As a slew of Iraq-themed films are readied for wide US theatrical release, Patrick Z McGavin talks to two film-makers about the appetite for the subject among financiers and audiences.

After the breakout success of his second feature, The Illusionist, director Neil Burger had an enviable freedom when choosing his follow-up work. He opted for directing his original screenplay, The Lucky Ones, a comically inflected road movie about the travails of two men and a woman. 'I wanted to do something about America,' Burger said recently, several weeks after completing principal photography on the film (now called The Return).

'Movies become this fascinating way of taking the temperature of the country. I thought, what better way to do that than to follow it through these three people who have been out of the country for some time,' he says.

The kicker is that the characters, played by Tim Robbins, Rachel McAdams and Michael Pena, are soldiers returning from military tours of duty in Iraq. 'All of my movies have been concerned with some form of truth, or the nature of illusion,' Burger adds. 'This is about truth and lies and what is happening in the country today.'

More than four years after the controversial US-led military invasion of Iraq, the political and cultural consequences have been the near exclusive province of non-fiction documentary film-makers. The only significant fiction film to address the personal or moral consequences of Iraq was Irwin Winkler's December release, Home Of The Brave.

Fiction movies are finally catching up. The 2007-08 North American release schedule is studded with artistically ambitious and socially provocative fiction films either directly or indirectly concerning Iraq, Afghanistan or the Middle East.

These works include Paul Haggis' In The Valley Of Elah; Peter Berg's The Kingdom; James Strouse's Sundance-prize winning film Grace Is Gone; Stop Loss, the highly anticipated second feature from Kimberly Peirce; Mike Nichols' Charlie Wilson's War; Robert Redford's Lions For Lambs and Brian De Palma's Redacted.

The Vietnam connection
The new Iraq-war themed films are heading into cinemas with US military operations ongoing. By contrast, the first prominent Vietnam-themed films - Coming Home, The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now - did not appear until the late 1970s, several years after the fall of Saigon in 1975. Even so, some striking parallels exist.

If US movies did not address directly the war in Vietnam, the social unrest and cataclysmic violence unmistakably tainted the dominant films of the period, from the slow-motion deaths in Arthur Penn's Bonnie And Clyde and Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch to the anarchic sexual and social subversion of Robert Altman's Korean-war set M*A*S*H.

As the author and screenwriter Michael Herr (Full Metal Jacket) observed, 'Vietnam is what we had instead of a happy childhood.'

Burger says: 'Vietnam films were clearly a reference point, and one film in particular done in the same vein as our film was Hal Ashby's The Last Detail. If you look at the film, Vietnam is never mentioned. But (in Robert Towne's script), the title refers to their last assignment before they ship out for Vietnam.

'In our movie, Iraq is never mentioned. In our story, the (three characters) seem to be welcomed home, but they are outsiders who feel disconnected from everyday people who are only vaguely connected to the idea of a war going on.'

The key question is whether audiences are emotionally or politically ready to support dark stories about a difficult subject while confronted by the grim reality of rising US casualties and a fractious domestic political atmosphere. 'I don't think people's appetite for this is endless,' says James C Strouse, writer and director of Grace Is Gone.

The film debuted in competition at Sundance earlier this year and is the story of a grief-stricken father (played by John Cusack) who withholds from his young daughters the news their mother has died in combat in Iraq. It won both the audience award and the Waldo Salt screenwriting prize. The Weinstein Company is set to open the film in October.

Tough sell
'I think (Iraq) is something that's so pervasive that it's hard to sell it as entertainment,' Strouse adds. 'People go to the movies to get away from that. I think what we're likely to see is one or two titles break through (commercially), and the rest will have a hard time.'

Even so, Strouse relates a telling story that the mostly Midwestern or Southern independent businessmen who financed the film's $2.5m budget were largely Democratic-leaning progressives who were intrigued to support a movie that examines the personal costs of Americans fighting in Iraq.

'I think the climate has changed in the last two or three years,' Burger says. His film was financed by Lionsgate. 'In the first year or two of the war, people that were critical of US policy were annihilated by the pundits.

Now, as individuals, people are willing to (finance) these difficult projects. As corporations, I don't know. These films are not an easy sell but there's interest and a willingness to do socially responsible or socially interactive projects.'