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Insider spoke with the directors of "The Outpost" and "Thank You for Your Service."
We asked why modern-day war movies weren't as big of a draw anymore.
"Cherry" is the latest contemporary war movie to be a dud.
The war genre has been a fixture in Hollywood for as long as there have been moving pictures. Its gritty look at the human condition, often with gripping visuals, has resulted in some of the most acclaimed movies ever made, ranging from "All Quiet on the Western Front" to "Saving Private Ryan."
I have always been a big fan of war movies. As a kid growing up in the 1980s, I indulged in everything from the "Mission in Action" franchise to "Hamburger Hill."
But for more than a decade, war movies focused on the modern-day US conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have struggled to find an audience.
"Cherry" is the latest movie to try to put its own spin on a contemporary war film. Unfortunately, it misses the mark.
'Cherry' is a dud with audiences
"Cherry" was adapted by the directors Anthony and Joe Russo from the book of the same name by Nico Walker. At almost three hours long, the movie is an agonizing watch.
It follows a nameless young man (played by Tom Holland) who gets hooked on heroin to cope with his post-traumatic stress disorder after witnessing the horrors of war in the Middle East in the early 2000s as an Army medic. He eventually gets his wife addicted too and begins robbing banks to feed their habit.
Given its star power of Holland and the directors behind one of the biggest box-office hits of all time, "Avengers: Endgame," I was certainly interested in checking it out.
But despite a valiant effort by Holland to show us his range as an actor, the whole thing feels pretentious. It is way too long, and pretty much every character is unlikable.
And clearly, I wasn't the only one who felt that way. The movie has a 36% score on Rotten Tomatoes. Though it's playing in theaters, Apple TV Plus, which is releasing the movie, has not reported its earnings.
The Russos' movie is just the latest example in a growing list of modern-day war titles that have not worked.
2014's 'American Sniper' was the last popular contemporary war film
The most recent modern-day war movie to really grab audiences was "American Sniper."
Clint Eastwood's 2014 drama starring Bradley Cooper as the real-life sniper Chris Kyle, the deadliest marksman in US military history, became a surprise hit and took in over $547 million worldwide ($350 million of it domestically) with its mix of stirring battles and moving scenes of Kyle dealing with his return from war.
Since then, studios have been trying to capture that same magic with little success.
Releases like "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk" (2016), "Thank You for Your Service" (2017), "War Machine" (2017), "Megan Leavey" (2017), "Sand Castle" (2017), "The Yellow Birds" (2018), and "The Kill Team" (2019) have been critical or box-office disappointments, often both.
Yet during that same stretch since "American Sniper" was released, movies that focus on earlier wars have flourished. "Dunkirk" (2017), "Midway" (2019), and "1917" (2019) were hits at the box office, and both "Dunkirk" and "1917" were Oscar winners (and were nominated for best picture).
So what gives? Why are audiences so taken by movies about the World Wars, but Hollywood can't get anyone interested in modern-day conflicts?
"I think it might have to do with the fact that war has changed," Robert Niemi, the author of "100 Great War Movies: The Real History Behind the Films," told Insider. "The geopolitical situation has changed so much, the terrorist threat is more undefined, we don't have the traditional wars that we once did."
Niemi believes that because the US is so divided politically in its stance on recent conflicts, the focus in contemporary war movies needs to be on the troops.
"They are survivalist pictures now, that's what I've discovered," he said. "What audiences are being shown is this idea that the soldiers themselves are noble creatures looking after their buddies."
The key to success is making a movie that veterans and soldiers can embrace
Looking at recent success stories, Niemi's theory seems accurate. The only contemporary war movie that has grabbed the attention of audiences since "American Sniper" is Rod Lurie's 2020 release, "The Outpost."
Based on the Jake Tapper book of the same name, "The Outpost" recounts the 2009 Battle of Kamdesh, in which 300 Taliban fighters attacked American Combat Outpost Keating and almost took control of it. The result was one of the bloodiest battles of the time, for which two staff sergeants received the Medal of Honor.
Lurie, who served in the Army before becoming a filmmaker, acknowledges we are in a time where the war movie has to be about heroism to work.
"When you asked a soldier during World War II why they are there, they would all tell you the same answer: 'We're going to stop Hitler,'" Lurie told Insider over Zoom recently. "You go ask soldiers in Afghanistan or Iraq why they are there, their answers will all be different. In my movie, there's something to root for. You want these guys to survive."
"The Outpost," with its "I got your back" storyline and authentic battles, performed beyond expectations at test screenings. It went on to be a big performer in the premium-video-on-demand space when it opened over the July Fourth weekend last year (its theatrical release was scrapped because of the coronavirus pandemic).
It was No. 1 on iTunes and FandangoNow its opening weekend and performed strongly in the following weeks. It also had the largest opening day in the history of its distributor, Screen Media.
Lurie believes the "secret ingredient" to a war movie's success today is having veterans and the military embrace it.
"If your buzz is only among military and vets, we're talking about tens of millions of people," Lurie said. "What vets want to do more than anything else is sit down with their family and friends and say, 'This is what it was.' They don't want to talk about it."
"The Outpost" certainly proved that and tapped into an audience that no other recent modern-day war movie has been able to.
Audiences don't want to watch the soldier's journey back home
That's not to say that movies like "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk" and even "Cherry" didn't also use the same playbook as Lurie. They did. What hurt those titles is audiences' growing lack of interest in the "soldier coming home" story.
The writer-director Jason Hall learned that firsthand in 2017 when Universal released his directorial debut, "Thank You for Your Service," which stars Miles Teller as a soldier trying to integrate back into family life after serving in Iraq.
Hall first found acclaim writing the screenplay for "American Sniper." The opportunity came to direct "Service" after Steven Spielberg decided not to direct the adaptation of the David Finkel book and asked Hall to take it on.
Hall wanted to show the pains a soldier goes through to return to civilian life, even more than what was explored in "American Sniper." He recalled to Insider that there was a moment when he wanted to change the movie's title to "The After War," to drive home his movie's tone to audiences.
"I brought that up to the distributor and they said, 'No, we can't call it that because everyone will know this isn't really a war movie,'" Hall said.
"It's hard to tell the coming-home story because nobody's that interested in it," Hall said looking back. "Audiences gravitate towards the violence and that warrior archetype."
So, then why does he think "American Sniper" was such a success when it came out? While it also told a coming-home story, Hall says a bit of controversy helped.
"Michael Moore made that tweet about snipers being cowards and everybody started to jump on each other," Hall recalls.
Moore's tweet came out when the movie hit theaters, and though Moore later pointed out that he never mentioned "American Sniper" in the tweet, the momentum behind the movie suddenly grew.
"It became a big debate over patriotism and supporting our soldiers," Hall said. "Our movie wasn't about that, it was about the cost of war on a man. People started taking what they wanted from the movie, which I would argue great movies allow you to do that."
Despite the slump the contemporary war movie is in, the genre is never going away. The big question is how it will evolve as it examines our country's latest conflicts. Not to mention how it will sell those conflicts to audiences.
"There needs to be a lag where there's time to look back at today's wars more objectively," Niemi believes. "The great Vietnam movies didn't come out until a decade after the war and later. Maybe that will happen too with this period."
Read the original article on Insider