Saturday, March 29, 2008

War movie and rumors of war movie

America fights its wars on the battlefield and refights them in the movies. Two motion pictures — one at a theater near you right now, one that Hollywood is developing faster than usual — will take on the story of the war in Iraq, both the human consequences of America's being there and one of those responsible for our being there in the first place.

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In “Stop-Loss,” which opened on Friday, a decorated Iraq war veteran, Sgt. Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe), rotates back to his Texas hometown ready to start the process of decompression and return to his old life. But the U.S. Army calls him back to active service by invoking the military’s “stop-loss” policy, by which, according to the law itself, “the President may suspend any provision of law relating to promotion, retirement, or separation applicable to any member of the armed forces who the President determines is essential to the national security of the United States.”

King faces a conflict of loyalties — family or country? — as he challenges the redeployment back to a war he thought was personally over. The sergeant’s dilemma is symbolic of that faced by the thousands of American soldiers who have faced the stop-loss policy in real life.

While stop-loss has gained recent attention related to the war in Iraq, it’s a policy that’s been used before. Wikipedia reports that the practice was first significantly used just before and during the first Persian Gulf War, and was invoked during American military deployments to Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s, and after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

It’s anyone guess how “Stop-Loss” will ultimately be received. Initial reviews on Rotten Tomatoes have been 61 percent positive. In a review on the Internet Movie Database, E Canuck of Vancouver, Canada, called it “a ‘Deer Hunter’ for the Iraq war.”

“There is enough humanity, good drama and strong acting in this picture that it may deserve a place in the lineup of memorable or important American war films,” E Canuck said.

The film was directed by Kimberly Peirce, who helmed the powerful Oscar winner “Boys Don’t Cry” (1999), but there’s no absolute A-list actor powering its cast, and given the subject there’s likely to be as much attention paid to the film’s controversial premise as to the film itself.

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That won’t be the case for “W,” the film being developed by Oscar winner Oliver Stone, and currently fast-tracked for release before President Bush leaves office in January — possibly as soon as November. The film is described as a look at the “formative years” of George Bush and during his presidency, and the character traits that led Bush and his advisers to launch the war in Iraq.

Daily Variety reported March 26 that some of the film’s casting had been secured. Josh Brolin is rumored to have been cast in the role of President Bush, while James Cromwell has signed on to star as George H.W. Bush (#41). Ellen Burstyn will be Barbara Bush, mother of President Bush, and Elizabeth Banks, star of “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” will portray first lady Laura Bush. Production is set to start in Shreveport, La., on April 21.

Stone has been no friend of the Bush administration, and with his track record of films that take a revisionist view of recent American history (see “JFK” and “Nixon”), some are expecting a cinematic indictment of Bush and his policies, an angry one-sided farewell to the 43rd president.

For his part, Stone promises a thoughtful, balanced view. “It's a behind-the-scenes approach, similar to 'Nixon,' to give a sense of what it's like to be in his skin,” Stone told Daily Variety in January. “But if 'Nixon' was a symphony, this is more like a chamber piece and not as dark in tone.”

“People have turned my political ideas into a cliche, but that is superficial. I'm a dramatist who is interested in people, and I have empathy for Bush as a human being, much the same as I did for Castro, Nixon, Jim Morrison, Jim Garrison and Alexander the Great.”

Stone told Daily Variety that "W" would be “a fair, true portrait of the man. How did Bush go from being an alcoholic bum to the most powerful figure in the world? It's like Frank Capra territory on one hand, but I'll also cover the demons in his private life, his bouts with his dad and his conversion to Christianity, which explains a lot of where he is coming from. It includes his belief that God personally chose him to be president of the United States, and his coming into his own with the stunning, preemptive attack on Iraq. It will contain surprises for Bush supporters and his detractors.”

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Stone has been capable of surprises before. “World Trade Center,” the 2006 film exploring the lives of a few New York Port Authority police officers before and after the Sept. 11 attacks, stunned many of Stone’s longtime critics who expected a polemic on American foreign policy, but got instead a thoughtful, patriotic, well-received examination of that national trauma through the eyes of everyday people.

Filmgoers might give thanks to the powers that be in Hollywood. “Pinkville,” a film Stone planned to make looking at another dimension of the Vietnam War, was shelved by the studio for reasons unclear. Had “Pinkville” gone into production, it would have been Stone’s fourth film related to the Vietnam War.

“Platoon,” “Born on the Fourth of July” and “Heaven and Earth” would seem to have exhausted the dramatic possibilities of that conflict. The “W” project brings Stone up to a time closer to the present era, one populated with moviegoers for whom the Vietnam War is truly, if sadly, something only understood from the history books.

“W” will boast a strong buzz factor if the actual casting goes as rumored. Brolin’s hot as a pistol in Hollywood, on the strength of his trifecta in “American Gangster,” “In the Valley of Elah” and this year’s big Oscar winner, the Coen brothers’ “No Country for Old Men.”

Burstyn, five-time Oscar nominee and an Oscar winner for “The Last Picture Show” (1971), gives the project even more golden gravitas. Burstyn, film buffs will remember, played the mother of the demon-possessed child in “The Exorcist.” But we’ll resist reaching for any devilish connections between that motherly role and this one.
Image credits: Stop-Loss poster: ©2008 Paramount Pictures. Stone: Towpilot, republished under GNU Free Documentation License. Josh Brolin: © 2007, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.5. Bush: Public domain.

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