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The Disappearing War Film

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They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks;

One nation shall not raise the sword against another, neither shall they learn war any more.

Isaiah 2:4

War is a nation’s ultimate commitment of blood and treasure.  As such, the stories a people tells about its wars – and don’t tell – and the ways it remembers its wars – or chooses to forget them – tells us much about the kind of people they consider themselves to be at different times in their history, as well as the kind of people they really were…and are.

For most of the 20th century, the war film was a Hollywood staple.  From one era to the next, war movies documented the nation’s conflicts, reflected the national consciousness on particular combats as well as on thinking going far beyond any one, particular war.  They’ve been propagandistic and revisionist, salutary and melancholic, topical and universal, thrilling and ruminative.  And, of late, as far as the commercial mainstream is concerned, they’ve all but disappeared.

Few American movies were turned out about World War I during the course of that war.  The U.S. had been neutral for much of the war, and had only fielded troops during its last eight months.  As well, the motion picture industry was still in a chaotic, nascent state, unable to respond to the war in any uniform or muscular fashion.  However, by the 1920s, as the Hollywood studio system took root, movies about The Great War began appearing regularly and continued to be popular until eclipsed by World War II – the war which tragically proved that the World War of 1914-1918 had not been the hoped-for War to End All Wars.

The First World War had been a traumatic experience, the battle in the trenches of the West Front having been an exceptionally horrific exercise in mass bloodletting.  The causes of the war had been both confusing and, in retrospect, avoidable, and combat had been conducted with 19th-century tactical thinking oblivious to the capabilities of the new 20th-century killing technologies, all of which gave the four years a sense of purposeless waste.  Consequently, movies about WWI in the ’20s and ’30s almost universally tended to be melancholic, rueful paeans to a young generation whose courage and valor had been thrown away in the meat grinder of the battle for the trenches (or the skies) i.e. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921), The Big Parade (1925), Wings (1927), Hell’s Angels (1930), The Dawn Patrol (1930, remade in 1938), All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), et al.

The experience of World War II was wholly different.  The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 united the nation in the idea that war was not only necessary, but vital to the survival of the country, and established an unimpeachable rightness to the American cause.  The Hollywood studio system was now at its peak, and brought its considerable creative muscle to bear in support of the war effort.

Every type of studio entertainment vehicle – from cartoons to A features, shorts to documentaries, the heaviest of dramas to the most flyweight of comedies – was retooled for war.  There was hardly a talent on the Hollywood roster who didn’t find him/herself, at one time or another, doing battle on-screen against the Axis forces, from A-list stars (at least those that hadn’t enlisted) to Daffy Duck and The Three Stooges.  By the end of 1942, the country’s first full year of war, Hollywood had already pumped out 80 movies which touched on the war in one way or another. By war’s end in August of 1945, about 30% of the 1700 features produced 1942-45 had been war-related.

All Quiet on the Western Front

Hollywood could not have maintained such an output on the basis of patriotic duty alone.  There was an obvious – and understandable – appetite among the movie-going public for stories about the war.

The scope of World War II – the way it touched nearly every family in America – is almost unimaginable today.  Consider that by 1945, over 15 million men aged 17-45 had served in the military (as well as tens of thousands of women, and the men of the civilian merchant marine who battled German air and naval forces while transporting vital war supplies across the North Atlantic).  In a country of a little over 132 million people, this meant that approximately one in every nine Americans went off to war (and one in 13 would be a casualty; about one percent of the total U.S. population).  It was the rare household that didn’t know someone in service.

But the men who, in the parlance of the times, “put on the suit”  were not alone in the war effort.  Men ineligible for military service were joined by hundreds of thousands of women working in the nation’s factories which had been converted to producing war materiel.  All families dealt with the rationing of any number of household items, from gasoline to shoes, butter to meat.  The citizenry harvested scrap metal, old tires, and cooking grease in scrap drives to provide raw materials for war manufacturing.  They grew “victory gardens” in their backyards to supplement their rationed groceries.  Everyone – literally – was part of the national effort.

Understandably, then, movies about the war – particularly combat movies – were unabashedly supportive, and sometimes rabidly propagandistic.  In The Purple Heart (1944), for example, a fictionalized telling of a true-life show trial of downed American pilots by the Japanese, the court officers are portrayed in the broadest Asian racial stereotypes down to buck teeth and owlish glasses.  In Action in the North Atlantic (1943), the German U-boats preying on American convoys are given all the dignity of a mugger (even though American movies like Destination Tokyo [1943] and Crash Dive [1943] depict US submariners doing the same thing as the valiant young men of the “Silent Service”).

Hollywood movies regularly distorted the facts on the ground for the sake of American morale.  The battle for Wake Island (1942) neglects to mention the fight actually ended in a surrender rather than the movie’s fight-to-the-last-man climax; A Wing and a Prayer (1944) makes America’s first six months of losses in the Pacific look like part of a master plan to bait the Japanese into a trap at Midway; Air Force (1943) explains away the Pearl Harbor disaster as the result of Japanese sabotage and Fifth Columnists rather than American unpreparedness.

Hollywood also tweaked any number of technical details also for the sake of bolstering national confidence.  In A Wing and a Prayer, the battle at Midway is won by carrier torpedo planes when, in reality, squadrons of torpedo planes had been slaughtered by Japanese fighters without landing a single hit on the enemy; in Sahara (1943), tank sergeant Humphrey Bogart delivers a stirring salute to the capabilities of the M3 “Grant” tank while, on the battlefield, the Americans never fielded a tank until the closing months of the war that could go head-to-head with German heavy armor; the B-17 in Air Force is as spacious and comfortable as a jumbo jet instead of the cramped, cold, noisy aircraft it truly was.

Yet in other major ways, war movies of the time were admirably honest.  Although there were any number of wartime adventure movies like Flying Tigers (1942) and Desperate Journey (1942) which were heavy on grandstanding heroics and derring-do and showed the American fighting man capable of out-thinking, out-brave-ing and out-fighting any enemy, there were also a steady stream of movies showing that America’s heroes were decidedly life-sized.  In movies like Guadalcanal Diary (1943), Sahara, The Story of G.I. Joe (1945), A Walk in the Sun (1945), Objective, Burma! (1945), They Were Expendable (1945) – to name just a few – the American soldier was resolutely portrayed as an Everyman, a one-time cabbie or grocery clerk doing what he thought was a dirty job only because it had to be done, and the sooner it was done the sooner he could return to the home and family he longed for.  True to life, the G.I. in these films was no over-muscled Rambo, but the schlub next door; no steely-eyed professional warrior, but a guy who wasn’t afraid to admit to his fear when the bombs came in.  In the often poignant The Story of G.I. Joe, a squad leader, having led one too many futile attacks during the Italian campaign, finally cracks after hearing the recorded sound of his unseen son’s voice for the first time, while his company commander admits to feeling like “a murderer” as he writes letters home to the relatives of the men he’s lost.

Hollywood was also frank about what the painful cost of victory would be, and the simple, brutal fact that not everyone was coming back.  One of the moments bringing that idea heartbreakingly home comes in Objective, Burma!, as a G.I. looks down on the body of a comrade killed during the night by a Japanese infiltrator, saying, “So much for Mrs. Hollis’ nine months of pain and twenty years of hope.”

After the war’s end, moviemakers no longer felt obligated to be tireless cheerleaders.  The war had been won and they could now afford to be more reflective than wartime circumstances had allowed.

They Were Expendable

While there was never any question the war had needed fighting – and winning – moviemakers were now freer to present a more clear-eyed view of the human toll of that victory.  To be sure, there would still be any number of action-adventures saluting the triumph of WW II (i.e. Fighter Squadron [1948], The Sands of Iwo Jima [1949], An American Guerilla in the Philippines [1950], Flying Leathernecks [1951]), but another vein of combat movie strove for something more profound and more telling.  Movies like 12 O’Clock High (1949), Battleground (1949), The Cruel Sea (1952), Command Decision (1949), Halls of Montezuma (1950), Breakthrough (1950), The Caine Mutiny (1954) and others showed the war to have been more brutal and emotionally traumatic than the morale-boosting movies of the war years had ever let on.  Men had been maimed in body (William Campbell screaming “I got no legs!” in Breakthrough) and mind (migraine-afflicted platoon leader Richard Widmark in Halls of Montezuma), and the strain of command had brought down the strongest of men (Gregory Peck’s steely group commander ultimately collapses into catatonia in 12 O’Clock High).  In such films it seemed their makers had taken to heart Hemingway’s “Notes on the Next War”:  “They wrote in the old days that it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.  But in modern war, there is nothing sweet nor fitting in your dying.  You will die like a dog for no good reason.”

War movies took a still darker turn with the outbreak of the Korean War in June of 1950.

It was a confusing war for most Americans.  It was the country’s first “limited” war, and its first “war of policy”  – a war fought for political reasons so abstract to the common man as to seem meaningless.

It was also keenly frustrating.  After the victory of WW II, it was unfathomable to many that the greatest military power on earth found itself – after the first six dynamic months of the war – mired in a bloody two-and-a-half-year stalemate.

Even more troubling was that so soon after the most momentous conflict in history – a war that had cost some 60 million souls globally – we were at war again.  The Great Crusade, it now sadly seemed, had resolved nothing; only traded one great threat for an apparently endless number of smaller ones.

Some Korean War movies propagandized (One Minute to Zero [1952], Retreat, Hell! [1952], The Steel Helmet [1951]), while others saluted the men tasked with fighting an ugly, unwanted war (The Bridges at Toko Ri [1954], Pork Chop Hill [1959]), but still others tapped into this postwar disillusionment, and none better than Men in War (1957).

Men in War

Men in War is set in Korea, but director Anthony Mann keeps the enemy largely off-screen.  Its simple story of platoon leader Robert Ryan’s decimated platoon trying to find safe haven is the war story reduced to poetically bleak elementals.  Ryan and his men are any unit in any army in any war simply trying to get to the end of the day alive, fighting not for a cause but because, as Ryan says, “we’ve got no place else to go.”

That same disillusionment spilled over into Korean era WWII tales as moviemakers used the majestic stage of the Great Crusade as a platform to illustrate the futility, brutality, and insanity of war – any war, even those fought for the noblest of causes and with the best of intentions i.e.  Attack! (1956), The Young Lions (1958), The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957 – ending with medic James MacDonald looking out over the finale’s carnage declaring, “Madness!  Madness!”).

Korea ended in not quite a victory, not quite a defeat, but something unpalatable enough that by the end of the ’50s, the country had pretty much pushed the war from the national consciousness.  If Korea was doomed to be America’s Forgotten War, Vietnam was to be the country’s great national trauma; one whose scars can still be found in U.S. foreign policy and military thinking to this day.

In the early ’60s, American involvement in Southeast Asia was limited to a few thousand advisors.  By 1968, the country had committed over 550,000 men to the effort, always upping its manpower ante on the military’s estimate that just a few more troops would bring a win.  With each boost in troop levels, victory remained a constantly receding horizon, and Vietnam began to look like a winless war without end.  The ongoing war led to protests, social unrest, a sense of broken faith between the people and the country’s leadership.  The apotheosis of the national agony was the 1970 killing of four Kent State University students by National Guardsmen during a protest over the expansion of the war into Cambodia.

Hollywood (in)famously avoided addressing the major issue of the day, and throughout the duration of the war – from the time combat troops first set foot in Vietnam in 1965 through the collapse of South Vietnam a decade later – there was only one major studio release about the conflict; John Wayne’s jingoistic and laughably simple-minded The Green Berets (1968).

The movie industry’s avoidance was understandable.  Making a movie viewed as supporting the war could alienate the generally antiwar young audience so critical to the box office.  On the other hand, to make a movie slamming the war might not only alienate older moviegoers, but risk antagonizing the government authorities who regulated and policed the business and media practices of the studios.

This didn’t mean Hollywood avoided making war movies.  In fact, it seemed to make movies about every war but the one in Vietnam – from purely action-adventures (The Guns of Navarone [1961], Von Ryan’s Express [1965]) to melodramas (The Blue Max [1965]) to near-surreal black comedies about the absurdities of armed conflict (Catch-22 [1970], Castle Keep [1969], M*A*S*H [1970]).

The Bridge on the River Kwai

Though Hollywood avoided dealing with Vietnam directly, there were a number of releases over the period which, to some degree or another, alluded to the conflict (as well as to the sad fact that the country was, yet again, at war).  The Sand Pebbles (1966) found the same moral confusion, naïve idealism, national hubris, and ignorance of native peoples bedeviling the effort in Vietnam in America’s “gunboat diplomacy” in 1920s China; Shenandoah (1965) was an adamantly antiwar drama set during the American Civil War; Lost Command (1966) was a disturbingly prescient look at how Vietnam would play out through the experience of a French combat unit fighting a similar guerilla war in Algeria; the bitter Western Ulzana’s Raid (1972) was as much about what was going on in 1960s-70s Southeast Asia as it was about the 1880s Indian wars of the American southwest.

American audiences also found Vietnam resonating in a number of imports.  WWII had weakened the global empires of the European powers, and, for decades after, countries like Britain and France found themselves embroiled in wars of empire; conflicts between an outdated colonial mindset and exploding native nationalism.  The Europeans proved themselves more frank than Hollywood in dealing with their own Vietnams in movies like The Guns at Batasi (1964), The Battle of Algiers (1966), the allegorical Burn! (1969), and, one of the all-time best combat films, Zulu (1964), written and directed by Cy Endfield.

A dramatized version of the 1879 Battle of Rorke’s Drift in the British African colony of Natal, Zulu — like Men in War — seemed to encapsulate larger truths about so many of the conflicts which had followed WWII.  The soldiers are in a place they don’t want to be, fighting a war against an enemy they don’t know, for a purpose they don’t understand.  “Why us?” one frightened trooper asks.  “Because we’re here,” answers his sergeant, “and no one else.”

With the fall of South Vietnam in 1975, American moviemakers began to tentatively test audiences for their receptivity to movies about the war, but initial efforts – Twilight’s Last Gleaming (1977), Rolling Thunder (1977), Who’ll Stop the Rain? (1978), Go Tell the Spartans (1978) and The Boys in Company C (1978) — gained very little box office traction. But the success of Coming Home and The Deer Hunter (both 1978) showed, finally, a growing interest in America’s most troubling war, and a desire to understand the country’s first major military defeat.

While neither movie holds up particularly well – Coming Home now seems a too-neatly structured melodrama, and The Deer Hunter often comes off as a hysterical rant – they did open the door for what would be one of the definitive movies of the time as well as a timeless war movie:  Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979).

Rolling Thunder

Less a movie about Vietnam than a reworking of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, it is precisely the movie’s Conradian core which extends the movie’s thematic reach beyond Vietnam to become a darkly poetic portrait of the moral corrosion and infectious insanity of combat.

Apocalypse was the Vietnam genre’s first major hit ($79 million domestic – over $200 million in today’s dollars), but despite that success, other moviemakers remained hesitant about following suit.  There was The Killing Fields (1984) about the spillover of the war into Cambodia, but the cultural catharsis didn’t come until Oliver Stone’s Platoon (1986).

Unlike Coppola’s film, Platoon didn’t concern itself with larger philosophical issues, but only in giving a uniquely realistic representation of the grim existence of a U.S. infantryman in Vietnam (Stone himself had served in 1967).  The blockbuster success of Platoon ($139 million domestic) was enough to open the floodgates and the late 1980s into the early 1990s would see a torrent of Vietnam combat movies hit the screens.

But with a major difference.

Apocalypse Now and Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987) used Vietnam as the setting for an exploration of larger, existential themes, while Platoon placed itself squarely in the mind of a frightened front-line G.I., but all of them had addressed the curiosity of the mass audience regarding how and why the war had gone so badly.  There was, however, a more palatable picture of the war already asserting itself.

These were the years of the Reagan presidency, and Reagan rallied a country emotionally exhausted by the social upheavals of the 1960s-70s and dispirited by the loss in Vietnam by re-embracing the American myths that had taken such a beating over the previous 20 years:  that America was The Good Guy, was always The Good Guy always fighting in a good cause.  He recast Vietnam as a noble effort; a source of pride rather than an embarrassment.

Apokalypse Now

Plugging into the new, patriotic national zeitgeist were movies like Rambo:  First Blood, Part II (1985), Uncommon Valor (1983), Missing in Action (1984 plus two sequels), Flight of the Intruder (1991) and others.  These movies re-fought Vietnam, showing it not to be the war we lost, but the war we could have – should have – won had it not been for weak-kneed politicians, misguided peaceniks, and soft-headed left-wing intellectuals.

This resurgent patriotic fervor showed up in a range of films about war and the military:  An Officer and a Gentleman (1982), Red Dawn (1984), Iron Eagle (1986), The Delta Force (1986), Memphis Belle (1992), and most spectacularly in Top Gun (1986).

Grossing a whopping $177 million domestic (around $350 million in today’s dollars), Top Gun aped the fervent flag-waving of WWII era war movies even though it was their thematic antithesis.  While 1940s war movies made the case for the skills necessary to fight the war – discipline, teamwork, obedience – Top Gun struck a chord with young audiences with the generationally-appealing fantasy of a cocky, rule-breaking, go-his-own-way young hero so preternaturally skilled he could outfly even the best veteran pilots.  Director Tony Scott often interrupted the youth v. grown-ups drama for MTV-style montages set to thumping rock music.  Some critics called Top Gun the best TV commercial military recruiters ever had.

Top Gun

By the early 1990s, this cycle of war movies was burning itself out, and while the wars the country had successfully weathered since Vietnam had helped revitalize America’s self-image, they had been too nebulous – or questionable — in their meaning to add much to the popular culture.  The invasion of tiny Grenada in 1983 had provided the basis for the Clint Eastwood starrer Heartbreak Ridge (1986), but little else, and the 1989 invasion of Panama passed completely unremembered.  Strangely, America’s biggest military engagement since the end of Vietnam would make little impression at the movies, even though it had ended with the kind of king-sized decisive victory it seemed a self-doubting nation had been waiting on for 15 years.

In 1990, the U.S. led a large coalition of countries in pushing the occupying army of Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein out of the small, oil-rich country of Kuwait.  The actual ground combat, which began in February 1991 after weeks of aerial bombardment, lasted only five days, but in that time the U.S.-led forces destroyed much of Hussein’s sizable military power and liberated Kuwait at a cost of less than 1400 killed and wounded.

Perhaps the war had been too quick, or too ambiguous (many wondered why the unstoppable U.S. forces had not gone all the way to Baghdad and toppled the Hussein regime).  Cynics thought – particularly in light of the pragmatic constraints on the war, such as leaving Hussein in power – this had been less a fight against oppression than a fight to maintain economic stability in the oil-dependent west.  In any case, though the mood in the country was buoyed by the quick win, few major films were inspired by the war:  Courage Under Fire (1995), a salute as straightforward as its title; and darkly comic, bitterly cynical Three Kings (1999) which mocked the soaring rhetoric of the war with the reality on the ground.

Throughout the 1980s and into the late 1990s, of whatever stripe, the war movie had been losing ground.  There had been a small handful of major hits (Rambo:  First Blood, Part II, Top Gun, Platoon), a few respectable midrange earners (Heartbreak Ridge, Full Metal Jacket, Born on the Fourth of July [1989], Courage Under Fire), but, as a genre, it seemed to be fading.

Full Metal Jacket

The war movie found new energy not in dealing with the ambiguous wars of the present, but by going back to the moral clarity of a long ago war:  WWII.  The revitalizing agent was Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998).

Saving Private Ryan is such an oft-repeated classic these days, it’s hard to appreciate how brave and bold it was at the time.  It had been decades since a WWII combat movie had been a major box office success, and the last combat movies of any type to earn big had been the chest-thumping Top Gun and the grim Platoon 12 years before.  Spielberg made no attempt to appease or pander to get an audience in the doors.  Instead, he opted for blunt honesty, showing combat with a graphic stomach-turning realism never before seen in a mainstream film.  He managed the deft balancing act of saluting the sacrifice of WWII’s Greatest Generation without sanctifying them, showing how the desperation of combat can push the most decent of men to acts of callous brutality.  Ryan demonstrated the thesis Studs Terkel had laid out in his 1984 oral history of the Second World War, The Good War: that there was no such thing as a good war.

For all its horrific violence and deglamorization, Ryan earned $217 million domestic and won Spielberg an Oscar for Best Director.  And, as success usually does in Hollywood, it spawned a host of imitators.

In short order came a host of WWII actioners, some even aping the jittery camerawork and wrenching violence of RyanThe Thin Red Line (1998), U-571 (2000), Pearl Harbor (2001), Enemy at the Gates (2001), Windtalkers (2002), Hart’s War (2002), and director Clint Eastwood’s our-side/their-side pairing, Flags of our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima (both 2006).  The patriotic fervor stirred up by Ryan filtered into other war movies as well:  Black Hawk Down (2001), a heroic portrayal of an ill-fated mission during the U.S.’ effort at nation-building in Somalia; the Bosnian bombing campaign provided the basis for Behind Enemy Lines (2001); and there was Vietnam-set We Were Soldiers (2002).  But few compared to Spielberg’s creative achievement, and none even came close to matching Ryan’s earnings.

Perhaps the problem was that America’s mind was on a new war…two of them, in fact.

Saving Private Ryan

In response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in October of 2001, and then Iraq in 2003.  In both cases, the period of ground combat was short, and the conventional forces of both countries soundly defeated.  It seemed that America was on a roll, militarily, anyway, but the giddiness of two quick victories began to evaporate as both wars stubbornly refused to conclude.  Instead, they devolved into grinding, low-intensity conflicts, wars with an often unseen enemy – or, as is the case in these faction-ridden tribalized countries, enemies.

The exuberance over what had, at first, seemed rapid-fire triumphs began to devolve as well, into frustration, puzzlement, and ultimately the sinking Vietnam-like sense that, again, the country was stuck in two endless wars, both of which it seemed we could neither win nor afford to lose.  After those opening months, there were no set-piece battles, few firefights.  They became steady-state wars of IEDs and drone attacks moved to the inside pages of the newspaper.

As both wars ground stubbornly on, Hollywood turned out a series of movies about America’s embroilment in the Middle East.  Some were big-budget efforts (Jarhead, 2005), some intimate art-house releases (In the Valley of Elah, 2007); some were among the best movies Hollywood could offer (The Hurt Locker, 2009), and others not so much (Lions for Lambs, 2007).  They came in all flavors:  espionage thriller (Syriana, 2005), political drama (Lions for Lambs, 2007), comedy-drama (Charlie Wilson’s War, 2007), documentary (Taxi to the Dark Side, 2007), empty-headed actioner (The Kingdom, 2007), even horror movie (Red Sands, 2009). It wouldn’t be until 2013’s Lone Survivor ($125 million domestic) and American Sniper the following year ($350 million) that screens would see a major box office hit set in our, arguably, most controversial wars. But no matter the genre or the quality, they all remarkably shared one similar characteristic:

They didn’t perform.

Zero Dark Thirty

The bigger earners never did better than midrange (Jarhead, Munich [2005], Charlie Wilson’s War, The Kingdom), standing as disappointments when measured against their costs.  Even the more intimate-sized films hit a wall early:  In the Valley of Elah — $6.7 million; Brothers (2009) — $28.5 million; The Hurt Locker — $17 million.

In fact, going back to the movies which followed the first Gulf War of 1990-91, with the exception of Michael Moore’s heavy-handed and inflammatory documentary Fahrenheit 911 (2004 – $119 million domestic), not one American movie dealing with the Middle East has been a major commercial success, and most have been financial failures:

Three Kings (budget:  $75 million/U.S. box office:  60.7 million); Charlie Wilson’s War ($75m/66.7); Jarhead ($72m/62.7m); Courage Under Fire ($46m/61.7); Rules of Engagement (2000 — $60m/61m); Syriana ($50m/50.8m); The Kingdom ($70m/47.5m); Munich (2005 — $70m/47.4m); The Siege (1998 — $70m/40.9m); Brothers ($26m/28.5); Lions for Lambs ($35m/15m); Mighty Heart (2007 — $16m/9.2m); Rendition (2007 — $27.5m/9.2m); In the Valley of Elah ($23m/6.8m); Redacted (2007 — $5m/.065); Red Sands (less than $500,000/na).

Perhaps no movie better defines the wholesale rejection of cinematic consideration of the defining foreign policy issue of the day by the American moviegoer than the fate of The Hurt Locker. Despite near-universal critical acclaim culminating in a Best Picture Oscar as well as a Best Director award for Kathryn Bigelow, the movie crawled to a domestic take of $17 million, and barely earned back its spare $15 million budget only after overseas receipts were added in (a movie’s breakeven is typically twice its cost; Locker’s total worldwide take:  $32 million).

It is an unprecedented response.  In every decade prior, there can be found some box office reflection of the movie-going public’s desire to understand even its country’s most problematic conflicts, or at least buy into some myth of same.  In fact, every decade prior to the ’00s can boast at least a few war movies among the top earners of the period:  the ’20s had The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, The Big Parade, What Price Glory (1926) among the box office champs of the decade; the ’30s had All Quiet on the Western Front; the ’40s boasted For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943), The Fighting 69th (1940), Sergeant York (1941), Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944), A Guy Named Joe (1944) and Sands of Iwo Jima; the ’50s brought Battleground, The Bridge on the River Kwai, From Here to Eternity (1953), The Caine Mutiny, Mr. Roberts (1955), Battle Cry (1955), To Hell and Back (1955); from the ’60s, The Dirty Dozen (1967), The Longest Day (1962), Lawrence of Arabia (1962) The Sand Pebbles (1967); the ’70s had Patton (1970), Tora!  Tora!  Tora! (1970), Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter, M*A*S*H; the ’80s – Top Gun, An Officer and a Gentleman, Platoon, and First Blood and Rambo:  First Blood, Part II; and from the ’90s, A Few Good Men (1992) and Saving Private Ryan.

Platoon

But since the century has turned, until 2013 and Lone Survivor, the only war movies since Black Hawk Down and Pearl Harbor (both released in 2001) to cross the $100 million mark in domestic earnings have been Quentin Tarantino’s comic bookish rewriting of World War II, Inglourious Basterds (2009 — $121 million), Lone Survivor, and American Sniper. Think of it: a host of movies — some of them quite acclaimed — about one of the most pressing issues of the day generally go ignored, while only an over-the-top wish-fulfillment fantasy about a long-ago war, and two movies which skip over the more problematic aspects of our current wars can pull an audience.

There may be several things at work.

A number of educational and social studies surveys suggest that Gen X/Yers – the same age bracket which has been a box office cornerstone for decades – has limited interest in the issues of the day, though whether that’s the product of distraction in a world of infinitely varied electronic entertainment or disillusionment is open to argument (a personal observation:  in a university business class I teach, I asked my class of 22 where Libya was when news of the still on-going uprising broke; a few put it on the Suez Canal, some knew it was somewhere on the Mediterranean, but most had no idea at all nor seemed to particularly care).

Another factor may be the near-complete isolation of most of the American public from the military experience.  Since WWI and up through Vietnam, U.S. combat forces have largely been made of up draftees.  Even in WWII, despite the nation’s wholesale commitment to fighting the war, about half of the massive military fielded by the U.S. was made up of draftees.  Truly, citizen soldiers, they came home after the treaties were signed bringing their experiences back to mainstream America.

But after Vietnam, the U.S. converted to an all-volunteer service, and the overall size of this professional military has remained quite small.  Today, about 1.5 million men and women make up the country’s active-duty forces in the Army, Air Force, Navy and Marines, with another approximately 1.5 million in the reserves:  about one in every 100 Americans (compared to one in nine for WWII).

The nature of today’s wars has meant a limited number of veterans re-assimilating into the general population.  Korea produced 6.8 million veterans against a total population of 151 million (about one in every 21 Americans); Vietnam, 2.59 million against a population of 194 million (one in every 75).  But for as long as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have ground on, their limited scope and reliance on redeployments of the same units over and over has produced just 755,000 veterans – somewhere around one in 400.

The mass public – and particularly the young people historically tasked with fighting most of the country’s previous wars – are insulated from the impact of our present-day conflicts.  The military man is an alien concept to them which explains on-screen portrayals that, while popular, are frankly incredible.  Consider James Cromwell’s camp commander in military mystery The General’s Daughter (1999 — $103 million domestic) willing to accept the gang rape and murder of his serving daughter for the good of the Army; or Jack Nicholson’s sociopathic Guantanamo Marine commander in A Few Good Men ($141 million), a military courtroom drama about a commander who seems just fine with the accidental murder of one of his own men as part of maintaining discipline; or, in the same movie, Tom Cruise’s party-hearty, irreverent Navy lawyer, who comes off less a serving officer than a frat boy in uniform.

Is this important?  Does it matter?  After all, don’t we go to the movies simply to be entertained?

Inglourious Basterds

We have always wanted to be entertained by our movies.  But sometimes, we were entertained because a movie appealed to our interests.  We have, in the past, been interested in the experience of the men we have sent out to fight and sometimes die on our behalf, just as, at other times, we have been interested in the threats of nuclear war, racial intolerance, sexual politics, government conduct, police corruption — interested to a level that entertaining movies about such non-fun topics could produce significant coin for moviemakers.

But our interest – at least for many of those who are regular moviegoers – seems to have narrowed to the lightweight, the escapist, the fantasies fulfilled.  The real world doesn’t interest us much these days, or so it sometimes appears.

During the Vietnam days, young people unhappy with a war they saw as devouring their generation went into the streets to express their dissatisfaction with the direction of the country, while their elders went out into the streets to declare them un-American and tell them to get a haircut.

Together, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have cost us over 5500 dead and over 35,000 wounded.

No one is in the streets.  They’ve all gone to the movies to watch Iron Man kick terrorist ass.

– Bill Mesce

Bill Mesce, Jr. is the author of recently published The Rules of Screenwriting and Why You Should Break Them (McFarland) which not only includes more on his adventures with Sam Lupowitz and his other screenwriting experiences, but commentary from industry professionals like Goodfellas screenwriter Nicholas Pileggi, best-selling author and filmmaker Adriana Trigiani, AMC Networks CEO Josh Sapan, and others.

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70 Best Movie Posters of 2019

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Best Movie Posters of 2019

Deciding the best movie posters is no easy task…

I remember when I was younger, I used to head to the video store and rent movies I’d never heard of based solely on the movie poster art. This was, of course, a different time— sure, the internet was a thing, but we didn’t have countless websites, not to mention social media platforms, promoting new movies online with news stories, movie stills, featurettes, teasers, trailers and so on. Not to say that sort of marketing didn’t exist in the past, because it did, but it wasn’t always in your face. For better or for worse, the internet changed the way studios market movies, but one thing that hasn’t changed is the use of a poster to help build excitement and anticipation for an upcoming film. Most posters continue to be an important marketing tool for filmmakers worldwide and so once again, we’ve decided to collect images of our favourite movie posters revealed over the past twelve months. If you checked out our list of the best movie posters of 2018, you’ll remember it included posters for indie gems, thrillers, horror movies, foreign language films, Hollywood blockbusters and everything in between. This year is no different, although it should be said that some marketing campaigns were so good, we’ve decided to include more than one poster for a few select films. Also worth noting, we didn’t include any fan-made poster art below. That out of the way, here are the best movie posters of 2019.

Click on any one of the images to enlarge the posters.

The Best Movie Posters of 2019

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The Piercing ‘Marriage Story’ Is Noah Baumbach’s Best Film to Date

TIFF 2019

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Marriage Story

In 2010, director Noah Baumbach began divorce proceedings with his now ex-wife, Jennifer Jason Leigh. The divorce was finalized three years later, and since then Baumbach has been in a relationship with actor and director (and occasional collaborator) Greta Gerwig. It’s impossible to view his newest film, Marriage Story, without taking into account his own dissolved marriage; this is a searching, seething work of recriminations and longing that pits two all–too–human parents against each other, and invites the audience to not only imagine which bits of psychic trauma are his own, but also to consider our own relationships, successful or not.

Marriage Story stars Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver as Nicole and Charlie, a married couple living in New York City with their young son Henry. The film opens with a montage as Nicole recites the things she most loves about her husband, from the way he can cook and doesn’t mind waking up with their son, to his skill as a theater director. In turn, Charlie narrates his favorite aspects of Nicole, his regular lead actor. There are plenty of opportunities for tears here, but the unguarded emotions of these confessions might get them started right from the beginning. But just as they finish reciting these traits, we’re brought back to reality; these confessions were things that they had written down to read to each other as a kind of peace offering at the start of their mediation following a separation that has led up to their divorce. But Nicole doesn’t like what she has written — or at least doesn’t want Charlie to hear it. And if she won’t go, then it’s not really fair for him to read his. So neither tells each other what they most admire in the other, and instead stop seeing the mediator.

It’s the first strike in Nicole and Charlie’s mutually assured destruction agreement. Though they initially plan on avoiding using lawyers, Nicole gets tipped off to a well-regarded attorney (a funny and ice-cold Laura Dern) who advises her to take a maximalist position in order to ensure she gets half of everything she wants — at the very least. Once she has a lawyer, Charlie tries out a variety of legal counsels (a soothing Alan Alda and a fiery Ray Liotta), but the real conflict comes down to location; Nicole has taken Henry to Los Angeles while she films a pilot, and wants to stay even after it’s finished. Charlie, however, thought they would move back to New York. Each escalation in the feud necessitates an opposing reaction, and the two are driven further and further apart, even as they try to stay close for the sake of their son.

Marriage Story

Baumbach has admitted that some details of the film are based on his own divorce, but he’s also said he interviewed many of his friends who divorced around the same time, as well as lawyers and judges involved in divorce cases. In some ways, Marriage Story isn’t just a portrait of a couple separating, but a primer on divorce court that far surpasses something like Kramer vs. Kramer, which was out of date even in 1979. The film is also an opportunity to observe two of the best living actors at the top of their game. Johansson and Driver have a knack for finding the sweet spot between un-actorly naturalism and the stylistic ticks that we recognize as compelling acting. It gives us a sense that these people were actually a family, and really cared for each other. Baumbach’s script helps; it’s maybe his best writing ever, filled with so many painfully open moments, yet leavened with just the right amount of humor. He’s also as fair as he could be, and neither parent comes off as too saintly or self-centered.

Marriage Story ends in a circle of sorts with the discovery of Nicole’s notes about Charlie’s best qualities. Their marriage was effectively over before the film even started, but I kept thinking back to that lovely introductory scene. How might their journey to divorce progressed if they had the courage to speak openly to each other in that one moment? Perhaps something might have been better. Marriage Story doesn’t harbor any of those romantic illusions, however; once it’s over, it’s over.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on September 12, 2019, as part of our coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival.

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Don’t Be Sad ‘A Rainy Day in New York’ Never Made it to Manhattan

Spend this rainy day playing a board game or something

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Rainy Day in New York

You do not come to late-era Woody Allen for anything resembling true originality. He is the drunken piano man, riffing off the same old hits in the same old bar, hoping that nostalgia will hit a chord with somebody. As in Midnight in Paris, Blue Jasmine, or even Irrational Man, his output over the last decade can still bring up moments of true inspiration and fresh-feeling angles on the same old tales, even if the plot-lines feel somewhat familiar. In the best humanist cinema, like that of Rohmer or Ozu, this repetition can make you see the same thing in a slightly different way. The same cannot be said of A Rainy Day in New York, a film so derivative it feels like it came out of an auto-generator, making me feel nothing but contempt for the waste of so much talent. If you are an American Woody Allen fan sad that this movie never made it to Manhattan, there’s honestly no need to be.

Timotheé Chalamet stars and narrates in a performance so poor that he must be happy this film hasn’t released back in the States. He plays Gatsby Wells, a student at upstate Yardley College, a place he detests yet tolerates because his beloved girlfriend Ashleigh (Elle Fanning) — heiress to a rich banking empire in Tucson — also studies there. As a writer for the University paper, she gets the chance to interview famous director Roland Pollard (Liev Schreiber), giving them the possibility to explore New York together. Yet when they arrive there, a series of misunderstandings, mishaps, and fear of missed opportunities keeps them perpetually apart, handing them the chance to explore romance with others — including old flames, movie stars and, of course, high-priced escorts. 

Although his first name is Gatsby, Wells better resembles the other great male of 20th century American literature: Holden Caulfield. Like the protagonist of The Catcher in the Rye, he is born of massive privilege, shunning his supposedly phoney origins while still visiting the fanciest hotels and drinking in the fanciest bars. There is perhaps some kind of interesting modern portrait of New York privilege in here, but Woody Allen is simply not the right director for the material. It’s like asking a jazz pianist to bash out a techno tune. 

And just as Allen’s blinkered view of New York blinds him to the real world and its contemporary concerns, Chalamet’s nostalgia act cannot find a way to escape Woody’s wooden writing. The sensitive, pretentious, sensual young man who turned in such a deeply felt performance in Call Me By Your Name could be a natural fit for a Woody Allen character, if only he actually leaned into what makes him a great actor instead of trying his best Woody Allen imitation. While some actors can do Woody Allen well (Kenneth Branagh is uncanny in Celebrity, while Larry David is great in Whatever Works), Timotheé Chalamet has neither the studied talent to impersonate well, nor the arrogance to put his own distinctive stamp on it. Elle Fanning is similarly dire; playing both an intrepid, impetuous journalist and a thick floozy, she carries neither the charm nor the wit to make her a compelling co-lead.  

A Rainy Day in New York

I don’t blame either actor; they’re young, and there’s a feeling that they weren’t given much direction. In fact, almost every aspect of A Rainy Day in New York feels underdeveloped, underwritten, and under-thought. This is a film so lazy that it even recycles the ending of Midnight in Paris, perhaps hoping that the audience developed amnesia since 2011. Even Allen’s trademark eye for Manhattan is missing. Filming here properly for the first time since 2009, the city no longer seems like much of a character by itself, and instead comes off as it would in a generic TV Christmas Movie. 

While Allen’s early 00s work — easily his worst period — is characterised by its TV-movie lighting, his collaborations over the past ten years with cinematographers such as Darius Khondji (Midnight in Paris, To Rome With Love), Javier Aguirresarobe (Blue Jasmine), and Vittorio Stororo (Cafe Society, Wonder Wheel) elevated his films’ look considerably, even when the writing may have been lacking. Sadly here, the legendary cinematographer behind Apocalypse Now and The Conformist — despite what seems like his best efforts to light generic hotel rooms with warmth and vibrancy — cannot save A Rainy Day in New York at all, which feels even more rushed and cut-to-pieces than usual. This is really only for die-hard Woody Allen completists; casual minds need not bother.

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