Throughout George W. Bush’s second term, journalists puzzled over why, even after opinion polls showed Americans to have soured on the Iraq war, no serious antiwar movement emerged. More recently, journalists have puzzled over why movies about the Iraq war have done badly at the box office. The second question holds some clues to the first.
A July 2007 article by Michael Cieply of the New York Times, titled “While Real Bullets Fly, Movies Bring War Home,” typifies the genre. The peg was the impending release of In the Valley of Elah, a fictional film inspired by the real-life murder of an Army specialist by fellow Iraq veterans during a night of drinking near Fort Benning, Georgia. “Some in Hollywood want moviegoers to decide if the killing is emblematic of a war gone bad,” Cieply explained.
Moviegoers weren’t interested. In the Valley of Elah opened that September and grossed a mere $6.8 million nationwide. Even then, it was far from the least successful such film. As Cieply had noted, Irwin Winkler, director of Home of the Brave, a 2006 Iraq movie that had taken in just $44,000, “speculated that the audience might prefer a longer interval before viewing events as troubling as war.” Cieply agreed:
In the past, Hollywood usually gave the veteran more breathing space. William Wyler’s “[The] 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.
But this year a successful Iraq movie appeared, albeit on premium cable rather than in theaters. HBO’s February 21 premiere of Taking Chance drew two million viewers, making it the network’s most-watched original movie in five years—and on a Saturday, no less. Within three weeks, another 5.5 million had watched.
Taking Chance dramatizes the story of a Marine colonel, Michael Strobl, who volunteered to escort the remains of Lance Corporal Chance Phelps from Dover Air Force Base to Phelps’s hometown in Wyoming after the 19-year-old Phelps’s combat death in 2004. The film’s ending is utterly predictable, but the portrayal of the journey is gripping for its depiction of the care the military shows for Phelps’s body and his personal effects, the seriousness with which Strobl (played by Kevin Bacon) takes his mission, and especially the reactions he draws from ordinary Ameri cans as he proceeds across the country.
“We support the troops” is too often an empty slogan, but Taking Chance gives it substance. As Strobl travels from Delaware to Wyoming by way of Philadelphia, Minneapolis, and Billings, Montana, almost everyone he meets regards him with a heightened respect, thanking him for his service and for Phelps’s sacrifice. (The lone exception— a sign of the times—is an officious airport security officer, who balks at Strobl’s insistence on not removing his uniform jacket or sending Phelps’s possessions through the metal detector.)
The Times’s Cieply noted Taking Chance in passing in a December 2008 report on the Sundance Film Festival, where it was screened. Director Ross Katz told Cieply that his film (in the reporter’s paraphrase) “stands apart from the heavy run of antiwar pictures that have populated festivals for years.”
Yet it is not a pro-war movie. A few characters express opinions on the war, both for and against, but the film’s perspective is neutral. Taking Chance succeeds where other Iraq movies failed because it is consistent with the national mood—as were other successful films after other wars.
The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) portrays three men of varying ages readjusting to civilian life after returning from World War II. Each faces serious personal or professional challenges, but by the end all three seem on course for a brighter future. The Best Years of Our Lives, like Taking Chance, is apolitical— except for one scene in which a young Navy veteran who lost both his arms (played by Harold Russell, who lost his arms in a 1944 Army training accident) is confronted at a drugstore soda counter by an isolationist who tells him his injuries were in vain:
“The Germans and the Japs had nothing against us. They just wanted to fight the Limeys and the Reds.” Afterward, the soda jerk, a fellow veteran, remarks, “You read about guys like that, but you don’t often see ’em.”
In 1946, it was common for men to have served, and support for the war was nearly universal.
Vietnam was much more contentious, and Coming Home (1978) pushed the antiwar message with a vengeance. The film centers on the humiliation and suicide of a career Army officer played by Bruce Dern, who ships out to Vietnam, leaving his wife (Jane Fonda) behind. Fonda, bored, volunteers at the local veterans’ hospital, where she encounters a bitter, crippled vet played by Jon Voight.
Fonda and Voight meet cute when they collide in a hospital hallway and his catheter drainage bag is dislodged, falling to the floor and splashing her with his waste. Soon he shows his sensitive side and becomes number one in her heart. When Fonda and Voight consummate their affair, the screenwriters, not satisfied with cuckolding Dern, have Fonda tell Voight—and the world—that her husband never gave her an orgasm.
Dern returns from Vietnam, learns of the affair, and receives a medal for accidentally shooting himself in the leg. His wife has betrayed him, his military career is at a dead end, and he is, in his own mind, a phony. He goes to the beach, removes his uniform and wedding ring, and wades naked into the Pacific, never to return. Voight, meanwhile, finds inner peace by visiting high schools, where he gives speeches denouncing the war and urging students not to enlist.
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
In Britain, defending your property can get you life.
The debacle of this president’s administration is both a cause and a symptom of the decline of American values. Unless Congress impeaches him, that decline will go on unchecked. An eminent jurist surveys the damage and assesses the chances for the recovery of our culture.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
The American Christmas, like the songs that celebrate it, makes room for everybody under the rainbow. Is that why so many people seem to be hostile to it?
Was the President done in by the economy, or by the politics of the economy?