Fans of hot, young Hollywood actor Ryan Phillippe are waiting with bated breath for the opening of his new movie, "Stop-Loss," but everywhere else in Tinseltown they're holding their breaths because the movie involves the Iraq War -- a subject that has become box-office poison.
"Iraq War films do extremely poorly at the box office. There's just no other way to put it," said Daniel Fierman, senior editor at GQ magazine. "There is zero indication that the audience has a substantial interest in these films -- even though they may be critically well received."
But an apparent lack of viewer interest hasn't stopped studios from "greenlighting" movies about the war produced by some big names and starring some pretty heavy hitters. There was Brian de Palma's "Redacted." Reese Witherspoon starred in "Rendition." And no less than three Oscar winners were involved with "In the Valley of Elah," Tommy Lee Jones, Susan Sarandon and Meryl Streep.
And then, of course, there's "Home of the Brave," starring 50 Cent. And that doesn't even include the documentaries.
"There are tons of documentaries coming out," said Christopher Null, editor in chief of Filmcritic.com. "I mean, what is the difference between "Operation Homecoming" and some other film.
"I literally get them confused in my mind that I have to ask my critics if we've reviewed them," he joked.
Hollywood has a long history of using war as a muse. Patricia Hanson, executive editor of the American Film Institute's catalog of feature films, explains that there were "hundreds of films" about World War I that did very well.
"People were extremely interested, and it helped shape patriotism and brought the war home to people, especially in the small towns," Hanson said. During World War II, Hanson said, there was virtually "no film made that had a contemporary setting that didn't in some way relate to the war. There were even movies about patriotic gangsters who decided they would support the war effort."
It wasn't until Vietnam that filmmakers got a little skittish about making war films during wartime. "There were essentially no films about the war aside from John Wayne's "The Green Berets" in 1968, and that was very pro-Vietnam," Hanson said. "You start to see some things in the early '70s, but you really didn't get those films that dealt with the combat aspects of the war until the late '70s, after the war was over."
The groundbreaking films of that era are well-known to most film buffs, including "The Deer Hunter," "Apocalypse Now," "Platoon" and "Coming Home."
Jon Voight, who starred in "Coming Home," said he had concerns at the time about playing the role of Luke Martin, a soldier returning from the war paralyzed from the waist down.
"I spent a lot of time with the soldiers and with the paraplegics," Voight said. "I wanted to play the role in the right way. I thought we were doing the right thing by trying to portray the mood of the time."
But, Voight added, "If I had to make that portrait now, I would not make that portrait."
The film was seen as being critical of the Vietnam War and Voight believes that's precisely the problem with the current crop of Iraq War films. "I have a great respect for many of the people who edited these projects, but some have been really anti-American pieces. ... They are taking an opportunity, however slight, to portray us as villains, and I find that reprehensible."
Producer Robert May of SenArt Films, who was involved in the release of one of the more talked about Iraq War documentaries, "The War Tapes," which was built around footage shot by the soldiers themselves, said a lot of discussion went into deciding on a release date. "We had to evaluate are we still going to be in this war," he said. "And what would the sentiment be like for audiences; could people be potentially tired of seeing this."
The documentary came out in 2006 and did well, but it was "not a financial windfall by any means," May said.
May agrees that politics may be part of the reason why audiences aren't going to see Iraq: The Movie.
"So many of these films are slanted a certain way; you can kind of tell the filmmaker got involved because they're very cause oriented," said May, who added that contemporary audiences may not want to sit through that kind of political message, however subtle, preferring to spend their money on entertainment.
Add to that the fact that most Americans can go to any one of a number of media outlets -- the Internet, network news or cable shows -- to find out about what's going on in Iraq.
"People feel they know what's going on," May said. "I can just turn on the news; why do I need to see a film about the same thing."
So just how badly do Iraq War movies perform at the box office? Try about $65,000 domestically for "Redacted." By comparison, "Spiderman 3" had the top domestic take last year, pulling in more than $336 million dollars. "Rendition" didn't crack the $10 million mark, even though movies like "Mr. Bean's Holiday" and "Good Luck Chuck" managed to rake in more than $30 million.
And now along comes "Stop-Loss," directed by Kimberly Peirce, who is best known for her first feature film debut, "Boys Don't Cry" (1999). "Stop-Loss" is about a soldier, played by Phillippe, who is ordered back into service shortly after coming home from Iraq.
And with the Hollywood hunk in the lead role, perhaps this movie will defy the conventional wisdom, although Null of Filmcritic.com, for one, is not convinced.
"I figure it will be about No. 8 at the box office next week, even if it cracks the Top 10," he said. "Here we have another movie about freshly scrubbed Hollywood stars going to Iraq and coming home. I don't see any significant part of the audience saying they have to go see that movie on opening weekend."
With such a dismal financial record, you have to wonder why a studio bigwig would even consider putting money into another Iraq-themed film like the planned movie version of the book "No True Glory," about the battle for Fallujah.
Perhaps they're thinking about another movie that used a war as a backdrop to tell the story of a woman torn between two men. Hanson, of the American Film Institute, calls it the "Gone With the Wind" effect. "There's an old saying in the movie business that before "Gone With the Wind," no civil war movie had ever made any money either," she said.
Of course, GWTW went on to become one of the most financially successful movies of all time.
So, filmmakers who have Iraq War movies in production have at least one reason to take heart.