Robert Redford, playing a high-minded professor in Lions for Lambs, the new film that he also directs, tells a bright but underperforming student why the Rome analogy doesn't suit the current American moment. The problem is not primarily the emperor or the leaders, he says, because they are beyond all hope. The problem is "us—the people who just fiddle" while Rome burns.
If the public's response to recent films about Iraq and the larger war against terrorism is any gauge of that apathy, Redford's character may have a point. The audiences are staying away in droves.
Nearly flatlining since it opened in September, In the Valley of Elah, about a father (Tommy Lee Jones) trying to solve the mystery of his son's death in Iraq, has earned less than $7 million. Rendition, dealing with the U.S. policy of sending suspected terrorists abroad for interrogation, remains under $10 million after nearly a month. And even the fast-paced The Kingdom took in only about $47 million after seven weeks. Redford's film had a decent opening week, grossing close to $7 million—but still far behind the more than $80 million rung up by American Gangster in the same time. Such trends don't bode well for Brian De Palma's Redacted, which just opened.
Do these films simply fail to entertain? Possibly. But the reviews of most are mixed at worst, and Elah, the box office stinker, drew high critical praise. Political explanations may be even harder to parse. Most Americans are unhappy with Bush's handling of the war on terrorism, particularly in Iraq. So why aren't people attracted to films that generally support their dissatisfaction? The simple answer is that Americans don't want to think about the subject. "This is the longest war the U.S. has participated in," says Douglas Gomery, a professor of media studies at the University of Maryland. "Nobody wants to see movies about it."
Conservative critics have a different explanation: Hollywood's political bias. "Hollywood has never got over Watergate," says James Bowman, a film critic for the American Spectator. "It's always about powerful men hiding discreditable secrets, which is not true to the way politics really is, and most of the public knows it."
Politics. That would be an explanation for why the least political film, The Kingdom, has performed better than the others. But if the highly political Lions stays on track to equal The Kingdom's earnings, it might complicate Bowman's theory. And whether intentional or not, the views of the film's pro-war senator (Tom Cruise) are more compelling than the limp responses of the crusading antiwar journalist (Meryl Streep).
The success of Vietnam War movies may shed some light on the current flops. The most obvious thing about hits like The Deer Hunter (1978) and Full Metal Jacket (1987) is that they came out after the war. But since Vietnam remained a divisive issue, those films still had a problem. "The problem was to make the soldiers look noble without approving the war," says critic Martha Bayles, who teaches at Boston College. "The solution was to focus on the unit." By showing that the soldiers fought for one another, the films could play down the war debate.
Films and TV dramas about subsequent military conflicts have profited from that solution. In Black Hawk Down (2001), politics never once raises its nasty head. And the TV series 24 may owe much of its success to treating the war in the relentless present tense, leaving no time for reflection on moral ambiguities.
It's not clear, though, that the more critical films appeal even to the antiwar crowd in the way that, say, Michael Moore's strident documentaries do. Even a little balance, says Bayles, "comes off as fence-sitting." And most Americans appear to be as unhappy with that position on the war as with any other.