Over the weekend, American Sniper passed The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 1 to become the highest-grossing movie released in 2014. And though there is no sequel to director Clint Eastwood’s Iraq War film about the late Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, Hollywood studios are reloading their production slates, in the hopes of repeating Sniper’s box office bullseye.
Already, Steven Spielberg has announced plans to team with Jennifer Lawrence on a big-screen adaptation of Pulitzer Prize-winning Iraq War photographer Lynsey Addario’s memoir, It’s What I Do. And over the weekend, Deadline reported that Kathryn Bigelow will direct Mark Boal’s script about Bowe Bergdahl, the Army sergeant who was captured and held captive for five years by the Taliban while he was stationed in Afghanistan.
And there other war films on the horizon: Reese Witherspoon, Deadline reported, is interested in making a movie out of the book Ashley’s War, about a group of female Special Operations soldiers in Afghanistan.
The Berghdahl film will be Boal and Bigelow’s third movie about America’s wars in the Middle East. Their run began with 2009’s The Hurt Locker, which won the Oscar for Best Picture, but only made $17 million at the domestic box office. Their next collaboration, 2012’s Zero Dark Thirty, fared better, grossing nearly $100 million in the U.S. But Locker’s middling financial results are typical of those for contemporary war films, which have fared poorly in the years following America’s difficult invasion of Iraq.
In 2007, Paul Haggis’ In the Valley of Elaj — a film about the brutality of the Iraq War and the ramifications on the soldiers that fought in the conflict — made just $6 million at the box office, despite positive reviews and a cast that included such Oscar winners as Tommy Lee Jones, Charlize Theron, and Susan Sarandon. Similarly, 2010’s Green Zone, which re-teamed Bourne Identity star Matt Damon with director Paul Greengrass, took in just $35 million domestic on a $100 million budget, despite positive reviews.
Other financial misfires included Robert Redford’s 2007 movie about war propaganda, Lions for Lambs, which made just $15 million; and Kimberly Peirce’s Stop Loss, about soldiers with PTSD forced to return to action, made only $10 million.
But the began to turn in 2011 with the release of Act of Valor, a movie about Navy SEALs that starred retired SEALs. It was in large part a recruiting video, showcasing the brotherhood of the soldiers and the adrenaline-fueled special missions that make Michael Bay movies look pedestrian. That movie made $70 million in the US, and was followed a year later by Zero Dark Thirty. Like Act of Valor, the Oscar-nominated ZDT told a (relatively) triumphant story, this time about the successful killing of Osama bin Laden. It was met with controversy over its depiction of the torture of enemy combatants, but it still made more than triple its $40 million production budget at the world wide box office, and earned five Oscar nominations.
Peter Berg’s 2013 war film Lone Survivor, which featured Mark Wahlberg as a heroic real-life Navy SEAL who survives the ordeal that follows a botched mission in Afghanistan, was also a hit. It made $125 million at the US box office, signaling that honoring the sacrifice of American troops was good for business. Now, with American Sniper passing half a billion dollars worldwide, it’s clear that the right modern war movie can enlist millions of theatergoers and be a blockbuster hit.