This month, how the movies are treating everyone’s favourite George…
Next year, America will elect a new President and George W Bush’s eight years in the White House will draw to an ignominious close. Assuming not much changes between now and then (casualties in Iraq continue to mount; Dubya doesn’t invade another Middle Eastern nation – like, say, Iran) to prop up his flagging poll ratings, he’ll leave office as the most unpopular president since Richard Nixon. Still, apart from Paul Weitz’s satirical flop American Dreamz, Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 and Bush-bashing celebs on their publicity rounds (“We have a President who is clearly a liar,” Richard Gere raged while plugging The Hoax), the US Prez has operated in his own Green Zone, avoiding a Hollywood assault.
But when it comes to Bush’s post-9/11 policies and his woolly war on terror, he’s under heavy fire. In The Bourne Ultimatum, the baddies are a rogue US agency that operates above the law in the name of “homeland security”. Before Bush’s reign is history, moviegoers will be treated to Paul Haggis’ In The Valley Of Elah (damaged Iraq veterans), Peter Berg’s The Kingdom (suicide bombers kill Americans in Saudi Arabia), Robert Redford’s Afghanistan-themed Lions For Lambs, Kimberley Pierce’s Stop-Loss and Gavin Hood’s Rendition.
Er, forgive Buzz for asking, but what happened to the statute of limitations on tackling a conflict while it’s still going strong? Hollywood waited five years after the fall of Saigon before it unleashed 1978’s Vietnam double-whammy of Coming Home and The Deer Hunter. Ditto for Gulf War One, with Courage Under Fire giving half a decade’s grace before broaching Bush Snr’s Desert Storm. In today’s instant-gratification, multi-platform zootopia, however, there’s clearly no time to waste. “Media in general respond much more quickly than ever before,” Stop-Loss producer Scott Rudin told the New York Times. “Why shouldn’t movies do the same?”
With chaos and a war with no end in sight being the overriding themes of Bush and his neocon cohorts’ Middle East misadventures, Hollywood is now grappling with even the touchiest post-9/11 issues. Rendition traces Reese Witherspoon’s attempts to track down her Egyptian-born husband after he’s ensnared by America’s shadowy, anti-terror driftnet. Based on the true story of an Iraq vet’s murder by his platoon comrades, Haggis’ Elah is largely about post-traumatic stress but delivers an astonishing fuck-you to the current administration – the US flag flying upside down in the country’s heartland. That’s a radical departure from Sam Mendes’ Jarhead, which steered clear of anti-Bush posturing, even toning down passages from Anthony Swofford’s source novel. “I wanted to make a film that hopefully had more to say than whether George Bush is right to be in Iraq,” Mendes told Buzz back in 2005. If he made the film today, it’s unlikely he’d be so shy.
For an industry ruled by the bottom line, what’s astonishing is the keep-chucking-it-til-it-sticks mentality governing the Middle East-themed deluge. Jarhead made a respectable $62.6m in the US, but wasn’t the zeitgeist-defining hit some had predicted and American Dreamz flopped on both sides of the Atlantic. But they’re blockbusters compared to last year’s Home Of The Brave, the Irwin Winkler-directed tale of Iraq vets that scraped a humiliating $44,000 at the US box office, despite starring Samuel L Jackson and Jessica Biel. “The lack of success of all Iraq films has more to do with people never going to films about current wars than it does the Bush administration,” argues Rod Lurie, writer-director of The Contender. In Lurie’s next film, Nothing But The Truth, a fictionalised take on the Valerie Plame/CIA leak scandal, Lurie changed the Iraq/WMD storyline for fear of turning off the audience. “I don’t think anybody wants to be reminded that we’re in a quagmire in Iraq.”
Meanwhile, Elah’s producers deliberately cast Texan cattle rancher Tommy Lee Jones to draw in Iraq-resistant moviegoers. And that’s the real bottom line: are audiences prepared to fork out for more polarising, feelbad movies about the ongoing effects of Bush and Blair’s big mistake? Especially when no satisfactory conclusions can be drawn?
If anybody can do it, bet on Ultimatum director Paul Greengrass with his next project, Imperial Life In The Emerald City, about life in America’s Baghdad Green Zone after the fall of Saddam Hussein. But more realistically, our generation’s Platoon is some way off. Says Lurie: “We’re going to have to wait until five years to a decade after we’re out of Iraq for these movies to have any resonance.”