Films on War, Mideast Mostly Fall Flat at Box Office Many fall films explore conflict in the Middle East and U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. But so far, this spate of post-Sept. 11 films hasn't done very well at the box office.
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Films on War, Mideast Mostly Fall Flat at Box Office

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Films on War, Mideast Mostly Fall Flat at Box Office

Films on War, Mideast Mostly Fall Flat at Box Office

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELLE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michelle Norris.

Escapism isn't easy this fall, at least not if you go to the Cineplex. A trip to the movies is not entirely unlike watching television in your living room or, perhaps, even listening to a newscast on NPR. The theaters are full of movies that touch close to the times, with subjects such as terrorism, the Middle East, the war in Iraq. And whether the subject is torture, as in "Rendition"…

(Soundbite of movie "Rendition")

Mr. OMAR METWALLY (Actor): (As Anwar El-Ibrahimi) This is crazy. I want my clothes.

NORRIS: …or war policy, as in "Lions for Lambs"…

(Soundbite of movie "Lions for Lambs")

Mr. TOM CRUISE (Actor): (As Senator Jasper Irving) What I can't say is that this strategy has patience and determination at its core.

NORRIS: …or fallen soldiers, as in "The Valley of Elah"…

(Soundbite of movie "The Valley of Elah")

Ms. SUSAN SARANDON (Actress): (As Joan Deerfield) I need to be with my boy.

Mr. TOMMY LEE JONES (Actor): (As Hank Deerfield) There is nothing left.

NORRIS: …these movies do not seem to have audiences lining up at the box office.

Our film critic, Bob Mondello, is here in the studio to talk about what Hollywood was thinking when it turned this fall into an extension of the evening news. Hello, Bob.

BOB MONDELLO: Hello. Good to be here.

NORRIS: Now, let's, talk about these movies and their success at the box office. Critically acclaimed, but not drawing in large numbers.

MONDELLO: Some of them have been critically acclaimed, and I think that's part of the problem here. One picture did a lot of business, "The Kingdom." It's a straight-ahead war movie. It's a revenge drama about going over to Saudi Arabia and cleaning up an investigation of a terrorist act. The rest of them have been different. "Lions for Lambs" is really an argument about war policy, and it's done about $11 million so far. In "The Valley of Elah," is a kind of a depressing movie about a father looking for his son's body for the longest time. And that's done about $6 million. "Rendition," which is about sending someone overseas to be interrogated there has made about $9 million.

So next to those, "The Kingdom" at $47 million looks like a big hit. These are not huge numbers, obviously. This is not "Spiderman." Note as to how many people that means. $11 million is probably two million people, okay? So two million people went to see "Lions for Lambs." That's not bad, but it's not in the same league as most Tom Cruise movies.

NORRIS: What's motivating the directors and the studios to take on these subjects?

MONDELLO: Well, I think everybody expects Hollywood to deal with tough issues. And I, you know, they do it all the time and frequently in pictures that win Oscars. So I think the hope is that not only can you, sort of, put your feelings out there about all of these - and that's what movies really are about. They're about feelings. They're not about policy. It's not a good place to debate policy for the most part, but it is a good place to get the emotions out there.

NORRIS: Now, I asked, you know, what's motivating the studio and the directors because it's interesting, if you look back to the late '60s, early '70s and these very successful films about the Vietnam War experience. They were not contemporaneous. They were released. A lot of those successful movies were released…

MONDELLO: That's right.

NORRIS: …long after…

MONDELLO: Yeah, five or six years later.

NORRIS: …the soldiers had come home.

MONDELLO: Yeah. Or the ones that we remember, things like "Apocalypse Now" and "Platoon" and "Deer Hunter," all of which came out later. And if you think about the picture that came out during the war, when we were actually prosecuting the war in Vietnam, the big one was "The Green Berets," and that's a John Wayne movie.

(Soundbite of movie "The Green Berets")

Unidentified Woman: What would happen to me now?

Mr. JOHN WAYNE (Actor): (As Colonel Mike Kirby) You let me worry about that green beret. You're what this is all about.

MONDELLO: And it's, you know, I mean, it's very gung ho. It's about taking care of the situation over there because we're America and we're going to do that. And I think during the war in Vietnam, if you had questioned the motives of all of these, people who remembered World War II and how war movies went back then would have thought you were aiding and abetting the enemy. I think we're in a different place now.

NORRIS: So, what led to the - if we can just look back, when did those gates start to open up when we you the "Deer Hunter," "Apocalypse Now" coming home?

MONDELLO: Well, that was - it was actually the late 1970s. So it was well after our part in the fighting in Vietnam had ended. And a lot of people were back and were sort of deconstructing what had happened. There were a lot of veterans who would come back and who were clearly not happy. And there was a lot of feeling about what had happened and trying to get your head around it. I think what's interesting about this particular push right now is that we're trying to get our heads around it while it's still going on.

Hollywood is grappling with the issues, and what they're - what they seem to be doing mostly is to deal with the fact that these are complex issues, that this is not easy answer stuff. That's kind of adventuresome and bold in a way, but it is also the kind of thing that leads to a picture that is not necessarily satisfying in the sense that we - that Hollywood has led us to expect.

NORRIS: And again, you know, looking back, it seems that Hollywood was sort of working through those issues, at least with regard to Vietnam for several years, because if you, sort of, reach beyond the late 1970s and the '80s, you then saw "Platoon" and "Full Metal Jacket" and older films.

MONDELLO: (Unintelligible). Well - and it's not like this is going away anytime soon. I mean, in December, for the holidays, we're getting "Grace is Gone," which is about a husband who has to tell his daughters that their mother has been killed in Iraq. "The Kite Runner," which is about Afghanistan and rescuing children from the Taliban. There's "Charlie Wilson's War" is coming out soon, which is about getting into Afghanistan in the first place. So this whole theme is not going to go away anytime soon.

NORRIS: But if these - films that are in the pipeline are following films that deal with war and terrorism and Middle East policy, that have not been successful, how does - especially as we go on to this peak movie season, how did the studios turn to market those films?

MONDELLO: Well, you'll note that one of those pictures, the most high-profile of them, is "Charlie Wilson's War." That's a movie that is about the 1970s. It's about the - a historical event and that is, traditionally, how Hollywood deals with it. In fact, if you look back at the Vietnam era and you look at the kinds of war movies that were made - being made during that period, they weren't about Vietnam. There were things like "Tora! Tora! Tora!" and films about World War II. It's easier to look at older wars and draw conclusions from them than it is to deal with what's there right now.

NORRIS: Bob Mondello, always good to talk to you. And happy Thanksgiving.

MONDELLO: Why, thank you. And to you.

NORRIS: That was our film critic, Bob Mondello.

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