Six years after the Sept. 11 attacks, the war on terror is coming to the big screen in a wave of films that examine severe U.S. tactics, troubled homecomings for U.S. veterans and the conflicts faced by troops hurled into urban warfare in Iraq.
Among the offerings at the Toronto International Film Festival: Paul Haggis’ “In the Valley of Elah,” which opens Friday and stars Tommy Lee Jones, Charlize Theron and Susan Sarandon in a murder mystery set among U.S. soldiers newly returned from Iraq; Brian De Palma’s “Redacted,” centered on the troops, the media and Iraqis near a U.S. checkpoint in Samarra; Nick Broomfield’s “Battle for Haditha,” a dramatization of a massacre of Iraqis by U.S. forces that followed a fatal roadside bombing; and Gavin Hood’s “Rendition,” with Reese Witherspoon, Jake Gyllenhaal and Meryl Streep in the story of an American woman seeking answers over the disappearance of her Egyptian-born husband, a terrorism suspect imprisoned and tortured because U.S. authorities suspect him of involvement in a terrorist bombing.
Initially, the repercussions of the Sept. 11 aftermath largely were left to documentarians. With a few more years of perspective, though, dramatizations are coming to theaters that chronicle the state of our post-Sept. 11 world.
“It takes a few years to build these kind of films that are based on personal stories,” Witherspoon said in an interview at the Toronto festival. “I don’t think you can see what the human perspective, the human reverberations are until you’ve had a little time. Now we’re in a place where we’re starting to see what the human fallout is.”
Other upcoming films dealing with the war on terrorism include “The Kingdom,” starring Jamie Foxx and Jennifer Garner as members of a U.S. team tracking the mastermind of a bombing in Saudi Arabia; “Grace Is Gone,” with John Cusack as a dad who must tell his daughters their military mother has been killed in Iraq; and “Lions for Lambs,” with Robert Redford directing himself, Tom Cruise and Streep in a drama touched off by U.S. military action in Afghanistan.
The roots of the turmoil in Afghanistan also are the backdrop for Mike Nichols’ “Charlie Wilson’s War,” starring Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts in the story of Americans who shaped the U.S. response to the Soviet invasion there; and Marc Forster’s “The Kite Runner,” about an Afghan man who emigrated to America and returns home to help the son of a childhood friend.
Such dramas can carry an emotional wallop lacking in documentaries about the war on terrorism or mainstream media coverage, filmmakers and actors say.
“You can ask all the good questions in a drama in immediately accessible, emotional terms,” said “In the Valley of Elah” star Jones. “You’re watching a story. You get involved in the story. You get to know the characters. You might relate it to your own experience or that of your neighbor or that of your neighbor’s son. So all of the good questions become personal in a way that doesn’t necessarily leap off the pages of the newspaper.”
“Film usually focuses on the micro of the macro, and the news presents the macro,” said Brad Pitt, a producer on “A Mighty Heart,” this summer’s drama that starred his romantic partner, Angelina Jolie, as the wife of journalist Daniel Pearl, who was abducted and slain in Pakistan. “I would think it could bring empathy to it and a little more understanding. Because you sit with it for an hour and a half, you hopefully have a little more understanding of the dynamics at play.”
“In the Valley of Elah” director Haggis said filmmakers dealing with Iraq and the war on terror are picking up where the first wave of films about Vietnam — “Apocalypse Now,” “The Deer Hunter” and “Coming Home” — left off.
“There’s a freedom I think that we got from the folks who made the films about Vietnam. We started learning from that, and we’re standing on their shoulders,” Haggis said. “I think if the nightly news was doing its job, we wouldn’t have to do some of these films. Because we aren’t getting the news of what’s truly happening to our men and women.”
A drama such as “Rendition” might help to put a human face on an issue such as the detention of suspects without criminal charges or legal representation, “Rendition” director Hood said.
“We’re trying to give people a visceral experience of this and say, ‘I’m confused, I’m angry, I’m emotional. I’m not sure what I think. I need to know more,”’ Hood said. “Maybe our little movie will just be part of what is already becoming an important debate.”