NB This is extracted from Image and Representation (Palgrave, 2nd edition, 2009), pp.268-71 and includes spoilers
Unlike during the Vietnam War, when Hollywood barely noted the war’s existence in its films, the conflict in Iraq, which started with the (primarily) American-British invasion in 2003, saw many films released on the subject. Most of these films were, in some way, critical of the way the conflict was being managed by the American government; and virtually all of them were box office disappointments. These fictional features were preceded by a large number of documentaries; these also failed to find much of an audience.
We can only speculate as to why audiences weren’t interested in seeing representations of such an important event. It is possible that, as cinema is seen primarily as an entertainment medium, that audiences didn’t want reminding of the death and destruction occurring in Iraq. The films, as is usual, received a mixed critical reaction from ‘lukewarm’ – to be polite – for Lions for Lambs (2007) to generally positive, for example In the Valley of Elah (2007). Unsurprisingly, given the divided nature of the support for the war in Iraq, a number of these films, such as Redacted (2007), were seen as particularly controversial.
Most of the films, typically of Hollywood, use generic conventions. Rendition (2007) works as a political thriller focusing on two narratives: the ‘rendered’ Egytian-born El-Ibrahimi who is taken to another country to be tortured, and his American wife who desperately tries to find out why he didn’t return home. In political thrillers:
‘The basic plot is an ordinary man pulling an innocent thread which leads to a mess of corruption. The corruption should be political or governmental in nature.’ (Lundegaard, 2006)
It is usual in the genre for the ‘ordinary man’ to succeed, at least to an extent, in revealing the corruption to the world; as is the case in The Interpreter (UK-US-France, 2005); though this may be tempered by a suggestion that the corruption will continue, as in Three Days of the Condor (1975). In Rendition the ordinary man is simply a victim, powerless to do anything, whilst his wife, though dogged in her attempts to find her husband, similarly fails to achieve anything. Although, as a mainstream film, it is unsurprising that there is a ‘happy’ ending, courtesy of a disgusted CIA officer, the twist on the genre of making the protagonists powerless is a powerful indictment of the current political climate where torture appears to be official policy in America.
In the Valley of Elah is a mix of melodrama and police investigation. The protagonist Hank Deerfield, played by Tommy Lee Jones, is a patriotic ex-serviceman who supports the war. Early in the film he helps an immigrant put right an American flag that is flying upside down, he says that an upside down flag means the country is in mortal danger. However, his investigation into his son’s death, just after he’d returned from Iraq, reveals to him how war dehumanises soldiers and the film concludes with him deliberately flying the flag upside down.
Melodrama is a non-realist genre and so consciously uses both characters and settings symbolically. Deerfield, the name itself evokes the American pastoral, represents someone who naturally supports the country in times of war. He is a deeply repressed male, contrasted by Susan Sarandon’s character, who plays his sometimes-desperate wife. Deerfield’s investigations reveal the ‘dark heart’ at the core of this war and so, even though he is patriotic, he realises that the war is wrong.
Elah uses the device of a corrupted mobile phone video, which is slowly revealed throughout the film, as part of unravelling the mystery of what had happened to Deerfield’s son. Redacted, the most unconventional of the ‘Iraq films’, also uses new media technologies to represent the rape of a 15-year-old girl and the murder of herself, and her family, by US marines. The film starts with a disclaimer that the film is ‘a fiction inspired by true events’. The writer-director, Brian DePalma, uses a mix of texts to show what (might have) happened: a ‘home video’ made by one of the marines; a pastiche of a French (intellectual) documentary about Iraq; CCTV cameras; Internet postings; a video made on a mobile phone; photojournalism. Although it may seem that it is a realist text, the multimedia mixing instead draws attention to the artifice of what is shown. This may suggest that such horrendous events cannot be convincingly rendered by realism. Indeed DePalma also deploys melodrama; the one good guy, who tries to publicise what’s happened, is called Lawyer McCoy. This melodrama extends to the use of an aria from Puccini’s opera Tosca, the protagonist of which murders the man who is trying to rape her. This, highly passionate, aria could be seen as an ironic comment upon the Iraqi teenager’s inability to kill her rapists. However, the last image of the film is an actual photograph of the dead girl which needs no melodramatic heightening to appall its audience and so, ultimately, DePalma’s film comes across as exploitative.
One British film to deal with a similar topic is The Battle of Haditha (2007). This is a dramadoc that recreates the massacre of 24 men, women and children in Haditha by (allegedly) US marines. Director Nick Broomfield’s intensely realist aesthetic, signified by the handheld camera and utterly convincing performances, manages to humanise both the perpetrators of the atrocity – we understand that these are young men, badly led, and out of their depth – as well as getting to ‘know’ the victims. It also features a sex scene between Muslim husband and wife, where the woman removes her veil; this in itself should not be remarkable but such representations are extremely rare. From a western perspective, the lifting of he veil individualises the character and makes it easier to identify with her.
All these films are critical of America’s conduct in the war; it would be difficult to offer a gung-ho representation of events whilst the victory, heralded by George Bush in May 2003, had still failed to materialise. The Kingdom (2007) was one mainstream film (all the others were independently produced) that was actually set in the Middle East, albeit Saudi Arabia. Here Jamie Foxx plays an FBI investigator Ronald Fleury who bulldozes his way through political objections to investigate, and bring to justice, the perpetrators of a terrorist attack against American families. The film is progressive in its casting of African-American in a lead where his ethnicity is absolutely irrelevant, however its portrayal of backward, foreigners, needing American assistance, plants its perspective as being firmly of the view that the ‘west is the best’.
It certainly isn’t wholly simplistic. An opening montage succinctly lays out the geopolitical history of the region and sites oil as the driving force behind America’s involvement in the region and not ‘freedom’ as politicians suggest. And Foxx’s ‘local’ helper is a well-drawn character though ‘a sequence showing Al Ghazi’s family’s evening Salah in parallel Fluery phoning his son was almost cut from the film during the editing process’ (Miller, 2007, p. 63b) is evidence of Hollywood’s reluctance to humanise non-western characters. Because of the nature of international cinema it is rare that we get to see how other cultures represent both themselves and the west.
K.Miller (2007) ‘The Kingdom’, Sight & Sound, vol. 17, no. 7, November