audience and Waldo Salt screenwriting awards at this year's Sundance Film Festival, thinks the films are a byproduct of the fact that so many people are concerned. And, he says, real answers are still years away. "We'll probably have that definitive film about our time in Iraq years after it's over, if it ever resolves."

"Grace" is about a father struggling to tell his daughters that their soldier mother has died in Iraq.

"I'm not comfortable dealing with politics in fiction; if you have an agenda it can sometimes tie you up in bad ways," Strouse said. "But I thought there was something powerful in taking this war down from an abstract level to a small, personal story. The numbers don't [convey] that the people who live in the wake of each death are changed forever."

In the '70s, after a handful of exploitation films depicted returning vets as psychopaths, more thoughtful works such as Hal Ashby's "Coming Home" examined the struggles of soldiers after their combat was through. Last year's "Home of the Brave" and "G.I. Jesus" update those struggles to the war in Iraq.

"If you do something terrible for a good reason or a bad reason, you still have to live with that," said Haggis. "In urban warfare, you're going to have to do terrible things just to survive, much less win. I was truly interested not in how bad people survived making the wrong decision but how good people survived making the right decision."

"In the Valley of Elah" is based on Mark Boal's Playboy magazine article about the mysterious disappearance of a soldier on leave from Iraq and his father's dogged investigation. Tommy Lee Jones plays the quietly determined father, Susan Sarandon is his wife, and Charlize Theron stars as a small-town detective.

Perhaps most surprising is Hollywood's present willingness to question U.S. policy during wartime. The sardonic "Go Tell the Spartans," "The Boys in Company C" and "Full Metal Jacket" were each blisteringly critical, but all came out well after the Vietnam War was over.

Robert Redford stars in and directs "Lions for Lambs" (Nov. 9), which debates our involvement in current conflicts on multiple levels, with a cast that includes Tom Cruise and Meryl Streep. It is essential to dissent, Redford said, "especially when we learn that the motives that got us into this are, to put it kindly, questionable. I think we have every right. That may be our saving grace."

Meanwhile, "Rendition" examines the tactic of "extraordinary rendition," in which foreign terrorism suspects are snatched by American or allied forces and sent to interrogation facilities off American soil, where it's presumed the Geneva Convention and other human rights protections don't apply.

In director Gavin Hood's film, which opens Oct. 12, the Egyptian-born husband of an American (played by Reese Witherspoon) is "disappeared" on his way back to the States after a business trip and tortured under the supervision of a CIA analyst (Jake Gyllenhaal). The cast includes Peter Sarsgaard, Alan Arkin and Streep.

Hood, whose "Tsotsi" won the foreign language Oscar, said of his complex topic, "In a movie, people shouldn't pretend to answer any question. I hope what we've done is, in a visceral and honest way, expose the question. . . . It's easy to be glib and easy about it, whether this policy is effective or not, but it's way too important for that."

Redford, for one, has grown philosophical about the long-term effect such films might have: "Look at 'The Candidate' -- we still really elect people on cosmetics rather than substance. 'All the President's Men' -- our 1st Amendment was really saved by journalism, but did it change anything? Not really. As an artist, you make your own comment and just see where it's going to go."

Los Angeles Times Articles