Calling the shots on war movies
There’s a war going on, and Army Lt. Col. J. Todd Breasseale has a mission.
But it’s far removed from the captured Iraqi palace where he was once stationed. He fights his war now from an office on Wilshire Boulevard lined with movie posters chronicling conflicts real and imagined, from “Patton” to “War of the Worlds.”
Breasseale’s desk is piled high with scripts, each marked with his name and stamped “confidential.” It’s his job to help decide which movies should get Army help.
The mission is both harder and more important than it might appear.
After the Vietnam War, movies like “Apocalypse Now” and “Born on the Fourth of July” helped cement an image of psychologically damaged Vietnam veterans.
“In the ‘80s and early ‘90s, the Vietnam War vet was the ‘other,’ ” Breasseale said. “Hollywood had created the crazy Nam vet.”
For the Army, it was a bitter lesson.
With the country now enmeshed in another long, unpopular war, Breasseale is hoping to influence a new generation of filmmakers in order to avoid repeating the experience.
So far, Breasseale feels, most of the movies made about Iraq have really been about Vietnam.
“It is the self-licking ice cream cone of Hollywood: They make a war movie based on another war movie,” Breasseale said. “It’s important to tell the full story, not a story based on a weird Vietnam-era idea of what the military is like.”
The Army has been helping filmmakers ever since it furnished aircraft and pilots for 1927’s “Wings” -- winner of the first best picture Academy Award.
With military assistance, moviemakers get access to bases, ships, planes, tanks and Humvees. Military leaders also offer script advice.
And unless a filmmaker agrees to address any problems, the Pentagon generally opts out.
Most movies involving the military have been summer action films, like this year’s “Iron Man,” which was made with Air Force help.
But Army officials are eager to work with filmmakers making serious movies about Iraq -- the kind of pictures that have the power to shape the public’s view of the war and its warriors.
“In the past, have there been instances of disagreements with scripts? Yes,” said Maj. Gen. Anthony A. Cucolo III, chief of Army public affairs. “The message I would send is: Give us a try.”
The problem for military officials is that some in Hollywood see their script advice as a subtle form of censorship or an attempt to spin the war.
Paul Haggis, writer and director of the Iraq war movie “In the Valley of Elah,” said he concluded that the Army was not interested in telling honest stories about the war or soldiers.
“They are trying to put the best spin on what they are doing,” Haggis said. “Of course they want to publicize what is good. But it doesn’t mean that it is true.”
Few directors focused on Iraq or Afghanistan have approached the military for help. Haggis did.
Haggis said that after he submitted his script, the producers received 21 pages of objections to parts of the film. Haggis, who did not review the notes, said his producers told him they amounted to a refusal to participate.
“We needed their help,” Haggis said. “If they had reasonable input I would have taken it. But I am not there to do publicity for the Army. I am there to do a movie that I see as true.”
Military officers say flatly that they do not censor films.
“There is no way that we are going to go in and to steamroll anyone’s vision,” said Phil Strub, the top Pentagon liaison to the film industry. “They will just tell us to drop dead and go away.”
Officials will ask for changes, or decline to participate, if they believe military policies or practices are grossly misrepresented -- especially if a movie purports to be based on real-life events, as Haggis’ film did.
Breasseale says movies about Iraq and Afghanistan have been one-dimensional.
“There doesn’t seem to be a lot of room for nuance,” he said. “What sells a script to a studio is an easy concept, like ‘This guy is crazy because he has been at war.’ ‘Easy, I love it,’ the executive says.”
Breasseale is particularly critical of Brian De Palma’s “Redacted,” a film released last year and based on a real-life incident in which U.S. soldiers raped an Iraqi girl, then murdered her and her family. Breasseale, who was serving in Iraq at the time of the incident, says De Palma’s movie intimates that all soldiers serving in Iraq are criminals.
“It was so wildly offensive to me that he would group all soldiers together,” Breasseale said.
De Palma did not respond to several requests for an interview.
Many Hollywood filmmakers reject the criticism of Iraq war movies. Haggis said he worked hard to shade his portrayals of soldiers, even those who commit heinous crimes.
“I did want to have a balanced and nuanced film,” Haggis said. “If anything, I tried to be empathetic. I try not to make these kids into villains.”
Iraq war movies as a group have not done well at the box office. Film critics have speculated that moviegoers see enough of war on the news or don’t care to watch films about an ongoing conflict. The Army suggests another possibility: The public is rejecting films that feel didactic or inauthentic.
“The public does not deal too well with being preached at,” Breasseale said.
The military has assisted with one Iraq war film that officials hope will be unlike “Redacted” or “In the Valley of Elah.”
“The Lucky Ones,” due out in the fall, follows three combat-scarred soldiers as they travel from New York to Las Vegas. The Army says the film -- which stars Tim Robbins, an outspoken war critic -- offers a more refined portrayal of soldiers.
During production, Robbins had a long conversation with Breasseale about what life might be like for his character, Staff Sgt. Cheever -- what would motivate an enlisted man through two combat tours in Iraq.
“It captures the nuance. It is not a broad brush stroke or just about PTSD” -- post-traumatic stress disorder -- Breasseale said. “They manage to tell a story that is familiar but different.”
Producer Rick Schwartz agrees his film is unlike other war movies. It takes place almost entirely in America, and although it deals with the aftereffects of war, the word “Iraq” is never mentioned.
Schwartz hopes audiences draw their own conclusions about whether “The Lucky Ones” is pro-war or antiwar, he said.
Though some Iraq war movies have been influenced by post-Vietnam films, he said, makers of “The Lucky Ones” avoided Vietnam references.
“You want to be able look back in 20 years from now and say, ‘That’s what was going on then,’ ” Schwartz said. “We don’t want to make a metaphor for any other war.”
The tension between Hollywood and the Army may never fully dissipate.
But Breasseale is confident that he and officers who follow him will persuade more filmmakers to view them as a resource, not a censor.
“I am the last of the eternal optimists. I believe there is always a way to make things happen,” Breasseale said. “My job is to help filmmakers tell an accurate story and help the American public understand their Army. End scene.”
Begin text of infobox
Hollywood and the military
Movies made with military assistance
“The Lucky Ones,” forthcoming
“Transformers II,” forthcoming
“The Day the Earth Stood Still” (new version), forthcoming
“Major Movie Star,” forthcoming
“The Messenger,” forthcoming
“Iron Man,” 2008
“I Am Legend,” 2007
“War of the Worlds,” 2005
“The Green Berets,” 1968
“From Here to Eternity,” 1953
“The Day the Earth Stood Still,” 1951
Movies made without military assistance
“In the Valley of Elah,” 2007 (military declined)
“Lions for Lambs,” 2007 (no help sought)
“Redacted,” 2007 (no help sought)
“Rendition,” 2007 (no help sought)
“Stop-Loss,” 2008 (no help sought)
Sources: Army, Times research
Los Angeles Times