For as many movies that have come out in the last 18 years that have, in some way, shape or form, sought to reflect the world as it is post 9/11, a shocking few have actually dealt with the actions of governments and others that have kept the United States and its allies in an war without end in the Middle East.
So many movies in the subsequent nearly two decades have attempted to act as a form of artistic catharsis, using imagery of buildings falling and other destruction to seemingly help us process what it is we as a society were and are still feeling about the attacks of that day. Precious few have sought to deal in any meaningful way with the situation we’ve been in since then, which is a constant state of war that has cost the U.S. nearly $1 trillion and over 4,000 lives.
In 2007, screenwriter Matthew Michael Carnahan and director Robert Redford took an early stab at this notion with Lions For Lambs, which told three stories about where we were then: 1) A couple recent college grads who enlisted are part of a new offensive in Afghanistan, 2) the lawmaker behind that strategy is trying to sell it to the public via an interview with a journalist, and 3) the former professor of those two recent grads is trying to inspire a current student disillusioned at the state of current events.
Since then…Not much. Lions was a commercial and critical flop, something that may have scared studios away from the idea of dramatic takes on the war, at that point only five years old. Now it’s been going on so long that children born as it was starting are old enough to join the military and fight in it.
There are a few potential reasons Hollywood hasn’t been anxious to dive in and examine what effect 17 years of ongoing war has had on society.
First, that the handful that have been produced haven’t fared well, as mentioned already.
Second, that most of those that have fared better have been hard to pin down. Lone Survivor grossed $125 million but the hoo-rah 12 Strong didn’t despite both being generally about small bands of soldiers fighting for survival and to avenge America. One exception is 2014’s American Sniper, where the hero’s primary problem was that he didn’t kill enough of the enemy.
Third, that any critical evaluation of the war runs the risk of being seen as the greatest sin an American citizen can commit: Not supporting our troops. Politicians and others have so completely shielded themselves from any criticism by hiding behind those in uniform that anything less than wholehearted enthusiasm is seen as akin to spitting on returning soldiers.
The latter especially is important. 2017’s War Machine very specifically picked on the leadership, who continued insisting their bold new ideas would be the one to finally break the quagmire and bring victory. That the film was tonally uneven – sometimes dramatic and serious and sometimes playing as satire – was problematic and helped muddy whatever relevant message the film, based on a non-fiction book, had to convey.
With that being said, it’s notable that two recent films have at least attempted to revisit not only how we got into this mess, but why.
Official Secrets had Kiera Knightly starring as a woman working for British Intelligence who discovers the shady tactics used by the U.S. and its allies to get other countries on board its plan to invade Iraq in 2003. When she leaks that information to the newspapers she’s put on trial for treason, have spilled protected state secrets that embarrass the U.K. and U.S. That invasion was (and is still) largely seen as unnecessary, a distraction from the real post-9/11 threats driven by administration neocons looking for what they believed to be a soft target.
The Report, released just last week, has Adam Driver starring in another true life story, this time of the investigator who uncovered the myriad problems in how the CIA was conducting enhanced interrogations as part of The War on Terror. He encounters pushback from that agency as well as the White House, who don’t want to be held accountable for the lies they’ve told, including that torture works, and that they’ve received no meaningful security information as a result.
Neither of those movies paints the people who lead their countries into war in a positive light. In fact it makes them appear to be charlatans and liars.
It seems the American movie-going public just kind of isn’t interested in taking part in any sort of psychological evaluation of what happened. Maybe it’s symptom of this new, nationalistic form of patriotism that’s infected the country, where to admit to any sin or misstep or question leaders in any way is considered by some – particularly those in the right wing – to be treasonous.
The movie industry certainly isn’t alone here. While there have certainly been a number of books that have dealt with topics like this, journalism as a whole hasn’t been great at turning the mirror on society itself and asking people to come to terms with some unpleasant realities. The wars going on in the Middle East fade into the background for long periods of time until something tragic happens, at which point we pay attention for a few days until something more interesting comes along. There is not an apparent appetite for this content.
Easier, then, to make sure that terrorists on screen are easily rooted out by Ethan Hunt, James Bond or some other hero. Easier to make sure we deal with father issues and intergalactic threats in our super hero movies. Easier to make sure we never get close to the line where movies reflect real life politics unless it’s to use the dust floating down over Metropolis as an allegory for the trauma we went through, not the trauma we’ve imposed on others through the decisions of our leaders.
Mote potential for sequels, after all.