Films Begin Rethinking the War On Terror

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.

the report pic

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.

The Report – Marketing Recap

Amazon Studio’s new film about uncovering government secrets gets released with coincidentally appropriate timing.

the report poster 2Scott Z. Burns wrote and directed The Report, this week’s new release from Amazon Studios. The movie, based on a true story, stars Adam Driver as Daniel Jones, a U.S. Senate staffer given the responsibility to investigate and report on the actions undertaken by the CIA in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Specifically, Jones is tasked with determining if the CIA’s program of torture and various forms of “enhanced interrogation techniques” were of any substantive use to U.S. intelligence gathering. What he finds is that not only were those efforts of little to no value but that agency officials routinely misled lawmakers as to what they were doing and whether it was helping to keep America safe.

The campaign mounted by Amazon has sought to position Jones as a crusading fighter determined to do what’s right despite the powerful forces aligned against him. With an 86 percent “Fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes, early reviews have been positive but there seems to be a distinct lack of buzz for the drama.

The Posters

the report posterJones is presented on the poster (by marketing agency LA), released in August, as a collection of copy, some of which is appropriately redacted. Even part of the title is scratched out. “Truth matters” reads the copy at the bottom, but the whole design is stark and attention-grabbing, selling the movie as a serious drama for serious people.

The second poster, released in October, uses the same design concept but this time includes the faces of Annette Bening as Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Jones’ boss, and White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough (Jon Hamm). The movie’s festival credentials are also highlighted along with a positive review quote playing up the film’s story.

The Trailers

Amazon released the first trailer (5.4 million views on YouTube) in August. As it starts, Jones is explaining how the attacks of 9/11/01 changed his perspective to one focused on national security, leading to a job in government. When he learns the CIA destroyed evidence of torture he sets out to find out what was on the tapes that have gone missing, finding that the agency engaged in wanton cruelty with little to show for it. The intelligence community takes issue with that finding and begins targeting Jones and making the case that what they did was essential to national security, leading him to take action to make sure his report sees the light of day.

A second, shorter trailer (427,000 views on YouTube) was released in October that focused on the ramifications of the report and what it was meant to both accomplish and undo.

Online and Social

Amazon created Twitter and Facebook profiles for the movie but no official website. Those profiles don’t even have a link to any site where people can buy tickets or register their interest in watching it when it becomes available for streaming.

Advertising and Publicity

A first look still from the movie was released at the same time it was announced it would be screening at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Amazon picked it up during the festival, one of many high-profile acquisitions it made. In August it screened at the Telluride Film Festival.

In mid-June Amazon finally announced a September release date for the film, planning a two-week theatrical release before it would become available on the company’s streaming service. That release date was shifted to November in late July, but the same two-week window between theatrical and streaming availability was kept intact. In fact it was noted this film, along with The Aeronauts, represented the first salvo in a shift by Amazon away from applying the theatrical model to all its feature releases, something it had previously committed to as a way to stay in the good graces of exhibitors and studios.

Amazon held a number of screenings of the movie in various locations, usually those associated with government or journalism, in the last couple weeks. Some of those included Q&A sessions with the cast and crew and even Jones, who joined the filmmakers on stage to talk about the true story the film is based on.

Online ads used variations on the key art to raise awareness. 

the report online ad

Media and Press

A first look still from the movie was released at the same time it was announced it would be screening at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Amazon picked it up during the festival, one of many high-profile acquisitions it made. Burns spoke about the story and how he envisioned it as an alternative to officially-approved versions of events.

Benning was interviewed about taking on the role of Diane Feinstein and how she decided not to research the real woman too much lest it overwhelm her performance.

An interview with Burns allowed him to talk about how timely the story told in the movie still is, especially as the U.S. is in the middle of impeachment proceedings that have the concept of accountability for illegal actions as their core premise. Burns, along with the real life Jones, also spoke about how this movie seeks to correct some of the problems with earlier movies like Zero Dark Thirty that seemed to position torture as both effective and necessary.


While Amazon has made the case that it’s reevaluating the theatrical release window it’s previously had in place as a way to appease theater owners, it seems that choosing this movie – a political drama that has more in common with the kinds of films that were popular 40 years ago – to be one of the first under the new system. That could be because of a lack of faith in the commercial viability of a story like this, regardless of its high-caliber cast.

That being said, the campaign…well…it seems to be targeted specifically at the audiences that still enjoy the kinds of films that were popular 40 years ago. It sells a movie in which someone going on with their public service job despite other people telling them “don’t do that” in loud voices is high drama.

What’s missing from all but a handful of interviews is a clear message to the audience as to *why* this story is still so essential and relevant. That whistleblowers and others who seek out the truth are an essential part of our society and government is as important now than ever before. More emphasis on that might not have improved the movie’s box-office chances significantly but it would have tightened up the campaign a good deal.

Picking Up the Spare

Amazon announced it would be one of the first test cases for its new policy not reporting on theatrical revenue for their movies.

The front pages of major newspapers across the country were wrapped in ads for the movie just days before it hit theaters. There were also a handful of trucks with messages about truth and fear driving around Los Angeles in a promotional stunt.

Another interview with the director has him connecting the dots of accountability between the story told in the movie and what’s happening right now. Maura Tierney was interviewed about the difficult subject matter featured in the movie.

There was more from Bening on how she approached playing the real life Feinstein, including recalling first meeting the Senator 40 years ago.

To my surprise, there was a really nice official website for the movie that offered information on the real events and people not only portrayed in the film but also those that impacted what’s seen on screen.

A few new featurettes from Amazon have come out, including one that focused on the importance of the truth to society, one that introduced the characters of the story and one that broke down some of the numbers featured in the story.

A making of featurette came out a couple weeks after the movie hit theaters.