'Stop-Loss' loses b.o. battle but wages ideological war

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Last weekend, Hollywood offered moviegoers -- particularly younger ones -- a choice. The options were a glossy movie about a bunch of sexy MIT whiz kids beating the house in Las Vegas and a gritty movie about a bunch of sexy young soldiers who, after completing their tour of duty in Iraq, learn they are being redeployed to the front.

Overwhelmingly, audiences opted for Sony's "21," which opened in first place to $24.1 million, over Paramount/MTV Films' "Stop-Loss," which bowed in eighth place with just $4.6 million.

Predictably, the right-wing commentariat -- which claims that recent Iraq movies have failed because moviegoers have rejected Hollywood's anti-American bias -- jumped on the case. In a "memo to Hollywood" posted on his site, Bill O'Reilly proclaimed "Stop-Loss" "a bomb, a major disaster at the boxoffice." O'Reilly lectured, "There is a difference between loyal dissent, a good thing, and trying to make your country look bad. You, Hollywood people, often do the latter. And the folks know it."

Needless to say, the reality is a good deal less black and white.

Although Kimberly Peirce's "Stop-Loss" hardly set the boxoffice ablaze, it was more a misfire than a bomb. The opening gross for "21" might have been five times higher than that for "Stop-Loss," but "21" was playing in 2,648 theaters vs. 1,291 for "Stop-Loss." On a per-theater basis, "Stop-Loss" actually ranked fourth among the weekend's top 10, taking in a decent $3,528 per theater.

The serious-minded "Stop-Loss" inevitably faced an uphill battle when facing off against escapist entertainment like "21." Although the current crop of Iraq movies hasn't yet connected with audiences in the way that the Vietnam movies of the second half of the 1970s did, it's worth remembering that most of those movies weren't blockbusters, either; 1978's "The Deer Hunter" ($49 million in domestic grosses) and "Coming Home" ($32.7 million) both did respectable business, but they paled in comparison to that year's "Grease" (nearly $160 million in its initial release).

Now, the common wisdom in Hollywood is that with the Iraq War still raging, it's too soon to ask moviegoers to revisit the war. After all, Hollywood waited several years after Vietnam ended before approaching that topic.

But it's just as possible that the current Iraq War movies simply are arriving too late.

Consider: Americans remained deeply divided over the Vietnam War even after its inglorious conclusion in 1975. Many regarded Jane Fonda a traitor, vowing never to go near any of her movies, but those who had protested the war eagerly embraced her films. Arguably, a movie like "Coming Home" benefited from that partisan divide.

Today, the majority of Americans have turned against the war in Iraq. The debate is over. A mid-March Gallup Poll found that 59% of Americans said the U.S. should have stayed out of Iraq. In a CBS poll, 65% said the war was not worth it. And according to CNN, 66% now oppose the war.

Still, the war drags on. Even the cable news channels have shifted away from covering the endless sectarian fighting in Baghdad and Basra in favor of the never-ending he-said-she-said of the current Democratic presidential contest.

If anything, "Stop-Loss" is an uncomfortable reminder that the war isn't over. Ryan Phillippe plays a man who doesn't want to abandon his country or the men he has fought with but who still sees returning to Iraq as an exercise in futility. As the movie struggles to end on a satisfying note, that's a tough sell to audiences, many of whom already have turned off to the war and would just like to put it all behind them.
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