Iraq war movies attract a lukewarm response at the box office

Returning home
In the recent film "Stop-Loss" Brandon (Ryan Phillippe) and Steve (Channing Tatum) get a heroes welcome when they return home to Texas from their tour in Iraq. However Brandon finds himself torn between a sense of responsibility to his men and to himself after he is told he has to return to Iraq even though his contract is up.
Image courtesy Paramount Pictures

There have been a couple of dozen Iraq war movies made so far. Features films have included "In the Valley of Elah," "Redacted" and "Stop-Loss;" documentaries focused have included "No End in Sight," "Iraq in Fragments" and, now, "Body of War."

While generally they have received good reviews, the audiences have stayed away in droves. One feature, "Home of the Brave," starring Samuel L Jackson, Jessica Beale and rapper 50 Cent earned just $51,000 at the US box office.

The question is why?

"It's a frustrating kind of war, and that makes for frustrating stories," said Minneapolis Star Tribune film reviewer Colin Covert.

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"People generally don't want to leave their house, drive to the mall, pay $10 and return home frustrated. They want be uplifted. They want to hear a story of good intentions rewarded, and that is not something that the Iraq narrative has had to offer," he said.

Most people go to movies to be entertained, others go to become informed on an issue.

And that's why Lori Hubin of Crystal said she's not going to see any Iraq war movies. She said as far as she can see, they just get it wrong.

"They really do basically show the U.S. military as being the problem, that they are brutal, that they are uneducated, that the only reason they are in the military is because they had no other options, and they just signed up for school. And that the United States is awful," she said.

Hubin said she thinks documentaries are often more inaccurate than the feature films.

Aruna Rao of St. Paul said she thinks most people just don't want to talk about the war. She said the conversation quickly gets back to politics and people get offended.

"Maybe that's the same way with movies, is that I'd rather just not see it and not get involved with it, or it might be too sad or too depressing, or it will remind me of all those people who have either died or who are currently over here, and so it's almost too sensitive of a subject to bother to go there in the first place," she said.

Even for people with a direct link to the conflict can feel ambivalent about war movies.

Kari Rusch-Curl describes herself as a proud army wife who is eagerly awaiting her soldier's return from Iraq later this summer. She's been intrigued by some films, but hasn't gone to see any. She watched a trailer for 'Stop-Loss," which was just too close to home. It included a scene with the wife of a soldier about to be sent back to Iraq.

"She says, 'I can't go another year without you touching my face.' And so I just think they are very powerful words, and maybe once a soldier has returned and you know that person is safe it may feel different than when you don't know that." Some people say it's just too soon to be be doing movies about Iraq. Even during the VietNam conflict the movie most people took to be about the war, MASH, was actually set in the Korean War.

Tim Connelly is a disabled Vietnam vet. He said when he was stationed in San Diego during the war, the movie "Patton" was shown on base, but MASH wasn't. He said he's not inclined to see any Iraq war films either.

"Like the last one 'Stop Loss' apparently's got a good message," he said. "But right now, I'm just not interested to see it I guess. Because it brings back, it brings up memories for me too even after 35 years, 40 years, even though it's a different war."

The poor box office is a challenge to film makers. Documentarian Errol Morris just released "Standard Operating Procedure," which is about the impact of the photographs taken in the Abu Graib prison. He said he thinks the war has become so politicized and talked to death that it's turned off the public. But he said the full story is still unfolding and films like his can have a role in telling that tale.

"Hey, go and see this," he said. "You might learn something you didn't expect to hear or to learn."

"Standard Operating Procedure" is scheduled to open in Minnesota on May 23rd. "Body of War" opens next week in the Twin Cities.