With The Hurt Locker’s big night at the Oscars, and Green Zone blasting onto screens this weekend, has Hollywood finally beaten the Iraq Curse — the belief that movies about the war in Iraq (and Afghanistan) are doomed to fail, either critically and/or financially? Maybe! The Hurt Locker may not have set the box office on fire, but it can obviously be considered a success. And this year actually saw at least two other films about the war that succeeded in their own small ways — The Messenger and In the Loop. Indeed, the progression of the Iraq/Afghantistan war movie over the past few years — from 2005’s Jarhead on — suggests that with each release, filmmakers have learned new lessons about how to make and market these movies. Here is our look at how the Iraq war movie has developed over the years.
Technically speaking, this is about the first Iraq War, but Sam Mendes’s adaptation of Anthony Swofford’s Marine memoir, in which Jake Gyllenhaal plays a smart-ass kid who becomes a sniper, was very much meant to resonate with today’s conflicts. However, this tale of boredom, alienation, and ennui among testosterone-soaked soldiers was quickly upstaged by the new Iraq War, which was quickly turning into a bloody, drawn-out quagmire.
Metacritic Score: 58
Domestic B.O.: $62,658,220
What We Learned: Though later films would have killed to reach such box-office heights, at the time the not-much-liked Jarhead was considered a huge misfire. It was also one of the few Iraq War films that actually sold itself as an Iraq War film (even if it was the wrong Iraq War). So maybe there was a demand for these films after all. Just, y’know, good ones.
Ham-handed and poorly acted, Irwin Winkler’s vets-returning-from-war flick, in which 50 Cent, Jessica Biel, Samuel L. Jackson, and Chad Michael Murray dealt with the scars of service, trotted out every cliché in the book and asked us to accept it as some kind of serious statement about the home front experience. By the time 50 Cent went nuts and started shooting up the joint (but of course), we were about to lose it ourselves.
Metacritic Score: 42
Domestic B.O.: $51,708
What We Learned: Iraq War topicality can’t save a crappy movie.
We can’t really call it a war movie, but James Strouse’s film, in which John Cusack plays a man who finds out that his soldier wife has been killed in Iraq and can’t find the heart to tell his children about it, captured something ineffable about the way a lot of Americans experienced the war, through its portrait of a world which relentlessly marches on, even after being touched by tragedy. It was the toast of Sundance, but completely disappeared once it was released. Some thought Cusack might get an Oscar; instead, the score (by Clint Eastwood!) got nominated for a Golden Globe.
Metacritic Score: 65
Domestic B.O.: $50,899
What We Learned: If you’re going to try and sell a movie about John Cusack moping around in despair, it had better be a breakup comedy.
Tommy Lee Jones gave a touching performance as a tough vet looking to uncover the mystery of his son’s disappearance from a military base soon after returning from Iraq. Paul Haggis’s drama, his follow-up to the Oscar-winning Crash, was based on the reporting of Mark Boal, who would go on to write The Hurt Locker. Sensitively acted and often admirably understated, it was also a strange, awkward hybrid — a mystery tale that wasn’t really a mystery, and a war movie that didn’t further our understanding of the war.
Metacritic Score: 65
Domestic B.O.: $6,777,741
What We Learned: Too afraid to entertain and too wishy-washy to make a statement, this one got stuck in some unholy in-between land. Also, it helps to have a title people can pronounce.
Perhaps the quintessential didactic Iraq/Afghanistan war movie, Robert Redford’s glacial, talky three-part drama, in which Tom Cruise plays a Republican senator, Meryl Streep plays a veteran journalist, and Redford himself plays a college professor, is a film which, despite the presence of a plot thread involving two injured soldiers, often plays like it belongs on the stage. It reeks of its good intentions, and even makes stabs at a balanced portrayal of the political battle lines. But it appears that Redford forgot the lessons of his great political thrillers from the seventies — you can get a lot of mileage if you’re willing to give audiences something to get excited about.
Metacritic Score: 47
Domestic B.O.: $15,002,854
What We Learned: If there’s one thing people want to see less than a depressing movie about a tragic war, it’s a depressing movie in which people talk about a tragic war.
Taking a break from his characteristically controlled style of filmmaking, Brian De Palma used a pseudo-documentary approach for this potentially explosive look at the rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl by American troops — a topic which bore similarities to his earlier Vietnam War film, the underrated Casualties of War. Needless to say, this one was quite divisive, and matters weren’t helped when De Palma himself accused his distributor of cutting his film. Still, we admire its willingness to wear its politics on its sleeve; this was a brave movie in many ways. Unfortunately, while Brian De Palma may be one of the greatest stylists of all time, he couldn’t direct naturalistic performances to save his life.
Metacritic Score: 52
Domestic B.O.: $65,388
What We Learned: Which did moviegoers reject more? The incendiary subject matter, or De Palma’s awkward attempts at verite? Either way, this much-hyped indie crashed and burned spectacularly.
Kimberly Peirce’s tough, well-acted drama, about a soldier who returns from Iraq a hero to his Texas town only to get called back by the Army, drew attention to one of the most important aspects of the War — the seemingly endless tours of duty that are devastating young lives and families. Reviews were initially enthusiastic, but poor box office seemed to doom this one — a perfect example of a worthy film that just couldn’t find its audience.
Metacritic Score: 61
Domestic B.O.: $10,915,744
What We Learned: Paramount tried very hard to avoid mentioning the Iraq War when promoting this film. Which probably made some wonder what the heck it was about.
Leonardo DiCaprio is a CIA operative in Iraq and Russell Crowe is his smug DC-based boss in this spy thriller that hops around the Middle East, with a Byzantine plot involving terrorists, informers, pseudo-informers, lovely Iranian nurses, and a lot of running down alleyways. Though more a War on Terror movie than a War in Iraq movie, it’s another example of a film that used topicality to try to transcend its genre trappings.
Metacritic Score: 57
Domestic Box Office: $39,394,666
What We Learned: Given the pedigree of its filmmakers and cast, this one came with a lot of expectations. That it didn’t meet them is perhaps testament less to the public’s indifference to the specific subject matter, and more to the public’s indifference to spy flicks in general.
Armando Iannucci’s caustic comedy about the hapless behind-the-scenes goings on between the U.K. and American governments during the run-up to an unnamed war in the Middle East is British scatological insult humor at its best. Ironically enough, though it’s obviously not a combat flick, this comedy is also one of the more politically sharp films about the Iraq War, thanks to its depiction of a world where words are barbed, flexible, and supremely powerful — a surprisingly resonant message given all the deadly catchphrases (WMD, shock and awe, mission accomplished, etc.) used to sell the Iraq War.
Metacritic Score: 83
Domestic Box Office: $2,388,804
What We Learned: Its success had more to do with its uproarious one-liners than with its politics or its subject matter.
David Letterman’s favorite film of all time, with returning Afghanistan vets Jake Gyllenhaal and Tobey Maguire fighting over Natalie Portman, gave us a lot of passionate performances swirling around a somewhat inchoate portrayal of the war itself (perhaps because it was a remake of a Danish film). Critics were divided, but the film’s inability to attract much awards or box-office heat could be ascribed perhaps to a cluttered marketplace and to the fact that it promised a grim movie about war, without any of the things that make war movies exciting.
Metacritic Score: 58
Domestic B.O.: $28,544,157
What We Learned: In a year in which The Hurt Locker, In the Loop, and The Messenger all made a lot less money but were seen as more successful films, it seems weird to criticize this one, which lapped them all financially. But some found the melodrama of the unhinged vet to be a bit off-key, especially when The Messenger and Stop-Loss seemed to be better grounded in reality. We’re also not crazy about the marketing, which seemed to tell us the whole story in advance.
Oren Moverman’s devastating film about casualty notification officers Ben Foster and Woody Harrelson as they inform next of kin about the deaths of their loved ones isn’t unlike The Hurt Locker — emotionally speaking, it hops from one ticking bomb to the next, as the scars build up on the main characters’ psyches. It’s a limited release, but the Oscar nominations for Harrelson and the screenplay, plus good specialty box-office numbers, prove that it struck a chord.
Metacritic Score: 77
Domestic Box Office: $1,006,655
What We Learned: There have been plenty of movies made about the home front in this conflict, but the success of Moverman’s approach — much like Bigelow’s — lies in its simplicity: By focusing intently on the dynamics of grief, it keeps us riveted to our seats.
Kathryn Bigelow’s now-Oscar-gilded thriller about the dangerous work of a bomb-disposal squad in Iraq keeps the politics and preachiness at bay, while its sharp character studies and intense action sequences make for a serious movie with pop appeal. Indeed, of all the Iraq (and Afghanistan) War films mentioned here, what strikes us most about The Hurt Locker is that it’s the only one that feels like a real, honest-to-goodness war film. Of course, it still tanked at the box office — we’ll see if the Oscars help out DVD sales and a theatrical rerelease.
Metacritic Score: 94
Domestic Box Office: $14,700,000 (now in rerelease)
What We Learned: It’s okay for a serious war movie to also try to be a kick-ass war movie.
Although it’s nominally based on Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s nonfiction tome Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone, about the U.S.’s mishandling of the postwar period in Iraq, Paul Greengrass’s latest is a fictional thriller about Matt Damon searching for WMDs in the wake of the U.S. invasion. Whether you consider that a cowardly choice or not will probably affect your opinion on the film. And although the film doesn’t shy away from wading into political waters, the use of made-up characters necessarily reduces its bite somewhat.
Metacritic Score: 58 (so far)
Domestic Box Office: N/A
What We Will Learn: If it does well, its success will be ascribed to the studio’s marketing this as Jason Bourne Goes to Iraq. If it doesn’t, its failure will be blamed on the studio’s marketing this as Jason Bourne Goes to Iraq.