Reality comes home

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Atlanta International Airport is a major transportation centre for US troops going to serve in Iraq. I happened to be passing through the day after General Petraeus gave his report on the so called "surge" and the day President Bush made a major speech on the conflict.

Television screens sited all around the airport lounges beamed Bush's speech. The place was alive with US soldiers discussing the situation with each other and members of the public. Many soldiers openly voiced their opposition to the occupation.

On my recent trip across the southern states of the US, everywhere I went the war just hit you in the face. What looked like an innocent argument between two young men outside a bar turned out to be two friends arguing how to spend their last few hours together before one went on an 18-month tour of duty in Iraq. Again, while I was eating in a backwater restaurant in Mississippi, three soldiers - a sergeant, a captain and a chaplain entered in full dress uniform. I could only assume they had just visited a family to tell them that one of their loved ones had been killed. The place fell silent.

The occupation is now massively unpopular. Recent polls show that a staggering 71 percent of the population think the war in Iraq was wrong.

Perhaps one of the most surprising indicators of the mood surrounding Bush and the occupation of Iraq is Hollywood's willingness to question US policy during wartime. With the exception of the ulra-patriotic The Green Berets, Hollywood didn't seriously explore the Vietnam War until the late 1970s. Nevertheless war itself was a topic of debate in many films of the late 1960s. M*A*S*H (1969) and Soldier Blue (1970) indirectly criticised Vietnam era militarism.

The first film to deal directly with the issue of the Vietnam War was the independently made feature documentary Hearts and Minds. In the 1970s there were a handful of exploitation films depicting returning vets as psychopaths. More thoughtful works such as Hal Ashby's Coming Home (1978) examined the struggles of soldiers after their combat was through.

Hollywood military movies of the 1970s and 1980s need to be understood in the context of the national debate over Vietnam.

Classic films like The Deer Hunter (1978), Apocalypse Now (1979), Full Metal Jacket (1987) and Platoon (1986) exposed the futility of the war and to a lesser extent were openly critical of the brutality of the US military machine. Not surprisingly, none were prepared to look at the war from the Vietnamese viewpoint.

Today a new crop of Hollywood actors and directors are making and funding a series of films which question Bush and the motives of going to war.

The first up is Rendition (see review in this issue). It is one of at least eight major US films about the war in Iraq due for release in the next few months.

Due out in Britain in January is In the Valley of Elah. Tommy Lee Jones and Susan Sarandon play the parents of a soldier who goes missing shortly after returning from Iraq. Then there is the James C Strouse film Grace Is Gone about a father struggling to tell his daughters that their soldier mother has died in Iraq.

Brian De Palma's film Redacted centres on the true story of the rape and murder of a 14 year old Iraqi schoolgirl by US soldiers. Shown through the imaginary video lens of one of the soldiers involved in the raid on the girl's home, De Palma's dramatisation is interlaced with actual news clips, documentary footage and stills from the war.

Fox news commentator Bill O'Reilly criticised Redacted, saying, "This vile man [De Palma] and his vile film will have an effect all right. Imagine young Muslim men, already steeped in hatred, sitting there watching a Muslim woman raped in living colour. If even one of those men enters the fight and kills an American, it is on Brian De Palma."

De Palma hit back saying, "In Vietnam, we saw the images and the sorrow of the people we were traumatising and killing, we saw the soldiers wounded and brought back in body bags. We see none of that in this war... The media is now really part of the corporate establishment."

Probably the biggest film of all will be Robert Redford's Lions for Lambs. Starring Tom Cruise and Meryl Streep it looks at the impact the occupation of Iraq has had on US society on a number of levels. Redford recently told the New York Times, "It is essential to dissent, especially when we learn that the motives that got us into this are, to put it kindly, questionable. I think we have every right. That may be our saving grace."

Over the next few weeks the war will land at a multiplex near you. Isn't it time you wandered down there?