War Is Hell (at the Box Office)

A huge number of war-related films have come out in 2007, and the public’s response has been resounding: We do not wish to see war-related films.

Actually, I should be more specific. It is only films about Iraq and the War on Terror that the public does not want to see. The public is more than happy to see films about wars involving giant space robots that turn into cars. “In fact, we’d like more of those movies!” is an exact quote from the public.

But when it comes to movies about Iraq, Afghanistan, and terrorism, the bombs have been bursting in theaters. “In the Valley of Elah,” “Lions for Lambs,” “A Mighty Heart,” “No End in Sight,” and “Rendition” all tanked, none of them grossing more than $14 million. “The Kingdom” did better ($48 million), but it was oriented more toward solving crimes and blowing things up than ruminating on the war. It even had tanks, which meant there was a slight chance one of them could turn into a giant space robot.

The conservative commentators who dominate talk radio and the cable news networks have offered a very simple explanation for all these war movies flopping: The American public is tired of liberal Hollywood pushing its anti-war, anti-Bush agenda. But there are two problems with that explanation. One, not all of the movies are actually anti-war and anti-Bush; two, even if they were, at this point so are most Americans. You’d think they’d be flocking to see movies that express opinions they agree with.

It’s all very frustrating for filmmakers, and so I started thinking. I’m very interested in becoming a Hollywood tycoon. How can I make a movie about the war in Iraq that millions of moviegoers would pay to see? Here’s what I decided my movie will need.

1. A happy ending. The problem with all the Iraq movies is that they’re such downers. “It’s going so poorly!” “It’s destroying our young men and women!” “It’s a never-ending quagmire that has diminished America’s standing in the eyes of the world and will ultimately cost us trillions of dollars while essential programs here at home remain underfunded!” Blah blah blah. My Iraq movie will have troops restoring law and order to the streets of Baghdad, and it will end with Osama bin Laden exploding after a live grenade is shoved down his throat by a soldier wearing an Uncle Sam costume. The soldier will be played by Jack Bauer.

2. No politics. Holy crap, nothing bores an audience faster than longwinded conversations about politics. In my Iraq movie, there will be no scenes set in Washington, D.C. A couple of politicians will show up in Baghdad to see what’s going on, but they will immediately be taken out by snipers. It doesn’t even matter whose side the snipers are on. The important thing is that there will be no discussion of exit strategies, moral imperatives, or hearts and minds.

3. Giant space robots that turn into cars. This is easy. I’ll have our military’s tanks turn into giant robots, and the insurgents’ guns will also turn into robots, and then the robots will punch each other and deliver a lot of clever one-liners on the order of “I’ve got you between Iraq and a hard place!” It is conceivable that one of the robots will be a lady robot with enormous breasts and the voice of Angelina Jolie, but only if we can integrate it seamlessly into the story without seeming forced.

4. Oh, and pirates.

5. A simplified version of the issues. Another problem with the Iraq situation is that it’s kind of hard to follow. For one thing, did you know that there are two kinds of Muslims? There totally are! After all these years of hearing on talk radio that we’re just supposed to hate and/or fear “Muslims” in general, now it turns out there are different kinds! And who are these “insurgents” we keep hearing about, and what made them hate us so much? Ugh, so many questions, and the answers are complicated, often involving foreign words. So in my movie, it will be simplified: Our guys will shoot anyone who speaks Arabic.

I anticipate this film grossing $300 million domestic, more if I succeed in getting Michael Bay to “direct” it (Directors Guild of America bylaws stipulate the quotation marks when referring to Michael Bay’s work). I’m pretty sure Nickelback is already on board for the soundtrack, and I’ve got Ian McKellen to provide the voice of one of the giant robots. Watch for it in summer 2009 — unless the war is over by then, but I’m not too concerned about that.

This column contains elements of two different pieces that I wrote for Film.com that were never used. One was a more or less non-comedic analysis of why most war movies have failed at the box office this year; the other was the more satiric "how to make an Iraq film that people will see" concept. Eventually my editor, despite having assigned me the topic in the first place, decided the whole thing was too politically perilous for our readers, who come to Film.com for film commentary and not politics. Not that I'm complaining: I still got paid for it, and I get to repurpose it here. Everybody wins!

If you're interested, here's what I said about why the war movies have failed:

To figure out why five of these movies bombed, we have to look at the one that succeeded -- "The Kingdom." It has big stars (Jamie Foxx, Jennifer Garner), and it's action-oriented. But more importantly, its story emphasizes the things about America that many of us admire. Terrorists attack a U.S. compound in Saudi Arabia, and we immediately respond by sending our top professionals, C.S.I.-ing the evidence, finding the bad guys, and making them pay. It's what America has traditionally done very well.

Granted, the movie ends by making the point that fighting violence with violence will probably just lead to more violence. But it's easy to overlook that, especially if you're enjoying the feel-good moment of seeing good kill evil. Consider the way audiences reacted to "The Brave One," cheering at the climax even though the film had made it overwhelmingly clear that getting revenge would be a bad thing for Jodie Foster. Who cares about the message when there are bullets being fired into bad guys!

This suggests to me that while most Americans may be fed up with Bush and the war, they don't necessarily want to see movies that echo those sentiments. They want escapism. They want movies where Bush-ish cowboy maneuvers save the day, where America's strength and determination win out. They want to believe that America can sweep in and solve any problem, nobly and with integrity.

During the Depression, people didn't flock to movies about poor people. They ate up glossy musicals set in a parallel universe where nobody had money problems. The same attitude holds today. After all, who do you think defeated those giant space robots? America, that's who.

The day this ran, I got an e-mail from someone named Andy, calling himself a "former subscriber," who had this to say:
Sorry Eric,

Not intrested in your politics. One too many "I've got serious things to say" pieces. I just can't take geo-politics from a guy who piles on teenage girls who like hor-sees.


Peace out, Craker

I assume he's referring to the incident of Amber the Horse Girl.

I don't know if he's calling me a cracker (or "craker"?), or if he's signing his own name there. If it were the latter, "Craker"? would probably be on the next line, not the same line as the "Peace out." Then again, maybe all bets are off when dealing with someone who calls you (or himself) "Craker."

As always in these cases, "I don't come here to read your politics" probably means "I don't agree with your politics." Which is totally fine. Can we agree on Amber the Horse Girl, though? That was some funny shiz.