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Entertainment behind the scenes

War films, what are they good for? — not box office

March 15, 2010

Damon1Iraq war films. They may be good for Academy Awards, but not for Hollywood’s b ox office receipts — not yet, anyway.

Ever since “In the Valley of Elah” hit movie theaters in 2007, we in the media have been writing stories looking at whether and when audiences might turn out in big numbers for films that in some way cover the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Several movies dealing with some aspect have come and gone in theaters with very little box office to show for it. The mostly low-budget movies include “Stop-Loss,” “Brothers” or even “The Kite Runner,” which had nothing to do with the current war but nevertheless was about Afghan culture. Even some big-budget films such as “Jarhead” (2005) or “The Kingdom” (2007), which feigned that they had nothing to do with the current conflicts but could not be watched outside the context of today’s headlines, failed to generate big returns.

So, with that as a backdrop and just coming off the Oscar victory for “The Hurt Locker” earlier this month, a good many movie reporters watched anxiously to see if this past weekend’s “Green Zone” could break the slump. It had a major Hollywood star in Matt Damon and top director with Paul Greengrass. The two had pairedDamon up before in two of the smash hit “Bourne” spy movies. It had all the makings of a box office smash, except that the story took place inside the US controlled green zone in Baghdad and covered the US military’s inability to find weapons of mass destruction following the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The outcome: the movie flopped. You can read about “Green Zone” here and an interview with Damon here and this weekend’s box office story here.

It is obvious in Monday’s hindsight, that moviegoers still prefer escapist fantasy such as, “Alice in Wonderland,” over realistic war stories while the wars are ongoing.

Why is the box office for war movies interesting? Because in World War II, movies were used as propaganda films to pump up the war effort. Where Korea and Vietnam were concerned, it wasn’t until well after those conflicts ended that, generally speaking, audiences were able to watch meaningful movies about them. So, the question has been what about modern audiences and the current wars? And the answer is: overcoming whatever feelings people have about them, too, will take years.

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