The year war movies flopped
It has, unfortunately, become a cliché the serious drama about Iraq, or Afghanistan, or terrorism in general, that barely makes a blip at the box office. These aren’t tiny Sundance finds with no stars, either. Rendition had gossip couple du jour Reese Witherspoon and Jake Gyllenhaal, but couldn’t push past $10 million domestically. In the Valley of Elah boasted rave reviews and four major Oscar winners, from Tommy Lee Jones to writer-producer-director Paul Haggis (Crash), but Larry the Cable Guy’s Delta Farce made (marginally) more money Stateside. And, of course, not even Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep, and Robert Redford could make Lions for Lambs a blockbuster.
So Hollywood finally starts making movies that directly deal with current headlines, and no one in our country seems to care. Well, not so fast. None of the above dramas were typical war films, eschewing battlefields in favor of almost aggressively serious scenes laden with dialogue. By contrast, The Kingdom, an action thriller about a terrorist bombing in Saudi Arabia, grossed a more respectable (if not exactly overwhelming) $47.5 million. And one of the biggest movies of the year, The Bourne Ultimatum, navigated plot points about torture, illegal covert ops, and corrupt government officials.
War, though, that’s a different story. The best the big studios apparently can do on that front is Transformers, and that’s only because many of the evil Decepticons were military vehicles. Otherwise, it’s been up to period spectacles like 300 or fantasy fare like Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix to wink at our current war on terror. Which, really, shouldn’t be all that surprising; it was years after Vietnam before films like Coming Home and Apocalypse Now took command of the country’s attention. You’d have to dip back as far as WWII to find contemporary movies about the conflict at hand that drew accolades and major crowds (like Casablanca or Wake Island), and that was at a time when practically the entire country was marshaled in support of the war. Today, not so much.
Ultimately, what’s most troubling about the box office failure of films like In the Valley of Elah is how narrowly drawn their expected audiences were in the first place. Haggis’ last film, Crash, didn’t exactly tell a warm-and-fuzzy story either, but its studio, Lionsgate, created a savvy ad campaign and release strategy that ultimately brought the film some serious Oscar hardware. The poster for Elah, meanwhile, contains a dour Jones and Charlize Theron in front of a somberly lit American flag. Coupled with its cryptic title and paltry marketing, the tagline might as well have been ”No, We Really Don’t Expect You to See This Movie.”