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Hollywood and Iraq

Movies about the conflict are surfacing four years after the war began

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Horror fans who buy tickets for The Hills Have Eyes 2 this weekend will see a film that is set in the New Mexico desert and was shot in Morocco. But when scaremaster Wes Craven co-wrote the Hills script — in which a group of undertrained National Guardsmen are terrorized by mutants — he had another sand-blasted area of the world on his mind: Iraq. ”I feel very strongly about the horrible situation that young troops have been put in,” says Craven of the current conflict. ”[The war] was very much floating around the room when we were writing.”

Craven may not be the last person moviegoers would expect to make a movie inspired by the Iraq war — no, that would be blue-collar comic Larry the Cable Guy (né Dan Whitney). In the broad comedy Delta Farce (out May 11), he stars as an Army reservist who is headed for duty in Iraq and is accidentally dropped in a Mexican village. With the Iraq war reaching its fourth anniversary this week, Hills and Farce are among the few major releases to even reference the conflict, however tenuously. ”I don’t think they want to go anywhere near it because they’re afraid,” says Farce producer JP Williams. ”They want to stay far away from the controversy.”

That appears to be changing. In the coming year, Hollywood will begin telling stories about the war in Iraq — but the industry is treading carefully, mostly choosing intimate dramas rather than battle-heavy polemics. In Stop Loss (out this fall), Ryan Phillippe plays a veteran who refuses to return to the conflict. Grace Is Gone, a favorite at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, features John Cusack as a father of two whose wife dies in combat. Oscar-winning scribe Paul Haggis is working on a movie in which Tommy Lee Jones investigates the disappearance of his vet son. Rachel McAdams recently signed on to Lionsgate’s The Return, a story about three veterans. Director Peter Berg is producing Absent Hearts, about a Colorado high school where one-third of the students have a parent in the active military. And Kathryn Bigelow will direct The Hurt Locker, which concerns an elite bomb-disposal unit in Iraq. ”We parachute you directly into the action,” she says. ”Just raw, uncensored combat.”

Impressive, to be sure. But with the exception of Locker, these projects largely follow veterans who’ve returned or the families who’ve been left behind — not the war itself. The reason? ”There’s no real end in sight,” says Berg. ”I’m sure in the next 10 years you will see films that deal with specific battles or acts of courage — I get scripts all the time. But nobody is sure how to proceed because we’re in the middle of it.” Producer/director Irwin Winkler adds that any film dramatizing the evolving war runs the risk of seeming outdated — or just plain unappealing. He ran into that problem with Home of the Brave, a vet-focused drama starring Samuel L. Jackson, Curtis ”50 Cent” Jackson, and Jessica Biel that barely registered when it was released in December for awards consideration. ”We got drowned in the Christmas rush,” says Winkler, whose MGM film will be given a wider release on May 11. ”It could reflect a lack of appetite for this kind of material.” Even a rabble-rousing saga would probably land with a thud. ”You can do the battle of Fallujah, but [audiences] are going to be thinking, Okay, well, we won,” says director Philip Haas, whose kidnapping drama The Situation — now in limited release — takes place entirely in Iraq. ”But in the context of the overall war…have we won? What would [the film] actually say?”

Scripted television was quicker to address Iraq on screen, but its creative minds are having just as much trouble figuring out exactly how to tell soldiers’ stories. Steven Bochco’s FX drama Over There — a graphic, violent series about troops in Iraq — premiered to huge fanfare in July 2005, but ratings soon plummeted and it was canceled after 13 episodes. ”It didn’t surprise me,” says Bochco. ”I don’t think people want to watch a dramatization that does not look to thrill them or uplift them. When people are going through it as a country, I just don’t think there’s emotional room to go there every week.”

Perhaps a more limited approach is the key. HBO and executive producers David Simon and Ed Burns (The Wire) are planning to make Generation Kill, a seven-part miniseries — slated for 2008 — based on the book by journalist Evan Wright, who was embedded with U.S. troops during the invasion. ”The industry has been very tepid about addressing this misadventure,” says Simon. ”The quicker we get around to telling ourselves the truth about Iraq, the healthier a culture we’re going to be.”

But the harsh and, for many, unforeseen reality is that Hollywood probably still has some time to consider how it should portray the ongoing hostilities in Iraq. Says Winkler, ”The truth is that when we started working on the film, we thought the war would be well over before the picture came out.” (Additional reporting by Missy Schwartz and Hannah Tucker)