May 18, 2008
Back in 1989, in his smash hit "Say Anything," John Cusack famously stood with a boom box above his head outside the home of the woman he loved blasting Peter Gabriel’s "In Your Eyes." With his latest films on the Iraq war, Cusack is standing outside Hollywood with a TV above his head broadcasting his political movies calling on the public to wake up and "Do Something." John Cusack began working on his new film "War, Inc.," which premieres in LA and New York May 23, about a year into the US occupation of Iraq.
From the moment US tanks rolled into Baghdad, Cusack was a voracious consumer of news about the war. He took it deadly seriously, regularly calling independent journalists and asking them questions as he sought as much independent information as he could. Watching the insanity of the erection of the Green Zone and the advent of the era of McWar, complete with tens of thousands of "private contractors," Cusack set out to use the medium of film to unveil the madness. He wanted to do on the big screen what independent reporters like Naomi Klein, Nir Rosen and Dahr Jamail did in print.
Over these years of war and occupation, Cusack has become one of the most insightful commentators on a far too seldom discussed aspect of the occupation: the corporate dominance of the US war machine. Cusack is no parachute humanitarian. While he continues to do the Hollywood thing with big budget movies, he is simultaneously a fierce un-embedded actor/filmmaker who has been at the center of two of the best films to date dealing with the madness of the Iraq war.
Without big money sponsors and the backing of powerful production companies, Cusack has spent a lot of his own money on these projects. Cusack’s film "Grace is Gone," was one of the most under-rated and under-viewed movies of 2007. Cusack should have been seriously considered for an Oscar for his portrayal of Stanley Philipps, a man whose wife dies while deployed as a soldier in Iraq.
The film centers on Philipps’s painful inability to explain to his two young daughters (powerfully played by two amateur actors, Shélan O’Keefe and Gracie Bednarczyk) their mother’s death. Instead of telling his daughters the terrible news, he embarks on a surreal road trip to a theme park with the girls as he fights for his own sanity and grapples with his own support for the war that has just taken the life of his wife. The film is a jolting picture of a man caught in the free fall of a nervous breakdown and the ricochet impact of the death of soldiers in the war.
It was an outright shame that "Grace is Gone" did not get wide distribution. I was at a screening of the film in New York and there were not many dry eyes at the movie’s conclusion.Perhaps the film’s lack of commercial success was due to the so-called "Iraq movie fatigue" that took hold in Hollywood a couple of years ago. But "Grace is Gone" is not simply an "Iraq movie" or a "war movie." It isn’t even really an "anti-war" movie. It is a haunting and moving film that cuts across political lines to tell the story of the suffering and shattering of so many US military families with loved ones deployed in Iraq. Had it received the distribution it deserved, "Grace is Gone" would have resonated strongly with both supporters and opponents of the war, a rare accomplishment.
"War, Inc." is a radically different kind of movie. In fact, it really defies genre. It is sort of like this generation’s Dr. Strangelove, A Clockwork Orange and The Wizard of Oz mixed together with the un-embedded reporting of Naomi Klein, spiced up with a dash of South Park. It is a powerful, visionary response to the cheerleading culture of the corporate media and a pliant Hollywood afraid of its own shadow.
On the surface, "War, Inc." appears to be a spoof of the corporatization of the occupation of Iraq. Cusack plays a hit man, Brand Hauser, deployed to Turaqistan with the mission of killing a Middle Eastern oil baron (named Omar Sharif). Hauser’s employer is a secretive for-profit military corporation run by the former US vice president, played by Dan Aykroyd. We first meet Aykroyd’s character as he sits, pants down, on a toilet seat during a closed-circuit satellite videoconference call to give Hauser his mission. Hauser arrives in the Turaqi capital and heads for the "Emerald City" (read: the Green Zone), where his cover is director of a trade show for the military corporation, Tamerlane, which is basically running the Turaqi occupation.
Hauser soon falls for a progressive journalist, played by Marisa Tomei, who is in Turaqistan to investigate Tamerlane, and what follows is an insane ride through Cusack’s interpretation of the radical corporatization of war. Singer Hilary Duff gives a surprisingly fun performance as a pop star, Yonica Babyyeah, who performs a song in the war zone with the lyrics, "You say you want to invade me, baby/Enslave me, baby." As Duff delivers the song, she caresses a phallic gas nozzle decorated with diamonds while singing, "I want to blow you….up."
Obviously Cusack and his co-writers, Mark Leyner and Jeremy Pikser (REDS/Bulworth), sought to tap into the extreme nature of the corporatized war and take it to another level, but anyone who thinks the premise behind "War Inc." is "over-the-top" has not been paying attention to real life.
Cusack, Leyner and Pikser are not predicting the future, they are forcefully–and with dark humor and wit– branding the present for what it is: the Wal-Mart-ization of life (and death) represented in the new US model for waging war. With 630 corporations like Blackwater and Halliburton on the US government payroll in Iraq getting 40% of the more than $2 billion Washington spends every week on the occupation, Cusack’s "futuristic" film is not far from the way things really are.
A powerful, for-profit war corporation, run by the former US vice president "owning" the war zone; tanks with NASCAR-like sponsor logos speeding around the streets firing at will; "implanted journalists" watching the war in IMAX theaters in the heavily-fortified "Emerald City" to get "full spectrum sensory reality" while eating popcorn; a secretive "viceroy" running the show from behind a digital curtain are all part of Cusack’s battlefield in the fictitious Turaqistan. But how far are they from the realities of the radically privatized corporate war machine Washington has unleashed on the world?
"War Inc." is already an underground cult classic and will likely remain so for years to come. The film is not without its shortcomings–at times it is confusing and drags–but its faults are significantly overshadowed by its many strengths. It also accomplishes the difficult feat of being very entertaining and funny, while delivering a powerful punch of truth.
"War, Inc." is a movie that deserves a much wider viewing than the barons of the film industry are likely to give it. But by filling the theaters in the opening days, people can send a powerful message that there is–and must be–a market for films of conscience.