More than six years after American troops landed in Iraq, movies about that conflict are having their moment. Until now, American audiences had largely been staying away from the major movies about it, whether because of conflict fatigue, mixed reviews, or brighter, louder distractions. But with the 2009 release of In the Loop, the war’s first satire, and the growing financial success of Kathryn Bigelow’s fierce, beautiful action movie, The Hurt Locker, movies about American involvement in Iraq are finally hitting their creative stride. And now, with this week’s release of G.I. Joe, audiences are preparing to shell out a fortune on a movie that is, however tenuous the connection, in part about what happens to soldiers after their wars are over.
Those lamenting how long it’s taken for Iraq movies to find success may be forgetting that it took a while for directors to find their way into iconic Vietnam War movies too. It wasn’t until 13 years after ground troops arrived in Vietnam that movies about that conflict started winning Academy Awards (The Deer Hunter and Coming Home split the major honors in 1978). And it wasn’t until another decade after that that a movie even nominally about the Vietnam War, Rambo: First Blood II, made more than $100 million at U.S. box offices.
The early movies made about both wars have not lacked for action, dramatic storylines, or star quality. But measured by the extent to which these movies have succeed in conveying substantive messages about the themes they’ve taken as their subject, they’ve varied widely in their effectiveness.
OFFICERS AT WAR
One of the starkest contrasts between early Vietnam and early Iraq movies has been in their portrayals of high-ranking officers.
The first actor to take up a Vietnam command on-screen was John Wayne, who, offended by the liberal opposition to the war, donned a uniform and portrayed Col. Mike Kirby in The Green Berets (1968). As Kirby, Wayne threw his weight around, condescended to liberal American journalists, and beat Northern Vietnamese captives, saying things like, “Out here due process is a bullet.” Much of the movie’s plot is sheer nonsense – involving a contrived spy mission, a bloody village massacre, and an Asian child whose broken English is meant to be comic relief. Though the movie’s intention was to express support for the war, the only actual idea that it succeeded in getting across is that toughness is admirable.
Contrast this with Armando Iannucci’s 2009 Iraq War movie, In the Loop, in which James Gandolfini plays an officer who is far less certain about his role, and as a result, far more interesting. As General George Miller, Gandolfini is a shambling, desk-bound giant who hoovers containers of Chinese food, tabulates potential casualties on a pink plastic calculator in a child's bedroom, and enters the movie via someone else’s hand groping him at a party. Though Miller vociferously opposes the war, which he believes is advancing on the back of unsound intelligence, he is depicted as tortured over the question of whether to do the principled thing and resign.
“Before there was a war, I was going to resign—now that there’s a war, I can’t resign,” he tells a diplomat at one point in a flailing, self-loathing and self-aware speech. “I owe it to the kids…It’s intolerable, but I’m going to have to tolerate it.”
The ideas animating this movie are at an altogether different level of sophistication from that of Green Berets. Explaining his thinking behind In the Loop, Iannucci says he considered it “the stuff of comedy to see big men reduced to acting small, and the stuff of tragedy to draw on the example of the likes of Colin Powell who allowed his old soldier's sense of loyalty to the Commander in Chief to get the better of his own heart and head.”
SOLDIERS COMING HOME
Of course, Wayne’s Kirby and Gandolfini’s Miller are unusual – not so much in their politics or their acting, but because of their ranks: in both Vietnam and Iraq movies, the protagonists have more typically been the ordinary men doing the actual fighting. And perhaps the most popular way of looking at these ordinary soldiers has been by contrasting their experiences overseas with the worlds they found upon returning home.
In one early Vietnam-era example, The Ballad of Andy Crocker (produced by Aaron Spelling and broadcast by ABC as a possible pilot for a television series about a soldier in Vietnam), the war is visible only in a short battle sequence at the beginning of the movie. The film’s titular soldier is returning to Texas with a medal but no particular impression of the conflict he’s spent three years fighting. Far more vivid to Andy are the memories of his girlfriend, Lisa, and of his beloved motorcycle track. But Andy finds that Lisa is pregnant and married to another man, his business partner has sold his business out from under him, and no one wants to race anymore—they’re too busy making money. After a fight with his duplicitous partner, a flight from the cops on a stolen motorcycle, and a brief visit to an old Army buddy played by Marvin Gaye, Andy realizes that he has less place in the America to which he’s returned than he did in Vietnam. The movie ends with him curled in the fetal position on a curb outside an Oakland recruiting station, waiting for it to open so he can reenlist.
Compared with the Vietnam movies of the late 1970’s and ‘80s, Andy Crocker offers a fairly gentle vision of both Vietnam and American society. Andy drinks, but not to excess, and gets in a fist-fight but doesn’t kill or permanently injure anyone. There’s no implication that the war has brutalized Andy, and while going back to Vietnam is his option of last resort, it’s not portrayed as a terrifying or dishonorable decision. The trials of his return home are a far cry from those portrayed in movies like The Deer Hunter, and there’s no hint of the horrors of war depicted in late-1980’s Vietnam movies like Platoon, Full Metal Jacket or Hamburger Hill.
Nearly forty years later, in the Iraq war movie Stop-Loss (2008), the central character Brandon King is, like Andy Crocker, a decorated veteran coming home to Texas. But for him, the problem is not that he can’t figure out how to reestablish himself in civilian life, but that the military won’t let him begin the process. He has fulfilled the complete term of his service contract, yet the military renews it against his wishes. Like Andy, Brandon gets into a fight, steals a car, and runs off with another man’s girl, but unlike Andy, he at least has a sense of purpose: he is headed to Washington to ask for help from the Senator who welcomed him home, then to New York to seek out a lawyer who has helped stop-lossed soldiers establish new identities and flee the military
But while Stop-Loss is unflinching in depicting the damage inflicted by the war on Brandon and his compatriots, at the last minute the movie backs away from bold commentary on the war that informed the movie’s first two hours when Brandon decides to go back to war. Unlike Andy, Brandon at least ends the movie sitting upright, putting on a brave face for his mother.
By far the finest, most vividly shot, and tensest film made about the Iraq war is The Hurt Locker (2008), which, in contrast to both Andy Crocker and Stop-Loss, spends comparatively little time in America. Most of the movie follows Staff Sergeant William James, a masterful defuser of Improvised Explosive Devices, the unique scourge of the conflict, who seems entirely inured to the astonishing danger of his work. He dons—and shucks off—a futuristic bomb suit, but leaves his hands exposed so that he can better pick through the complex wiring of the explosives he confronts. William addresses bombs as “baby,” keeps a picture of his infant son under his bed in a milk crate full of fuses, and lights up an almost postcoital cigarette, declaring “that was good,” after disabling a particularly tricky device.
When Will’s tour of duty is up, he returns home to a wife who is entirely uninterested in listening to him, and a house where the greatest risk to his hands are the cold leaves he clears from a clogged gutter. “You love everything,” Will tells his son as they play with a jack-in-the-box. “And maybe, by the time you get to be my age, maybe it’s only one or two things.” Will, who looked out of place in an American supermarket, ends the movie striding off towards yet another bomb in the shimmering Iraqi heat, a faint but definitive smile on his face: he is finally at home.
Far more than the everyman soldiers Andy Crocker and Brandon King, Will James is portrayed as a unique personality -- as compelling and vexing to his teammates in the military as he is to the audiences. Of the three, he is the only soldier who actively wants to return to war, and yet, intriguingly, his desire to do so is depicted as being in service to no cause or country.
One of the more outlandish categories of movie to have made appearances in both the Vietnam and Iraq eras is what might be called the “soldier-gone-renegade-hero” narrative.
One Vietnam-era example is 1970’s The Losers – a supremely odd, low-grossing movie (it made only $350,000) about a group of five Hell’s Angels fighting and womanizing their way through Vietnamese bars, outfitting cheap motorcycles with military-grade weaponry, and doing a job the U.S. Army can’t, even as it regards them as castoffs. It’s the early Vietnam movie most willing to acknowledge the flaws in the American military and American society.
The movie portrays its lead characters not as types, but as complicated men. Link, the gang’s leader, is a shown to be a disciplined, principled man, and an articulate advocate for rebellion against American conformism – despite being a convicted rapist. Likewise, Captain Jackson, the soldier who oversees the clandestine operation, is shown to be highly competent and unafraid to confront racism. Yet he abandoned his Vietnamese girlfriend and the child he had with her. Duke, who bitterly tells Jackson at the beginning of the movie that he came to Vietnam because “I’m a full-blooded American boy, Captain. A good citizen and all that crap,” still believes in the American ideal enough to risk his life to try to bring a Vietnamese peasant woman he loves back home with him. The only true caricature in the movie is a C.I.A. agent, a supercilious former prosecutor who once sent Link to prison and who is trying to extend the war to Cambodia.
The Losers may be a campy and cheap-looking movie (the blood the men shed is no color found in nature) but, unlike other early Vietnam movies like The Ballad of Andy Crocker, it is also unafraid to make strong statements. In the movie’s opening sequence, a group of American soldiers dies in a forest ambush, and the movie’s title is superimposed over their dead bodies in a grim judgment. In the final scene, the soldiers who brought the bikers to Vietnam kill some of them. The movie’s clear point is that both soldiers and civilians will be among the casualties of Vietnam, and that they are victims of a government at cross purposes with itself.
No such high-minded messages can be attributed to this summer’s G.I. Joe, which tells the tale of pair of U.S. soldiers who abandon their original allegiances in favor of membership in a secret international military organization that gives them cool toys and lets them chase after hot babes. I had believed that it was impossible to make a stupider, uglier, and more incoherent movie about the American military than Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. G.I. Joe’s sole virtue is that it proved me wrong. The movie steals ideas from a wide range of other sources, including giant drills used to nefarious ends from The Incredibles; a plot to establish peace through fascism from the movie and graphic novel Watchmen; and a scheme to switch a body double for the President from the Bond parody movie In Like Flint.
Billing itself as a vision of our not-so-distant future, it uses a series of flashbacks to introduce its lead characters, Channing Tatum and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, in roles similar in their essentials to the ones they played in Stop-Loss. Tatum is Duke, an outstanding soldier, and Gordon-Levitt is Rex, a man shattered both mentally and physically by combat after Duke failed to protect him.
In a recent review, Variety compared Dennis Quaid’s performance as the general in charge of the G.I. Joe unit to that of John Wayne in The Green Berets. And it’s true that the movie could be seen, in its way, as The Green Berets of the Iraq War. Like Green Berets, it has a large budget, an appreciation for air power, and yes, even a subplot involving Asian children that’s entirely extraneous to the flow of the narrative (in so much as one can be said to exist). G.I. Joe also shares with Green Berets the conviction that in war only the bad or extraneous people die, and that the military best operates without oversight or checks from the outside world.
As evidenced by the nuance and sophistication of many of the movies made thus far about Iraq, a number of contemporary moviemakers have learned key lessons from the best of the movies made about Vietnam during that war’s first six year. But not in every case. As the contrast between The Losers and G.I. Joe makes clear, directors today risk succumbing to the temptations of the advanced techniques at their disposal. Indeed, just because you have the technology to put soldiers in super-suits and stage underwater battles doesn’t mean you should.
Sometimes it doesn’t matter if the blood is clearly fake, so long as audiences can tell that the ideas are real.