War in the Spotlight: Filmmakers Focus on Iraq

The past year has seen a number of films take on the far-reaching effects of the Iraq War both at home and abroad.

Iraq may have dominated the news headlines for over five years, but it’s only in the last year that Hollywood has turned its focus on the effect that operations in Iraq have had on Americans at home and fighting overseas. These films explore facets of the half-decade long war with no foreseeable end, including military families’ struggles at home, the lives of soldiers who come back from Iraq with mental and physical injuries, the effect of the media in times of war, and how lives are affected by government policies.

Body of War

tyoung imgTwenty-five year old Tomas Young is faced with the uphill task of fighting for proper treatment and coverage after an injury leaves him paralyzed less than a week after being deployed to Iraq. This haunting and stark documentary co-produced by Phil Donahue and screened by Reel Progress in April 2008, follows Young as he returns home and evolves into a new person, dealing with his disability and finding his own unique and passionate voice against the war. Though he was only in Iraq for a short while, Tomas Young’s story shows the life-altering power of war and its devastating costs.

Grace Is Gone

grace is gone imgWriter-director James C. Strousse set out to tell the simple, non-political story of a family dealing with the daily reality of living through a polemical war in “Grace Is Gone,” a Reel Progress film screened in November 2007. Yet in trying to make the highly political personal, Strousse has created an unexpected statement on an inherently American privilege to shut out the injustices of the world (no matter how omnipresent they may be) and lose oneself in the seemingly banal and uninteresting.

John Cusack plays Stanley Philips, a retail employee whose wife has gone to fight in Iraq while Stanley and his daughters Heidi (Shélan O’Keefe) and Dawn (Gracie Bednarczyk) live an average middle class life. Though he is constantly faced with questions from his daughters about their mother, Stanley Philips, like many parents Strousse interviewed for the film, goes out of his way to maintain a veneer of normalcy in his children’s lives, speaking very little about the war and evading questions about their mother. It is through the Philips’s story that the audience sees the lengths some families will go to avoid the realities of an ongoing war no matter how omnipresent it may be.

In the Valley of Elah

In his follow-up to the Academy Award-winning “Crash,” Director Paul Haggis tells the story of a family desperate to find their son Mike after he goes AWOL upon returning from serving in Iraq. In this Reel Progress film, screened in September 2007, Tommy Lee Jones plays Hank Deerfield, a retired military investigator frustrated by both the military and the civilian police’s inaction. Eventually Hank turns to Charlize Theron’s Detective Emily Sanders, who helps him to discover the events that lead to the disappearance of his son.

As the story progresses, we see the tolls of life in a war zone when the investigation uncovers that a formerly happy, healthy son came back an erratic and disturbed young man whose actions may have played a role in his own demise. The Deerfields’ struggles show the toll war takes not only on those in combat but also their friends and families who see their once-vibrant loved ones return scarred from the realities of war.

No End in Sight

Charles Ferguson’s Academy Award-nominated documentary is a stark look at the Bush administration’s failures and lack of forethought in Iraq. The compilation of over 200 hours of footage, including interviews with former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, Ambassador Barbara Bodine (in charge of Baghdad during the Spring of 2003), former Chief of Staff to Colin Powell Lawrence Wilkerson, General Jay Garner (in charge of the occupation of Iraq through May 2003), American soldiers, and Iraqi civilians, was screened by Reel Progress in June and July of 2007. “No End in Sight” shows the events that lead to a nation in the throes of bloody civil war, the rise of warlord rule, and a generally chaotic milieu.


Director Brian De Palma tackles questions of morality and opportunism in a war zone through his adaptation of a real life story of a group of American soldiers in Iraq who rape a girl and then murder her family. Izzy Diaz plays Private Angel Salazar who willingly becomes an accomplice to transgressions against the Iraqis in hopes of using the footage he shoots with his DV Camera as guaranteed acceptance to film school.

The film further explores the concept of a global media and the power of its depictions of war through the use of footage from a fictitious French documentary, an Iraqi news team on the pursuit of a story, and the juxtaposition of online videos in support of American soldiers with the video testimonials of those who claim responsibility for the death of the soldiers.


Kimberly Pierce’s directorial debut is an exploration of the devastating real world effect that the Bush administration’s Iraq policies are having on the lives of average Americans. When decorated Iraq war hero Sgt. Brandon King (Ryan Phillipe) returns to his small Texas town, he expects a hero’s welcome, but is instead greeted by a stop-loss policy that forces him to return to Iraq against his will. As Sgt. King desperately tries to reach out for help to his senator, the audience witnesses a soldier trying to deal with a disappointing post-war life and what happens when decisions in Washington, D.C. are delivered to your doorstep.

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