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Hollywood's New Battle Tactic: Make War Personal

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Hollywood's New Battle Tactic: Make War Personal

Movies

Hollywood's New Battle Tactic: Make War Personal

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Earlier this week, "The Hurt Locker," about a bomb squad in Iraq, won the Academy Award for Best Picture. Today, "Green Zone," a thriller set in war-torn Baghdad, opens in theaters. And on Sunday, HBO begins a 10-part World War II series called "The Pacific." Bob Mondello says, in case you had any doubt, the war movie is back.

BOB MONDELLO: Two years ago, war flicks had Hollywood feeling pretty embattled. The combined star power of Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep and Robert Redford couldn't make "Lions for Lambs" roar at the box office. The public barely noticed when Tommy Lee Jones got lost "In the Valley of Elah," and "Redacted," "Stop Loss" and "Rendition" were all on DVD before audiences quite realized that they had been in theaters.

And since then, Hollywood has green-lighted so many new Iraq flicks that this year you could trace the war's whole history at the Oscars. Best Original Screenplay nominee "In the Loop" showed comic bureaucrats getting us into a Middle Eastern conflict.

(Soundbite of film, "In the Loop")

Unidentified Person #1: (As character) Twelve.

Unidentified Person #2: (As character) Thousand.

Mr. JAMES GANDOLFINI (Actor): (Lieutenant General George Miller) That's so you know they're going to die. And at the end of the war you need some soldiers left, really, or else it looks like you've lost.

MONDELLO: Then Best Picture winner, "The Hurt Locker," gave us war's adrenaline rush.

(Soundbite of film, "The Hurt Locker)

Unidentified Man #1: (As character) Why is Eldridge running?

Unidentified Man #2: (As character) Drop the phone.

(Soundbite of shouting)

Unidentified Man #3: (As character) I can't get a shot.

MONDELLO: And in "The Messenger," Supporting Actor nominee Woody Harrelson brought home the aftermath of war by delivering sad news to soldiers' next of kin.

(Soundbite of film, "The Messenger")

Mr. WOODY HARRELSON (Actor): (As Captain Tony Stone) You never want to park too close. They hear a car park, go to the window, see two soldiers getting out, it's just a minute of torture.

MONDELLO: Despite the year-end honors, none of these films caused much shock and awe at the box office. But by compartmentalizing, by focusing narrowly on personal stories within the Iraq conflict, rather than being conventional battle-strategy movies, they did suggest a change in Hollywood's battle strategy.

Today's premiere of the $100 million action flick "Green Zone" will test how far that strategy can take a film commercially. "Green Zone" stars Matt Damon as a soldier racing around Baghdad in 2003 looking for the weapons of mass destruction that were the Bush administration's chief argument for going to war.

(Soundbite of film, "Green Zone")

Unidentified Man #4: (As character) Use the book and trade up and get some help.

Unidentified Man #5: (As character) What are you talking about?

Unidentified Man #4: Jerry, why the (BEEP) do we keep coming up empty on all these sites? There has got to be a reason.

Unidentified Man #6: (As character) Chief, we're here to do a job and get home safe. That's all. The reasons don't matter.

Unidentified Man #4: They matter to me.

MONDELLO: Director Paul Greengrass and his "Bourne Conspiracy" team don't really care if they matter to the audience, as long as everyone gets caught up in the suspense. "Green Zone" is essentially a series of frantic chase sequences a Bourne movie with an Iraqi accent.

(Soundbite of film, "Green Zone")

Unidentified Man #7: (As character) (Unintelligible)

Unidentified Man #8: (As character) (Speaking foreign language)

MONDELLO: This action-flick approach is designed to avoid the ideological divide that has made the Iraq war and before it, the war in Vietnam so hard to handle cinematically, at least until everyone comes home. If "Green Zone" works and audiences rent "Hurt Locker" because of its big Oscar win, Hollywood may just have figured this one out.

HBO, on the other hand, has chosen to fight a different and dramatically, a safer war in its 10-part series "The Pacific," following a group of Marines from Guadalcanal to the end of their service in World War II.

(Soundbite of TV show, "The Pacific")

Unidentified Man #9 (Actor): (As character) When we move, do not stop. The entire division is moving across the airfield.

MONDELLO: With 10 hours to establish characters and a whole different narrative rhythm, "The Pacific" resembles in its breadth and sweep, the sort of old-fashioned war epic Hollywood used to do on the big screen filled with maps and mud and harrowing reenactments of battles that turned the tide.

Though it centers on the true stories of a few Marines, it's designed to tell the story of tens of thousands of their comrades, much as did the 1980s mini-series "Winds of War" and "War and Remembrance," and 2001's "Band of Brothers."

(Soundbite of TV show, "The Pacific")

Unidentified Man #10: (As character) History is full of wars fought for a hundred reasons. But this war, our war, I want to believe I have to believe that it's all worthwhile because our cause is just.

MONDELLO: The sureness of that sentiment, regarding perhaps the last war where right and wrong seemed absolutely clear, gives this World War II story a force that portraits of contemporary conflicts are bound to have trouble matching.

"The Pacific" is not without nuance American troops are shown behaving savagely at times in ways no one could be proud of. In an Iraq war movie, that would almost certainly be read as an indictment of the military, but at a remove of more than half a century, it seems more about war itself, what war's brutality does to individuals.

Too much of that sort of nuance might well prove fatal to an action movie like "Green Zone," but somehow it doesn't dampen "The Pacific's" impact. The immediacy of battle is what war movies always promise, but distance has its advantages.

I'm Bob Mondello.

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