As Afghan war film ‘12 Strong’ proves a box office hit, we take a look at other cinematic depictions of the region
War on the big screen: How do we see the region's conflicts?
Afghanistan war drama 12 Strong is riding high at the box office. UAE figures are not yet available, but it took US$16.5 million (Dh60.6m) last weekend on its opening in the United States, nipping at Jumanji’s heels at the top of the box office – an impressive achievement for an R-rated film about the conflict.
This may sound strange – there have been dozens of films about the Afghan war and about the US’s role in military exploits in the wider region, such as in Iraq, Lebanon and Syria. However, these kind of films traditionally don’t fare well at the box office. Take Kathryn Bigelow’s 2008 bomb disposal drama The Hurt Locker. The film was adored by critics. It took home six Oscars at the 2010 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, in which Bigelow dramatically beat her ex-husband James Cameron’s Avatar to the prize. Yet 12 Strong has, in its opening weekend, already taken higher box office returns than Bigelow’s film did in its entire US run.
Paul Haggis’s In the Valley of Elah is another example of a critically appraised, commercially ignored film on the subject. The movie featured in Time magazine’s top 10 of 2007. Tommy Lee Jones’s performance was widely praised. Yet the movie clawed in just $7m at the tills.
Of course, rules are made to be broken, and we don’t have to look too far back to find another notable exception to the “Middle East war films don’t make money” maxim. Clint Eastwood’s 2014 Iraq drama American Sniper became the highest grossing war film of all time, edging out Saving Private Ryan with a $547m global haul. Critical reviews weren’t spectacular, but they were above-average overall, with 72 per cent on both Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic, even though some reviewers (this one included, with a one-star review) were highly critical of the film’s underlying tone and message of “America good. Foreigners bad.” The film nonetheless picked up six Oscar nominations, although it only won a statue for Best Sound Editing.
There seems to be a tangible but fine line between films detailing wars in the region that achieve commercial success, and those that achieve, at best, moderate box office returns. In fact, there seem to be three distinct categories of films dealing with the conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere in the Middle East. In keeping with the movie theme, we’ll call them here The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.
War is good. Or at least, the underlying reasons for war and the export of freedom and democracy are good, even if some of the specifics may be distasteful. These films tend to feature a gung-ho, all-American hero – Bradley Cooper in American Sniper, Chris Hemsworth in 12 Strong or Mark Wahlberg in Lone Survivor. The hero may be flawed – Cooper’s Chris Kyle appears to be a borderline psychopath, but the enemies he faces are so dehumanised and utterly characterless that his apparent joyful murderous nature barely raises an eyebrow. These are just faceless terrorists.
When foreign characters are given a personality, it usually exists on the level of cliché. In 12 Strong, for example, Hemsworth’s Captain Mitch Nelson must prove to Navid Negahban’s tribal warlord, General Dostum, that he can kill with his heart and not just his head, to make him a warrior rather than a mere soldier. The tribal honour is strong with this one. But there’s a strange contradiction in the success of these jingoistic odes to American glory, in that most of the US public appear not to agree with the sentiment behind the films. When American Sniper was released in 2014, for example, the most recent CBS News/New York Times opinion poll revealed that 75 per cent of the US population thought the Iraq War was not worth the costs involved. Yet still audiences flocked to cinemas.
Perhaps context is irrelevant, and American audiences just want to watch a traditional Hollywood narrative of the good guy triumphing over evil. None of these films really even need to be set in Iraq or Afghanistan. Put the hero in a cape or a cowboy hat and narratively, little would change.
War is bad. Its effect on participants is bad, its effect on innocent bystanders is bad, its reasons are often bad, or at least questionable. Films like The Hurt Locker, The Valley of Elah and Ang Lee’s 2016 commercial let-down Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk deal with the very real effects of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Other films in this category deal with the politics, corruption and lies which are the real reasons behind many wars. Examples here include the well-received, but commercially unsuccessful 2010 Matt Damon-starrer Green Zone, and Rob Reiner’s forthcoming Shock and Awe.
Documentaries are plentiful in this category too, with the late Tim Hetherington’s Restrepo (2010) and Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) among the high points. Comedy has also offered a fair share of comment, with Todd Phillips’s 2016 War Dogs and David Michôd’s War Machine (2017) among the high points of satirical studies of Middle Eastern conflict. The box office trend here, with a notable blip for Moore’s $222m-grossing doc, suggests that while US audiences may agree with many of these films’ sentiments, they don’t want to see them played out on the big screen.
This brings us to our final, and smallest, category. There’s plenty of ugliness to be seen in both of the above groups, but here we’re talking about films that really get under the skin of the communities they deal with. More often than not, there may be at least some kind of local link – it’s worth noting that none of the previously mentioned films were shot in Iraq or Afghanistan, or featured lead characters from the region – and more often than not, they deal not with heroes and battles, but the real people affected by the political decisions made thousands of miles away.
Prime examples include Kurdish director Bahman Ghobadi’ s 2004 refugee camp drama Turtles Can Fly, the first film made in Iraq following the fall of Saddam Hussein. Siddiq Barmak’s 2003 drama Osama, about a young girl living under the Taliban who disguises herself as a boy in order to feed her family, is also recommended. It is the first film to be shot in Afghanistan since the Taliban banned filmmaking in 1996.
The Breadwinner, executive-produced by Angelina Jolie and released this weekend, meanwhile, could conceptually almost be an animated remake of Barmak’s film, and features Afghan actors among its leading cast.
These kind of films undoubtedly give a more realistic impression of the region than the best-meaning Hollywood director could ever hope to achieve, although they rarely reach more than a niche audience.
It’s fitting that the director of an as-yet-unmade Iraqi film has the last word here. Iraqi Maysoon Pachachi won the Dubai International Film Festival’s IWC Award in 2012, and is still raising funds to complete Another Day in Baghdad. She has clear reasons for her determination: “It’s always war and suicide bombers and violence when it comes to films in Iraq,” she says. “I’m not interested in war. I’m interested in sustaining human life. Those other films tell you about the fighters and the factions, but never about what’s happening on a day-to-day level. I think it’s important that these people’s stories are told.”