"My father taught me a lot of things," John Cusack said. "He… (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles…)
John CUSACK is angry. And he thinks you should be too.
He's angry enough to take what might be a suicidal cinematic chance: making a stylized satire of a war in progress.
As a topic, the Iraq war has been a graveyard for big-budget films. But with "War, Inc.," which opens today in Los Angeles, Cusack is gambling that the movie, directed by Joshua Seftel and co-written by Cusack, will sway audiences by using pointed humor and an auteur's absurdist lens to make the case against privatizing the military.
"Everything is outsourced; everything is for profit," the 42-year-old actor-writer-director said recently in an interview at his Venice production office. "I don't think people really understand that. Corporations have privatized the war to the point where the war itself is the cost-plus business. They are hollowing out the very core function of what it means to be a government. They're using the State Department as an ATM."
He scoffs: "They should be sent to prison. They should be convicted. Their ideology should be shamed. We should revolt against them. We should mock them."
Which is what he does in his lead role as "War, Inc.'s" corrupt corporate profiteer, a character named Brand Hauser. (Cusack's sister Joan, a frequent costar in many of his films, from "Say Anything" on, plays Hauser's secretary.)
Cusack and friends Jeremy Pikser (who co-wrote "Bulworth") and Mark Leyner came up with the idea for the movie after the killing of a group of military contractors in Fallouja first made the public aware that private companies with armed employees were operating alongside U.S. forces in the Middle East.
Today, American ex-servicemen in the pay of private companies like Blackwater perform an array of military functions in Iraq and provide security for U.S. diplomats under a contract with the State Department.
Cusack, who grew up in Chicago in a liberal Irish Catholic family in which politics was always passionately discussed, felt he could not keep silent on the matter.
"What we have here is a protectionist racket for the government's favorite corporations to make money off the war," said Cusack, who relied heavily on the writings of journalist Naomi Klein, author of "Baghdad Year Zero," in making the movie. "Where are companies like Blackwater held to any conceivable check and balance that I learned in civics class?"
Certainly, Cusack has never been afraid of taking on edgy roles as an actor. His efforts range from the light ("Must Love Dogs") to the blackest of the black ("The Ice Harvest"), and he's an icon of the indie film world ("Being John Malkovich"). Like many of his characters, he's a risk taker.
He knew that no major studio would back "War, Inc." Instead, it would have to be distributed independently (in this case, through First Look International). "So we decided to do whatever we wanted, not worry 'Can we get away with that?' " Cusack said.
Whatever its box-office outcome, Cusack believes the movie expresses his views honestly. "You just need to express yourself and take the hits," Cusack said. "This movie is meant to start a conversation."
Cusack compares "War, Inc.'s" antic sensibility to a Marx brothers film with a dash of "Dr. Strangelove." Here's how Cusack describes the film: "It puts satire, surreality and sincerity together in an atom smasher and blends them all together."
Clearly, not everyone likes the approach. The movie, which screened at the Tribeca Film Festival, has been getting mixed reviews. One critic called it "over-cranked."
Tucked among the artists' studios of industrial Venice, Cusack occupies a vast skylighted space. Most of the objects are props and furniture used in his past films. The most striking are the large paintings used to decorate the set of "Max," the 2002 movie in which Cusack played a Jewish art dealer who befriended Hitler. (See what we mean about taking risks?)
He admits he likes to stir things up; if he wanted to be a conventional movie star, he no doubt could have been one -- he had the kind of sensitive heartthrob appeal that women love. But it wasn't for him.
"There's a great tradition of films and filmmakers taking on aristocracies," Cusack said. "There used to be kings and queens and presidents, and now there are CEOs and shareholders and board members."
He has relied heavily on the advice of his father, actor and World War II vet Dick Cusack, when it comes to matters of politics and movies.
"My father taught me a lot of things," Cusack said. "He said if you live right you can look any man in the eye and tell him to go to hell. I can't do that with many people because it would be throwing stones at glass houses. . . . I'm not as good a man as my dad, but war profiteers? They can go to hell."