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DON’T MENTION THE WAR

Special to The Times

In 2007, the early heavyweight contenders for Oscar are just that -- heavy.

“In the Valley of Elah” deals with the death of a soldier after a tour of duty in Iraq. “Rendition” examines the CIA practice of shuttling foreign nationals it deems suspicious to covert interrogation centers. “The Kingdom” follows an elite government squad as they investigate a bombing in Riyadh. “The Kite Runner” traces the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan through the eyes of a young boy in Kabul. And “Lions for Lambs” looks at the aftermath of an attack on Army Rangers in Afghanistan. John Cusack is a war widower in “Grace Is Gone,” and Julia Roberts and Tom Hanks have enlisted in the Mike Nichols-directed, Aaron Sorkin-scripted “Charlie Wilson’s War,” about a congressman’s covert work in Afghanistan.

And while these are all worthy and important topics for films in this day and age, they may not be the ones to bring home the awards season glory. Audiences don’t respond in huge numbers to topical movies at the box office anymore, and no matter how much buzz a splashy cast may generate before a film is released, current event movies rarely reap the gold at the Oscar ceremony.

“Many members of the academy would like nothing more this year, as a run-up to the election, to stand up and be identified with a valiant and sincere antiwar film,” said film historian and critic David Thomson. “But I don’t think they’ll go that far unless the public has gone down that road already. If the public accepts one of these films and . . . there’s an undeniable feeling that this is an important picture, that could make it happen. I’m not sure it will happen this year.”

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Look at the numbers: As of last week, “Elah” had tallied just $6.6 million at the box office, despite almost unanimous reviews heralding Tommy Lee Jones’ devastating performance as the father of the dead soldier. “The Kingdom” earned a decent but not groundbreaking $45.9 million, with industry analysts attributing most of that to a savvy marketing campaign by Universal that emphasized the action over the topical elements. “Rendition” opened to a weak $4.1-million box office over the Oct. 19 weekend, after analysts had predicted a $10-million open. It’s now pulled in just $6.6 million.

THERE’S equal uncertainty when it comes to seeing how the academy will respond to these films -- in part, because the body has a tendency to honor films that have at least made a middling mark at the box office. “This early in the awards-watching game, box office goes a long way,” said Chad Hartigan, an analyst at box office tracking company Exhibitor Relations. If a movie stalls with audiences out of the gate, early buzz on the film is diminished, which can be a death knell for academy members who rely, in part, on chatter to prioritize which of the dozens of movies they have to screen each awards season. (Besides the golden Martin Scorsese connection, “The Departed,” with $132 million at the box office, was by far the top-grossing film of all the best picture nominees last year.)

“Elah,” meanwhile, played to a near-empty house at an early official academy screening. And “The Kite Runner,” despite being based on Khaled Hosseini’s bestselling novel, faces a possible backlash when it enters limited release on Dec. 14 as a result of the threats against -- and subsequent protective measures for -- the young stars over a portrayal of the rape of a child in the movie.

Where’s our “Platoon”? Where’s our “Deer Hunter”? Where are the movies that capture both the hearts of the academy and the dollars of the general public? The problem may be that the films reflecting current events are too close to what’s unfolding in real time -- why pay to see a movie that reflects what you can see every night on the news? Notably, “Platoon” was released in 1986 and “The Deer Hunter” in 1978, years after the Vietnam War ended.

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USC professor Nick Cull, president of the International Assn. for Media and History and a specialist in film and war propaganda, agreed that no matter how esteemed the current war-related movies are in the eyes of critics, they all face an uphill battle to get audiences.

First, there is the question of “entertainment” value in watching films about war. “It’s a remarkable moment,” Cull said. “It’s unusual to have critical and questioning films that are happening while the story is still going on. This is happening five years earlier than usual.” Second, the sudden glut of films about the topic isn’t doing anyone any favors. “There’s definitely been more Iraq war-themed films this year than any other,” box office guru Hartigan said, and the returns for “Elah,” the first out of the box this season, don’t bode well. “ ‘Elah’ is pretty much done, which is a shame. The reviews were good, the credentials and buzz seemed to have a lot going for it. But it came out, people yawned, and then they left,” Hartigan said.

This audience dismissal of current events fare isn’t new; it’s not just those timely films being released this year that have been greeted with a shrug. Earlier this year, “A Mighty Heart” was released to little stir, despite the megawatt presence of Angelina Jolie. “My feeling is the Daniel Pearl story, in 10 years, might have made an extraordinary film,” Thomson said. “But this was much too soon for it, and it looked like exploitation.”

Despite a tremendous amount of fanfare before it opened in 2005, the Persian Gulf War film “Jarhead” tallied $62 million and zero Academy Award nominations. Universally acclaimed “United 93" did receive two nominations -- including one for director Paul Greengrass -- but no awards. There has been one recent exception: The complex oil-and-espionage tale “Syriana” earned a middling $50 million at the box office, but it scored two Oscar nods, including a win for George Clooney as supporting actor.

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Even for those not being marketed as Oscar contenders, there has been evidence of battle fatigue. Samuel L. Jackson’s “Home of the Brave” earned just $43,753 and Christian Bale’s “Harsh Times” made $3.3 million when they were released at the end of 2006. Compare that to films focused on the Vietnam era, where 1978’s “Coming Home” earned $32.6 million and 1979’s “Apocalypse Now” tallied $78.7 million -- both in 1970s dollars.

On Friday, the megawatt-star-powered “Lions for Lambs” opens. Will it be the one to break the box office curse and give credence to early Oscar buzz? “If Robert Redford, Tom Cruise and Meryl Streep can’t get it over $100 million, I don’t know what can,” Hartigan said. But reports that the film is too preachy could sink its chances. “Americans are extremely unhappy about this war . . . you’ve got to be awfully clever to get them to buy it as entertainment,” Thomson said.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

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NOW MAY BE TOO SOON

Movies taking on current events risk overlapping with the evening news, which is depressing enough to most audiences. Here are some recent and upcoming topical films -- many with critical buzz -- that are vying for moviegoers . . . and awards.


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