BEVERLY HILLS, California — After years of tiptoeing around the issue, Hollywood began acknowledging 9/11 recently with such films as "World Trade Center," "United 93" and "Reign Over Me." Now it seems the time has finally come to address a tragedy that happened after the towers fell: the erosion of our country's reputation.
"I think part of the problem is that we've gotten into this myth of redemptive violence — perpetual war for perpetual peace, as if that solves problems," Susan Sarandon explained recently, talking about her film, "In the Valley of Elah," one of four new movies that tackle the thorny topic. "You really have to use [going to war] as a last alternative and not as public policy."
In "Elah," an old-school military man learns that backing Uncle Sam isn't the no-brainer it once was. "The Kingdom" portrays a group of Americans in Saudi Arabia, where a U.S. passport makes you a highly desirable target for kidnapping or killing. "Lions for Lambs" features two idealistic students whose good intentions are crushed by the day-to-day realities of Afghanistan. And "Rendition" explores suspicions that the government has flown possible terrorists to other countries to "interrogate" them.
No matter what your personal politics may be, it's hard to deny that our country's post-9/11 good will has dissolved into a climate where many believe that the U.S. launches wars for selfish reasons, stoops to the level of terrorists and is no longer the "good guy" in world affairs. Maybe such beliefs are valid, maybe they aren't. Either way, Hollywood is exploring the existence of the belief itself.
"['The Kingdom'] is a film that encourages people to think about the problem and educate themselves," said director Peter Berg. "To think that there aren't people out there who want us dead ... is naive."
Sharing that common perception, the four films explore the theme — but with decidedly different approaches.
" 'The Kingdom' is really an action film," insisted Jamie Foxx, who stars in the flick alongside Jennifer Garner, Chris Cooper and Jason Bateman. "But it's one that's set in that bed of what's going on right now, and seeing different cultures. ... It's a caper film. It's like, 'Let's go find the bad guy.' "
"['Elah'] has a good mystery film plot," countered Tommy Lee Jones, whose film co-stars Charlize Theron and Sarandon. "It's a well-organized whodunit. That's the term that Susan has been using, and that helps keep our interest."
"Rendition," which stars Reese Witherspoon, Jake Gyllenhaal and Meryl Streep, arrives on October 19 and is a nail-biting thriller about a wife trying to locate her Egyptian husband after the government dumps him in a secret CIA detention facility. "Lambs," meanwhile, is a drama of the highest order that also stars Streep, this time alongside Robert Redford and Tom Cruise, whose conservative senator character asks questions like, "Do you want to win the war on terror? Yes or no? This is the quintessential yes-or-no question of our time."
For several years now, such questions have needed to be addressed. And although it's taken Hollywood awhile to get around to it, perhaps it's better late than never.
"[The goal of 'Elah'] is to raise questions about our lives in this country here today," reasoned Jones. "It doesn't tell you what the answers to the questions are. It doesn't tell you what the truth is. It doesn't lecture. But it does raise good questions."
Such questions come up when Jones' Hank Deerfield, a lifelong military man, learns that his son has gone AWOL after returning from an Army tour in Iraq. Setting out to uncover the truth, the fiercely loyal Hank slowly comes to realize that — like so many other countries — perhaps we should be questioning the acts of the U.S. military.
The characters of "Kingdom," meanwhile, begin their journey as a U.S. government task force sent overseas to investigate a crime scene, much like an episode of "CSI: Saudi Arabia." By the end of the flick, however, their eyes have been opened to the backbreaking repetition of both sides' victory-at-any costs mentality.
"It is saying, 'Look, your first instinct may be — if someone hurts you or someone you love — to strike back. But that's not working,' " Garner said of her film. "So let's think of another solution."
As years of heated debate have shown, that's easier said than done. Still, one can't help but wonder: Can these films really make a difference?
"No, a movie will never change the world," Foxx responded. "The only way you change it is going and being serious about changing it at the top level. Movies can, however, shine a light on things."
"I think that art can change the world," Garner, his costar, countered. "That's why it's stuck around for so long. Certainly, theater has changed the world. I do think that a movie can change the world — why not?"
Smiling, she added, "Is this going to be the one?"
Perhaps one of these four contenders will, or maybe they'll all vanish in the blink of an eye. Regardless, Hollywood has turned an important corner in acknowledging post-9/11 issues, and it's intriguing to see them through the eyes of four different, distinctive directors.
"That's what's great about Peter Berg," Foxx said of the mixed-bag quality that sets his flick apart. "He did 'The Rundown,' he did 'Friday Night Lights,' so he gives you drama. He gives you comedy. He gives you real people that are dealing with something very serious."
"Mine is a film about America; that's what I wanted to write and direct," "Elah" director Paul Haggis explained. "Where we are now, the problems we're facing and the questions that are haunting us all."
With the heartfelt Gavin Hood (Oscar winner for "Tsotsi") behind the camera for "Rendition," and the legendary Redford helming "Lambs," the bottom line seems to be that four talented directors are blazing a trail with four unique ways of looking at a problem we all have in common.
"There are a lot of different ways to tell a lot of different stories in this dramatic setting," Sarandon summed up. "It's really just about the filmmaker."
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