In November 2001, George W Bushs at the White House met with studio heads to discuss how the entertainment industry could help in the war on terror. Twenty years later, Hollywood’s role in portraying the conflict remains unclear. The cinema should have been at the center of our perception of the consequences of September 11, but, in retrospect, the bad films outweigh the good ones.
The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, themselves imperfect in their premises and conduct, also revealed a lack of imagination and judgment on the part of American cinema. When Hollywood tried to tackle the problem seriously, it usually fell flat: Green Zone, Lions for Lambs, Redacted, Rendition, the list goes on. And when he dusted off his war film models, stories of military heroism were hard to pull from these messy, asymmetrical conflicts. The biggest commercial successes were well-focused stories that avoided asking tough questions: Mark Wahlbergs Lone Survivor (essentially a story of military defeat), or 12 Strong, or Clint Eastwoods, the shameless xenophobic American sniper. Even Kathryn Bigelow’s superiors Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty fell into this category: the former was narrow character study; the latter a Pyrrhic victory.
Worse, the efforts to rewrite tragedy as a farce: satires such as Brad Pitts War Machine, Tina Feys Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, and Bill Murrays Rock the Kasbah. Jokey caricature Josh Brolins Bush in W or Christian Bales Dick Cheney in Vice did not hold the architects of these wars to account either.
Much of it was missing any mention of the victims of those wars, or the point of view of the Iraqi and Afghan peoples. For this, it would be necessary to approach regional filmmakers such as Mohsen Makhmalbaf (Kandahar), his daughter Samira (At five o’clock in the afternoon), Bahman Ghobadi (Turtles can fly) and Siddiq Barmak (Osama, whose the theme of a girl disguised as a boy also appears in the Irish animation The Breadwinner).
The only area where American cinema has stepped up was documentaries, which have given us countless tales of Hollywood fictions moving away from reality, with the exposure of American programs of restitution, torture, deception and corruption, and the real human toll of these wars. A remarkable summary was Restrepo of the 2010s, who spent 15 months integrated with a platoon in a remote outpost in Afghanistan. Their experience is in turn terrifying and tedious. Few hearts and minds are won; many lives are lost. Prophetically, the film ends with the abandonment of the outpost by American forces.
It may be too early to judge. Most of the classic Vietnamese movies came after the war ended: Apocalypse Now, Platoon, Full Metal Jacket. Maybe a chapter is now closed with the fall of Kabul, we could get some honest assessments of the time, but let’s not hold our breath.
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