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.
To watch Coming Home three decades later is a distasteful experience. But the film was quite popular at the time, grossing some $32.7 million domestically, roughly 15 times the take of In the Valley of Elah after adjusting for inflation. One can see why it drew an audience. In 1978, there were a lot of educated men in their 20s who had avoided the draft and were vulnerable to accusations that they had shirked their patriotic duty. Coming Home flattered them by telling them that they were better than those who served—not only morally but sexually.
The Vietnam-era antiwar movement was politically potent because it was driven in large part by self-interest. Young men opposed the war because they didn’t want to be drafted; young women, because they didn’t want their men to be. The advent of the all-volunteer military redefined service as a supererogatory act rather than a duty.
Today only those with an ideological ax to grind—including many journalists and filmmakers— have an interest in perpetuating derogatory stereotypes of servicemen. As the Wall Street Journal noted in an editorial, “If Hollywood wants to make war movies that appeal to a broad audience, it could do worse than to take in ‘Taking Chance.’ The Americans who show Colonel Strobl such reverence as he makes his way west are the very audience Hollywood wishes it could reach.”
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