It’s been a very topical week for film, both on and off campus. Over the course of four days, Michael Winterbottom’s “The Road to Guantanamo,” Robert Greenwald’s “Iraq for Sale,” and Paul Greenglass’s “United 93” screened on campus. All the films explicitly address the causes, methods, and consequences of current American foreign policy. Down at Destinta, meanwhile, the casual viewer can see Clint Eastwood’s “Flags of Our Fathers.” While ostensibly about World War II, the film’s depiction of both the manipulation of war-time images and the crippling effects of combat on those sent to fight have led many critics to draw modern-day parallels. And, lest we forget, today marks the cinematic debut of that ever-popular culture warrior: Borat.
Yes, the movies seem positively aglow with fiery questions about the Iraq War, the Bush administration, and the general state of American life five years after Sept. 11th, but no one seems to care.
Despite glowing reviews, both “United 93” and “Flags of Our Fathers” failed to make a sizable box office dent. “The Road to Guantanamo” barely made it out of the art house circuit. And “Iraq for Sale” is but one of many documentaries on Iraq, the majority of which have been shafted by distributors and ignored by the general populace.
The average filmgoer’s apathy to cinematic depiction of current events was perhaps most apparent in the general reception of Gabriel Range’s “Death of a President,” a faux-documentary that imagines the assassination of President Bush in one year’s time. The incendiary topic of the film clearly affected some: NPR and CNN both refused to run advertisements for the film, the latter citing “the extreme nature of the movie’s subject matter.” Newmarket Films, “Death of a President’s” distributor, capitalized on the free publicity, juxtaposing positive quotes from critics with reactionary comments from political leaders and pundits who, according to the ad, had not seen the film. “Which side are you on?” the movie’s ads demand in bold white letters.
Audiences, apparently, didn’t feel the need to see the film to make a judgement, either. “Death of a President” took in a little over $280,000 last weekend, playing in 143 theaters nationwide. In comparison, “Babel,” Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s buzzed-about drama on worldwide communication breakdown, made over $100,000 more, while playing on only seven screens nationwide.
So what’s going on? Has the general film going population, having been told to shut up, stay the course, and keep shopping, tuned out topicality when choosing a Friday night flick? Certainly, many people go to the movies for pure escapist entertainment. Yet, I’m not convinced most people simply ignore larger issues.
The $33.6 million dollar take “Saw III” enjoyed last weekend unquestionably benefited from the franchise name and the proximity to Halloween. But the success of “Saw III” and other films depicting scenes of extraordinarily graphic and lurid violence might also meed a collective desire to frame the gore and bloodshed that bombards us everyday into something manageable and dismissible. Recent reports of home videos from Iraq (including those of American soldiers injured and killed in roadside suicide bombings) surfacing on YouTube also reflect a base desire to see and understand the conflict, regardless of the morally dubious nature of the videos themselves.
Issues of international violence are not far from anyone’s mind in their everyday lives either. According to a recent “New York Times” article reporting the results of the mid-term election poll they, along with CBS News, recently conducted, the war is the principle issue on American’s minds in deciding their vote. Furthermore, only 29 percent of Americans approve of the way President Bush is managing the war. Americans want clarity of vision on this war, a reflection of the average citizen’s lack of engagement and/or connection with the war effort itself.
The need for a coherent vision of the situation in Iraq, combined with the power of film, seems to pave the way for a string of powerful, provocative films on the state of our nation, and particularly on Iraq. What we’ve received in our recent films has been a scrupulous avoidance of direct engagement in the most pressing questions of the day: what are our soldiers actually experiencing overseas; how do they perceive the war; and, given the lack of national vision and guidance, why should we ultimately care?
Once you get past the sensationalist premise, “Death of a President” theoretically offers an intriguing opportunity to imagine the state of our nation in the wake a national tragedy, the death our president. Unfortunately, Range lacks the radical boldness to see any sustained vision to his dark, uncomfortable conclusion.
The film, made in the style of a “Frontline” documentary, captures the jittery, media-saturated rhythms of modern day national tragedy with skill. However, any critique the audience is supposed to posit against Bush’s policies is defused by the very structure of the film. Assuming that even the most virulent Bush-bashers find his murder unsettling, the film locks the audience in the odd position of being encouraged to criticize the legacy of Bush’s policies while feeling an inescapable sympathy for the man himself: love the executive, hate the expanded executive powers.
More than that, however, “Death of a President” offers nothing new in the way of critique. Much of the narrative concerns the arrest and trial of a Syrian immigrant, his ties to the assassination molded by the government to fit grander ambitions. President Cheney expands the Patriot Act in the post-assassination chaos. Sound familiar? For all its controversy, the film never moves beyond the relevant but tired criticisms lodged at the Bush administration every day. The film isn’t a cultural time bomb; it’s a Bob Herbert op-ed wrapped in faux-edgy gauze.
We need a perceptive, upsetting, and provocative fictional film about Iraq. Documentaries can open our eyes in unique ways, and I don’t want to dismiss those documentarians brave enough to travel to the heart of the battle and bring back what they’ve discovered. But, documentaries do not reach the amount of people that narrative films do.
A great movie on Iraq, made with clarity and empathy, could provide the crucial emotional and visual connections so many of us outside of the war’s immediate radius lack. It could allow us insight into the minds and hearts of those men and women so often saluted with the sincerest of intentions and then promptly forgotten. And, it could sow the seeds of true discontent amongst the masses, to finally demand answers and accountability from all levels of power; we must know how this war came about and where, if at all, it’s leading. This is the power of great filmmaking: connecting the universal to the personal through memorable images and characters who allow us, in a single look or line of dialogue, to cut through the partisan babble and doublespeak and see the aching heart of the matter.