When The Hurt Locker, perhaps the most significant film about the Iraq war, won best picture, it also made a dubious kind of history, posting the worst box office of any previous winner. It had only made $11m at the time – and then several more millions after the Oscar bump – despite the pleadings of critics who insisted, correctly, that director Kathryn Bigelow and her screenwriter, Mark Boal, had made a studiously apolitical thriller about an army bomb squad that spends its days defusing improvised explosive devices. And what could be more exciting than that? How many hit movies and TV shows have been built around the tick-tick-ticking of bombs that are about to go off? Too many to count.
And yet, five years into the war, Americans simply did not want to hear about it. The dramatic events of the invasion were over within a few months: Saddam Hussein’s regime had been toppled, along with his statue in Baghdad’s Firdos Square, and George W Bush had flown onto an aircraft carrier with a “Mission Accomplished” banner, declaring that major combat operations were over. The minor combat operations would continue indefinitely, of course, as the power vacuum was filled by the chaos of a growing insurgency and great spasms of sectarian violence. That’s the Iraq war of The Hurt Locker – a rudderless, perilous, borderline nihilistic endeavor that politicians could not risk their careers to end. It didn’t matter that Bigelow and Boal were not making an explicitly anti-war film, focused on visceral, exciting, on-the-ground experiences. The backdrop was too much of a bummer.
The cinematic history of the Iraq war has not been entirely written, even 20 years after it started. Most of the major Hollywood films about Vietnam – The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now, Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, Casualties of War – were produced well after the war, when the urgency of an ongoing conflict could ease into perspective about its costs. Yet there’s reason to be pessimistic about the risk-averse, IP-addicted studios of the 21st century dipping back into a war that it rarely bothered to engage with in the first place. Keep in mind: The Hurt Locker was independently produced and distributed by Summit Entertainment, which made a little money with the Twilight movies before getting gobbled up by Lionsgate.
Much like The Hurt Locker, many of the films that did get made about Iraq kept the focus on individual heroics and traumas, rather than the murkier, decidedly unheroic issues of how we got into this mess in the first place. Of the two most notable exceptions, the first was Oliver Stone’s 2008 biopic W, which folded the Iraq war into the larger story of George W Bush’s life, as he made his improbable rise from a wayward, hard-drinking, mediocre failson to a two-term president eager to settle his father’s scores. Stone had made his reputation on Vietnam films like Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July, which turned his own disillusionment as a war veteran. But W turned to be more like Stone’s Nixon, a surprisingly sympathetic portrait of a leader isolated by scandal rather than the left-wing broadside that people might have expected. Through Stone’s lens, the Iraq war was reduced to the unfortunate collateral damage of a father-son relationship.
Another biopic, Adam McKay’s semi-satirical Vice, spent less time on Iraq than W in arguing that Dick Cheney, another wayward Ivy Leaguer with a drinking problem, sobered up in time to play puppet master to Bush through various disasters, of which Iraq was only one. But McKay at least engaged with the dangers of an unchecked executive power, which allows presidents to engineer wars like Iraq and keep the military industrial complex humming along without an exit strategy. Yet Vice is still more a film about presidential privilege than it is about the blackest of black marks on Bush and Cheney’s record. It was never a war Hollywood could look squarely in the eye.
Rather than sort through the quagmire, the most workable solution was to take a grunt’s-eye-view of combat and the agonies of coming home. One distinguishing feature of Iraq war films that focused on the soldiers themselves was a greater understanding of post traumatic stress syndrome than previous generations could process openly. Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper was the one bonafide smash about the war, in part because its subject, Navy Seal Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper), could be said to have achieved a grim sort of greatness, having notched over 160 kills over four tours of Iraq. But Eastwood does measure the human cost of Kyle struggling to adjust to civilian life afterwards, and the fact that Kyle was killed by another veteran suffering from PTSD drives the point home. Still, the film’s eagerness to print the legend, rather than address the more troubling bullet points of Kyle’s resume, made it palatable enough to be a hit.
Other dramas from just outside the studio system chipped away at the margins, like Grace is Gone, about a widower (John Cusack) who loses his wife in Iraq and needs to reconstitute his family life around their two young daughters, or Richard Linklater’s underrated Last Flag Flying, in which a Vietnam veteran (Steve Carell) reunites with his old squad buddies (Bryan Cranston and Laurence Fishburne) to help bury his son, who has died in the latest inexplicable, open-ended war. It had somehow become a family tradition to serve a country that wasn’t worthy of their sacrifices.
The best American drama about the Iraq war ended up a TV show and not a film – that would be HBO’s Generation Kill, a seven-part limited series about seeds of failure planted in the earliest stage of Operation Iraqi Freedom – but with a pair of documentaries, 2008’s Standard Operating Procedure and 2013’s The Unknown Known, director Errol Morris told a comprehensive story about the war and the moral rot that trickled down the chain of command.
Standard Operating Procedure investigated the notorious photographs taken at Abu Ghraib prison and throws cold water on the idea that the cruelty and torture on ghoulish display could be limited to “a few bad apples”. Morris climbed to the top of the leadership ladder with The Unknown Known, a companion piece to The Fog of War, his 2003 portrait of Robert McNamara, the former defense secretary, a chief architect of the Vietnam war. This time, he talks to Donald Rumsfeld, who shares none of McNamara’s introspection and instead smirks his way through parsed phrases, as if to cover his mistakes in a rhetorical fog of war. Critics complained that Rumfeld, that sly fox of the Pentagon press room, had succeeded in giving Morris nothing. But there’s another word for that type of success, when you have no rationale or accountability for the grievous mistakes you’ve made: failure.