Friday, June 29, 2007

Wanting the War to End Before Seeing It on Film


By CLYDE HABERMAN
NYC
The New York Times
June 29, 2007

For some reason, a large slice of America is obsessed with how much money Hollywood rakes in every weekend. News organizations lead the way, dutifully recording box-office receipts like diligent accountants. Why this happens escapes us, but it is what it is.

So let’s look at last weekend, when theaters began showing the new Angelina Jolie film, “A Mighty Heart.” It landed with a mighty thud, taking in a pitiful $4 million. That put it in 10th place, well behind the leader, a frothy offering called “Evan Almighty.”

The sorry box-office number caught our eye because “A Mighty Heart” is one of the few feature-length films out of Hollywood to deal in a serious fashion with the post-9/11 world and the “war on terror,” that all-purpose term for Iraq, Afghanistan and the balance struck between security and civil liberties. Ms. Jolie plays Mariane Pearl, the wife of Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter who was kidnapped and gruesomely murdered by Islamic fanatics in Pakistan in 2002.

True, it is summer, the season when Americans are programmed to check their brains at the movie house door and avoid anything weightier than the latest incarnation of “Shrek.” But “A Mighty Heart” had generally favorable reviews and a superstar.

Still it tanked, further evidence that nearly six years after the terrorists hit us hard, people are not ready to use one of our most enduring art forms to explore the subject.

There are exceptions, of course, including on television. In the popular series “24,” Jack Bauer saves us from harm week after week, albeit with dubious interrogation techniques. Two years ago, Steven Bochco took on the Iraq war with “Over There.” That series stumbled in the ratings.

On film, we had “The Guys” in 2003, about a writer who helped a fire captain write eulogies for firefighters killed on Sept. 11. Oliver Stone made “World Trade Center,” about the rescue of two Port Authority police officers trapped beneath the rubble. It drew a respectable $70 million in domestic box-office receipts last year. Another 2006 movie, “United 93,” about the hijacked plane that crashed in Pennsylvania, took in $31 million in the United States.

But there has not been much more. And if you combined the domestic earnings of “World Trade Center” and “United 93,” they would not come close to those of “Over the Hedge,” which earned $155 million last year. “Over the Hedge,” mind you, was a cartoon.

For all the talk about how the world was irrevocably altered when the twin towers collapsed, there is at least one constant: In grim times, American moviegoers dislike close encounters with reality.

“It’s almost invariable,” said the film critic Molly Haskell. “War films don’t do well when they’re made during the war itself.” Marc Wanamaker, a film historian, said that a film like the one about the Pearls is “just depressing” and that “only a certain segment of society” will go see it.

As Ms. Haskell said, this is not a new phenomenon. The top box-office draw in 1942, the first full year of America’s involvement in World War II, was “Bambi.” No. 1 in 1968, as the country came unglued over the Vietnam War, was “Funny Girl.” Last year it was an installment of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” adventures.

Todd Gitlin, a Columbia University professor of journalism and sociology, pointed out that some of the most acclaimed films about Vietnam — “Apocalypse Now,” “The Deer Hunter,” “Coming Home,” “Go Tell the Spartans” — did not emerge until several years after the fighting. They “were all greenlighted once Saigon was evacuated,” he said. “Then it was safe for movies.”

Peter Bart, the editor in chief of Variety, cited “Home of the Brave” — not the 1949 war film of that name but rather a new MGM movie about soldiers coming home from Iraq. The studio has been “nervous about how to release it,” Mr. Bart said. “They were going to release it at Oscar time, and decided to wait until next fall. That’s an example of the wariness about the subject matter.”

Another film historian, David Thomson, said the fact is that “we’re still coming to terms with what happened” after Sept. 11. “We know that something amazing happened to the cityscape,” he said, “but we suspect that something much more drastic happened to the balance of power in the world. That’s much more complicated.”

It is. And someday, a film that “goes a little bit further,” as Mr. Thomson put it, will probably be made. Just don’t expect it tomorrow, or even the day after.

Email: haberman@nytimes.com

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