From The Hurt Locker to American Sniper: how Hollywood tried to tackle the Iraq war

The backdrop was a bummer, too much. Boal and Bigelow were making an explicitly anti-war film, focused on exciting and visceral on-the-ground experiences. It didn’t matter that it put their careers at risk, they weren’t concerned about politicians. The Hurt Locker was a rudderless, perilous, borderline endeavor, a nihilistic portrayal of the war in Iraq. The vacuum of power filled with chaos, a growing insurgency and violent sectarian spasms, would indefinitely continue the minor combat operations. The dramatic events of the invasion were declared as a major accomplishment with President George W. Bush flying on an aircraft carrier with a banner that said “Mission Accomplished,” and Saddam Hussein’s regime was toppled within a few months in Baghdad’s Firdos Square. Americans simply didn’t want to hear about the war, even after five years.

After making little money with the Twilight movies, Lionsgate distributed and independently produced The Hurt Locker, which was the first film to truly engage the mind in the ongoing conflict of the 21st century. Despite the pessimistic perspective on the risk-averse studios and their addiction to IP, there is a reason to be optimistic about the costs of war. Films like Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, Casualties of War, The Deer Hunter, and even the major Hollywood films about Vietnam were well-received after the urgency of the war. Even after 20 years, the cinematic history of the Iraq war began.

Bradley Cooper in American Sniper. Photograph: Keith Bernstein/Warner Bros/Allstar

Relationship between father and son was damaged as a result of the unfortunate collateral damage caused by the Iraq war. Through the lens of Stone’s film, people might have expected a broadside from a left-wing perspective, but instead, they were presented with a surprisingly sympathetic portrait of a leader, Nixon, who turned out to be more like Stone’s own disillusionment as a war veteran. Born on the Fourth of July and Platoon, which reflected his father’s scores, Stone made an improbable rise from a hard-drinking, wayward, mediocre failson to a two-term president. W, which folded the larger story of George W Bush’s life into the Iraq war, was Oliver Stone’s 2008 biopic. The first of the notable exceptions was W, which was Stone’s depiction of how we got into this mess, focusing more on the decidedly unheroic and murky issues rather than the individual traumas and heroics that many films like The Hurt Locker kept.

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Hollywood could never look squarely in the eye of war. Vice is a film about the blackest marks on Cheney’s and Bush’s record, and it is still more about the presidential privilege than a documentary. But McKay, at least, is engaged with the dangers of unchecked executive power, which allows presidents to engineer wars like Iraq and keep the complex military-industrial humming along without an exit strategy. Another time, sobered up from his drinking problem, Cheney argued with Dick, another wayward Ivy Leaguer, to masterfully puppet play Bush through the various disasters of Iraq. Vice, Adam McKay’s semi-satirical biopic, spent less time on Iraq than W but still highlights the dangers of executive power.

The film’s eagerness to print the legend rather than address the troubling bullet points of Kyle’s résumé made it palatable enough, but it was still more of a grunt’s-eye view of the agonies and combat of coming home rather than a workable solution. One distinguishing feature of the war films focused on the soldiers themselves was their greater understanding of the post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic stress disorder than previous generations openly processed. Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper was a bona fide smash hit because it could be said that Chris Kyle, the Navy Seal subject of the film, notched over 160 kills during his four tours in Iraq. However, the measure of the human cost of Kyle’s struggles to adjust to civilian life does not come from Eastwood’s résumé, but rather from the fact that another suffering veteran was killed by him afterwards. The film’s eagerness to print the legend rather than address the troubling bullet points of Kyle’s résumé made it palatable enough, but it was still more of a grunt’s-eye view of the agonies and combat of coming home rather than a workable solution.

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John Cusack in Grace is Gone. Photograph: The Weinstein Company/Sportsphoto/Allstar

Grace is like Gone, a widower (John Cusack) who loses his wife in Iraq and needs to reconstitute his family life around his two young daughters. He reunites with his old squad buddies, veteran Vietnam Flying Flag Last (Steve Carell) and Bryan Cranston (Laurence Fishburne), to help bury his son who died in the latest open-ended, inexplicable war. It somehow had become a tradition in their family to serve the country, and it wasn’t worthy of their sacrifices. The Flying Flag Last is an underrated Richard Linklater’s film, which stands out from other dramas just outside the chipped system of the studio margins.

The renowned director Errol Morris told a comprehensive story about the moral decay and devastation caused by war in his documentaries Known Unknown (2013) and Standard Operating Procedure (2008). However, he also planted the seeds of failure in the earliest stages of the Operation Iraqi Freedom, which is depicted in the limited seven-part series Kill Generation on HBO. This is not just a film, but the best American drama about the Iraq war that ended up being a television show.

Failure: When you have no accountability or rationale for the mistakes you’ve made, there is another word for that type of success. Critics complained that Rumsfeld, the sly fox of the Pentagon press room, had succeeded in giving nothing. If Rumsfeld, the chief architect of the Vietnam War and former Secretary of Defense, talks about Donald Rumsfeld, who shares none of the introspection and smirks his way through parsed phrases to cover his mistakes in a rhetorical fog, then this is the time. In his 2003 portrait of Robert McNamara, the former Secretary of Defense and chief architect of the Vietnam War, he investigated the notorious photographs taken at Abu Ghraib prison, throwing cold water on the idea of limited display of a few “bad apples” and the ghoulish torture and cruelty.

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