US President Bush’s surprise secret visit to Iraq yesterday was a desperate attempt to rally support for an enterprise that is ending in humiliation and defeat. The deep fissures that the invasion and occupation has created in American society itself are now being reflected right in the heart of the US dream factory itself – Hollywood. At the Venice Film festival, Oscar-winning actress Charlize Theron became the latest star to put her views on the line by calling for the removal of US troops in Iraq. “Nothing would give me more joy than to see them [the troops] back in America,” she said. “They are doing a very, very important job and it’s a dangerous one. Hopefully they can come back and be looked after, that’s the least we can do for them.”
In addition to calling for US troops to leave Iraq, the Monster actress warned the American people to open their eyes to the conflict in Iraq and other regions around the world. Theron’s latest film, In The Valley of Elah, which co-stars Susan Sarandon and Tommy Lee Jones, is based on the true story of a soldier who went missing on his first weekend back from serving in Iraq. Theron plays Emily Sanders, the detective leading the investigation into the soldier’s disappearance. The film is written and directed by Paul Haggis, who made Crash. Haggis, who is well-known for his anti-war views, said he was concerned about the absence of the kind of images that had shocked the public into opposing the Vietnam War. “I think when that doesn’t happen, it’s the responsibility of the artist to ask those questions,” he said, adding: “All films are political when your country is at war.”
Brian De Palma is just as explicit in his film Redacted, also in competition in Venice. The movie is a ferocious argument against the war in Iraq for what it is doing to everyone involved. It is about members of a US Army squad who rape and murder a 15-year-old Iraqi girl and kill her family. These offerings in Venice will be followed by other major films on the theme of Iraq war veterans. The Weinstein Company will be releasing Grace is Gone, directed by James C Strouse in October while Paramount is completing Stop Loss, with Ryan Philippe as a veteran who defies an order to send him back to Iraq. Leonardo DiCaprio is working on two films which also have political themes. He is joining up with Kate Winslet for Revolutionary Road, based on a novel about post-World War II disillusionment. He is also making Body of Lies, about a journalist injured in the Iraq war, who is hired by the CIA. DiCaprio is also campaigning on the issue of climate change. His documentary Eleventh Hour was released in the US last month.
The fact that Hollywood is turning out these kinds of films reflects a considered view by producers that there is an audience out there ready to see films critical of the US state and its machinations. What this also shows is that America is far from the monolithic, my-nation-right-or-wrong, stereotype too many people impose on it. The Bush regime has divided the country like no other president. Now millions of poor people stand to lose their homes through mortgage defaults. This is a very different America from a few years ago and confirms that real events change people’s views, or at least shakes them up and creates doubt. As the economic crisis unfolds, with strong echoes of the 1930s depression, we should see what Hollywood is doing as an indicator of even bigger convulsions to come.