Paul Haggis, Brian De Palma, Robert Redford, John Cusack – what’s the link? Yes, they are all on the Hollywood A-list, but there’s another, more political, connection.
Over the next few months they will bring a series of films to our screens that grapple with the consequences of war, and critique US foreign policy.
Haggis is writer and director of In The Valley Of Elah, the story of a man searching for a son who has gone Awol after serving in Iraq. Haggis sums up the common feeling about the war among a significant minority of Hollywood personalities: “This is not one of our brighter moments in America... We should not have gotten involved.”
Grace Is Gone, which Cusack stars in and produces, shows a father’s patriotism questioned when his wife dies on military duty. Speaking of the Bush administration’s attempt to hide the deaths of soldiers in Iraq, Cusack expresses bitter anger: “It’s the most brazen, cowardly, egregious political act I’d seen in my lifetime.”
Rendition, Lions For Lambs and Redacted cover similar territory, journeying into war zones in the Middle East. Lions For Lambs has the highest profile, premiering at the London Film Festival this month, starring Tom Cruise and Meryl Streep in a tale of Afghan conflict and political misdeeds.
Rendition is also likely to secure a high profile. It stars Reese Witherspoon and Jake Gyllenhaal in a tale that exposes the consequences of a Guantanamo-style assault on civil rights.
For those who think these are isolated examples, trace a line through Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, David O Russell’s Soldiers Pay (2004) and Syriana (2006), to the current set of releases. It seems an anti-war genre emerged with the decision to invade Iraq – a genre rooted in activism.
The start of the line can be found at a Los Angeles celebrity teach-in in 2002 organised by radical documentary filmmaker Robert Greenwald (Outfoxed, Uncovered, Iraq For Sale). Some 200 filmmakers prepared arguments against war and launched their own organisation, Artists United.
Former Screen Actor’s Guild president Ed Asner described the movement that followed as “the most diverse and inspiring of my lifetime”.
Hollywood participated through protest, public speeches and media activism, reaching a peak when trying to oust George Bush at the 2004 elections.
After the disappointment of his re-election the focus returned to Iraq, often working with broader coalitions such as United For Peace and Justice (UFPJ).
UFPJ mobilised a 500,000 strong protest earlier this year in Washington. Sean Penn spoke from the stage, saying there would be a price to pay in the 2008 elections if there was no action against the war: “If they don’t stand up and make a resolution as binding as the death toll, we’re not going to be behind those politicians.”
Tim Robbins carried the argument to television in August, helping popular presenter Bill Maher tear apart the neoconservative writer Stephen Hayes.Robbins made his views plain – “murderers” like Bush should not be allowed to run a global superpower.
This incident offers an insight into the current Hollywood anti-war genre. Films criticising the Vietnam War didn’t appear until several years after the conflict, in the late 1970s, but today’s genre is intervening in a live debate with a mass audience.
It would be foolish, however, to treat the current trend without a little caution. Haggis’s film only deals with the politics of Iraq obliquely. Grace Is Gone forgoes the big political canvas for a personal story. Rendition deals with terrorism, but is sentimental with a traditional white American heroine.
We also have The Kingdom and Hurt Locker (out next year), slick action films set in contemporary war zones that indulge in demonising Muslims.
They are a reminder that Hollywood is run by money hungry media companies, worth $3 trillion, and action-entertainment always wins over politics in the profit stakes.
On the other hand, Hollywood now makes many films though semi-independent companies such as United Artists, where celebrities decide which films to make. Corporations dictate distribution deals but are reluctant to turn down a potential profit maker.
Provided there is an audience of paying cinemagoers for anti-war films, at least some will be released.
Which brings us to Brian De Palma’s Redacted. Redaction is the form of military censorship that blacks information out of documents.
De Palma seeks to un-redact Iraq: “Pictures are what will stop the war,” he says. And these are the most uncomfortable pictures. Although fictional, the film feels authentic, told through video journals, mock documentary footage and Al Jazeera style reports. Events build up to the brutal rape of an Iraqi girl, and conclude with a roll call of dead civilians.
Redacted received a five minute standing ovation at the Venice Film Festival. In this welcome anti-war genre it may be exemplary, getting to the heart of the conflict with unequivocal condemnation.
Nevertheless, without the rest of the genre proving there is a politicised audience for such films, Redaction might never reach our screens – and for all of this we have the movement itself to thank.
Ben Dickenson is author of Hollywood’s New Radicalism – Globalisation, War and the Movies, available from Bookmarks