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.

War Machine (After the Campaign Review)

When Netflix was selling War Machine earlier this year I wanted to like it. The campaign, which was substantial by the standards of the marketing efforts the streaming service sometimes puts together for its original film, worked hard to position it as a satire of the idiocy of war. In particular, the war in Afghanistan is one that not only suffers from the same problems every war does but because no one seemed to have a clear idea of what victory looked like. At the end of my review of the campaign, I said it looked kind of like a modern version of Wag the Dog.

The movie stars Brad Pitt as Gen. Glen McMahon, the latest in a string of generals brought into Afghanistan to salvage the mess that’s been made by the previous leaders. He’s accompanied by his crack team of assistants, aide de camps and specialists, but he’s fighting not just the Taliban but a massive international bureaucracy. With goals that are unclear and ill-defined, he does what generals do: Take big risks and try his best. The realities of the situation all seem aligned against him and indeed against the idea of anything approaching the definition of “victory.”

While sold as a satire, it never really comes close to that mark, at least not consistently. That’s because just like the soldiers don’t know exactly what war they’re fighting, the filmmakers don’t seem to know what exactly it is they’re satirizing. Is it the fog of war that settles in and obscures everyone’s vision of what they’re working to accomplish? Is it the innate hubris of generals, who all believe they have the drive and vision to do what no one else can or would? Is it the politicians who send soldiers of all ranks into war without knowing where the finish line is?

The story never really settles on one message or another but flits between those and more. Pitt’s McMahon is a headstrong man. He’s dedicated to the mission and to the soldiers under his command and certainly has clear ideas about what it is he wants to do. But the script seems too determined to keep things grounded in reality and so never fully pushes anything the extra foot-and-a-half that’s necessary to truly satirize.

All of McMahon’s actions seem reasonable. Or at least believable in context. The same can be said of the supporting characters, whether it’s the group of aides and assistants he brings with him or the politicians and advisors he reports to and collaborates with. Everyone’s actions are too real to be satire but too outlandish to be real. So the movie keeps walking the middle line between wanting the audience to be aghast at the kind of ridiculous actions everyone takes while also laughing at their audaciousness.

Pitt is fine as McMahon. I’ve never been a huge fan of the actor and actually prefer him when he puts on as many affectations as possible in a role. That’s why I like him most in Burn After Reading, the Oceans films and a few others (but NOT Benjamin Button). Bury the Pitt-ness of him under as many layers as possible, I say. So the very mannered and deliberate performance here works for me, though again he’s hampered by a script that can’t fully commit to an idea.

The real treat here is Anthony Michael Hall as McMahon’s long-serving second-in-command Greg Pulver. He’s one of the only elements of the movie that keeps pushing things as far as he can to highlight the insanity of the situation, even while loyally standing by McMahon no matter the circumstances. It’s a surprise to see Hall turn in a performance like this and it should have gotten more recognition when the movie was released. The other is Alan Ruck as Pat McKinnon, one of the civilians McMahon has to coordinate with and clear actions through. He toes right up to the line of satire as he guides McMahon through the political realities he’s in, winking that there’s no clear goal here, he just wants this mess to go away. Ben Kingsley, Topher Grace and others are massively underused in supporting roles.

There’s a good story to be told about the war in Afghanistan and how it’s such a difficult situation for the U.S. We can’t leave because we’re all still culturally traumatized by Vietnam and retreat here would be a tacit admission that the time, money and life expended there would have been largely for naught. We can’t stay because no one wants us there and, as some characters point out, the enemy lives there and so can wait us out. The movie may have been hampered simply by trying to set itself in the real world, where it had to adhere to certain rules. Move it to a fictional country and there would have been more freedom to cut loose a bit, hitting the same notes more clearly and telling a clearer and comically tragic story.

If you’re a Netflix subscriber, check out War Machine for yourself.

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.