HBO hit turns tide for Iraq War films

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While Hollywood focused on the Oscars last weekend, HBO shattered a losing streak among the creative community that has claimed about a dozen movie and TV projects in recent years.

From star-studded films to low-budget documentaries, efforts to tackle the ongoing war in Iraq have struggled to find an audience. On the theatrical side, there has been "Jarhead," "Stop-Loss," "Lions for Lambs," "Redacted" and "In the Valley of Elah," among others. Meanwhile, networks have launched FX's "Over There" and HBO's "Alive Day Memories," "House of Saddam" and "Generation Kill."

Not all were failures, but none was considered a breakout hit. Media reports frequently concluded that Americans do not want — or are not ready — to watch stories about the conflict.

Then, on Saturday night, HBO debuted "Taking Chance," which drew 2 million viewers and became the most-watched original movie to debut on the premium network in five years.

"Chance" stars Kevin Bacon as a military escort officer accompanying the body of a Marine corporal killed in Iraq. The based-on-a-true-story tale was sober and stark, with some scenes consisting of merely a man and a coffin. It's not exactly the story one would expect to find an audience in the middle of an economic recession and ongoing war. Critics mostly were positive, but the consensus was far from universal.

Yet not since 2004's "Something the Lord Made" have more viewers tuned in for an HBO original movie.

Although titles like "Three Kings" found some success after the Gulf War, Hollywood's repeated efforts to tell stories about the current conflict have been met with a cold shoulder from viewers. "Chance" likely was aided by tackling the generic theme of sacrifice rather than critiquing U.S. foreign policy and setting its action mostly stateside rather than abroad.

"Wars in progress are usually pretty divisive, and television tries to be anything but divisive," TV historian Tim Brooks said. "If it's over long enough, you can do a 'M*A*S*H' or a 'China Beach.' I do think there's a little window of opportunity for movies or series where the focus is clearly not on the battles but on the soldiers who everybody wants to support."

Brooks also pointed to Lifetime's successful "Army Wives," which is about life on a military base but features occasional "worried wife" moments when a character's spouse is serving overseas.

Some of the pilots under consideration for the fall touch on the war as well. CBS' "Back" and "House Rules" and NBC's "Mercy" are among those with characters who have returned from a tour of duty.

With the success of "Chance" and timetables being set for the withdrawal of U.S. troops, Hollywood could get even bolder about tackling the subject. Iraq-themed stories likely will remain an uphill battle for filmmakers, but at least now the industry knows it's a winnable struggle. (partialdiff)
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