Trapped: The Iraq War Veteran on Film

Trapped: The Iraq War Veteran on Film

Like many members of the moviegoing public, I didn’t rush to see Home of the Brave (2006), In the Valley of Elah (2007), Redacted (2007), Grace Is Gone (2007), A Mighty Heart (2007), Badland (2007), or any of the other feature films that deal with the U.S.-led war in Iraq. Many of these films spent scant weeks in the theaters and made almost no money. Only In the Valley of Elah was praised by critics (mostly owing to Tommy Lee Jones’ performance) and did reasonably well at the box office, earning just over $6.5 million.

The war in Iraq has dragged on against popular expectations, and media accounts have varied little over the last few years, regularly reporting assassinations, roadside explosions, and car bombs in public places, among other dire developments that make any kind of success difficult to imagine. Sitting through a film about Iraq was not high on my list or, apparently, on anyone else’s, of things to do.

I don’t think that I avoided these films because of an “Iraq overdose,” as the documentary filmmaker Robert Greenwald suggests in an article by Mark Sells in MovieMaker magazine (Fall 2007). In the same article, Sells writes, “With 24/7 news coverage via the Internet, newspapers, magazines, radio, television, and even cell phones, never have so many media outlets been accessible in real time,” and so, he argues, Americans are “overexposed” to images of and stories about the war. But if the coverage is constant, the information it contains rarely varies. Avoidance requires a more complicated explanation than overexposure, especially when one looks not at the documentaries but at the fictional films about Iraq.

Documentaries have never been popular with the general public; fictional films, on the other hand, provide an opportunity for the emotional connection and nuanced interpretation that art can evoke from complicated historical events. The early proliferation of films about the Iraq war seems to indicate a desire on the part of filmmakers to illuminate this war and the experience of its soldiers—but there are flaws in the execution.

Several of the recent films deal with the struggles of soldiers returning home—a central cinematic theme after Vietnam. The Second World War also spawned a handful of films about the experience of veterans, notably The Best Years of Our Lives and, much later, Saving Private Ryan and Flags of Our Fathers, but the message then, after the “good war,” was decidedly different from what came after Vietnam. The Vietnam movies are infused with anger toward the war and the military in general, as well as with a kind of retrospective hopelessness. The first two films about Vietnam released in the United States after the war was over were Coming Home (1978) and The Deer Hunter (1979). Coming Home is a film dominated by veterans conflicted or downright r...