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Calling the shots on war movies

The Army, scathed by 'the crazy Nam vet,' tries to shape a new era of films by trading access for influence.

July 07, 2008|Julian E. Barnes | Times Staff Writer

There's a war going on, and Army Lt. Col. J. Todd Breasseale has a mission.

But it's far removed from the captured Iraqi palace where he was once stationed. He fights his war now from an office on Wilshire Boulevard lined with movie posters chronicling conflicts real and imagined, from "Patton" to "War of the Worlds."

Breasseale's desk is piled high with scripts, each marked with his name and stamped "confidential." It's his job to help decide which movies should get Army help.

The mission is both harder and more important than it might appear.

After the Vietnam War, movies like "Apocalypse Now" and "Born on the Fourth of July" helped cement an image of psychologically damaged Vietnam veterans.

"In the '80s and early '90s, the Vietnam War vet was the 'other,' " Breasseale said. "Hollywood had created the crazy Nam vet."

For the Army, it was a bitter lesson.

With the country now enmeshed in another long, unpopular war, Breasseale is hoping to influence a new generation of filmmakers in order to avoid repeating the experience.

So far, Breasseale feels, most of the movies made about Iraq have really been about Vietnam.

"It is the self-licking ice cream cone of Hollywood: They make a war movie based on another war movie," Breasseale said. "It's important to tell the full story, not a story based on a weird Vietnam-era idea of what the military is like."

The Army has been helping filmmakers ever since it furnished aircraft and pilots for 1927's "Wings" -- winner of the first best picture Academy Award.

With military assistance, moviemakers get access to bases, ships, planes, tanks and Humvees. Military leaders also offer script advice.

And unless a filmmaker agrees to address any problems, the Pentagon generally opts out.

Most movies involving the military have been summer action films, like this year's "Iron Man," which was made with Air Force help.

But Army officials are eager to work with filmmakers making serious movies about Iraq -- the kind of pictures that have the power to shape the public's view of the war and its warriors.

"In the past, have there been instances of disagreements with scripts? Yes," said Maj. Gen. Anthony A. Cucolo III, chief of Army public affairs. "The message I would send is: Give us a try."

The problem for military officials is that some in Hollywood see their script advice as a subtle form of censorship or an attempt to spin the war.

Paul Haggis, writer and director of the Iraq war movie "In the Valley of Elah," said he concluded that the Army was not interested in telling honest stories about the war or soldiers.

"They are trying to put the best spin on what they are doing," Haggis said. "Of course they want to publicize what is good. But it doesn't mean that it is true."

Few directors focused on Iraq or Afghanistan have approached the military for help. Haggis did.

Haggis said that after he submitted his script, the producers received 21 pages of objections to parts of the film. Haggis, who did not review the notes, said his producers told him they amounted to a refusal to participate.

"We needed their help," Haggis said. "If they had reasonable input I would have taken it. But I am not there to do publicity for the Army. I am there to do a movie that I see as true."

Military officers say flatly that they do not censor films.

"There is no way that we are going to go in and to steamroll anyone's vision," said Phil Strub, the top Pentagon liaison to the film industry. "They will just tell us to drop dead and go away."

Officials will ask for changes, or decline to participate, if they believe military policies or practices are grossly misrepresented -- especially if a movie purports to be based on real-life events, as Haggis' film did.

Breasseale says movies about Iraq and Afghanistan have been one-dimensional.

"There doesn't seem to be a lot of room for nuance," he said. "What sells a script to a studio is an easy concept, like 'This guy is crazy because he has been at war.' 'Easy, I love it,' the executive says."

Breasseale is particularly critical of Brian De Palma's "Redacted," a film released last year and based on a real-life incident in which U.S. soldiers raped an Iraqi girl, then murdered her and her family. Breasseale, who was serving in Iraq at the time of the incident, says De Palma's movie intimates that all soldiers serving in Iraq are criminals.

"It was so wildly offensive to me that he would group all soldiers together," Breasseale said.

De Palma did not respond to several requests for an interview.

Many Hollywood filmmakers reject the criticism of Iraq war movies. Haggis said he worked hard to shade his portrayals of soldiers, even those who commit heinous crimes.

"I did want to have a balanced and nuanced film," Haggis said. "If anything, I tried to be empathetic. I try not to make these kids into villains."

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