Hollywood, year zero

Now that the internet brings us uncensored footage of the Iraq War, film-makers must move quickly to

For those of us too young to remember the Vietnam War, our understanding of that conflict cannot help but be filtered through a showreel of iconic images and sounds - the "Ride of the Valkyries" sequence from Apocalypse Now, the Russian roulette tournament in The Deer Hunter, Samuel Barber's "Adagio for Strings" as used in Platoon. If we're really unlucky, we may find Sylvester Stallone as Rambo stumbling around in our subconscious, too.

The invasion of Iraq, with its escalating anarchy and swift fall from public favour, is commonly compared to Vietnam. But the manner in which film-makers have handled Iraq, from no-budget documentary crews all the way up (or down) to Hollywood studios, couldn't be more different. That they have approached the subject at all provides the most obvious contrast. If you wanted to see an American film about Vietnam while the war was still raging, you were limited to occasional gung-ho action (The Green Berets) and sporadic counter-cultural protest (Medium Cool). Any other commentary was delivered obliquely, with reference to bygone conflicts - Korea (M*A*S*H) or the US massacre of Native Americans (Soldier Blue). The smell of napalm in the morning was lost on the breeze by the time Apocalypse Now launched its assault on America's conscience.

Conversely, modern audiences who want to see a film that doesn't concern the current war will have their work cut out for them over the next 12 months. I even came across a blogger who claimed Knocked Up was an allegory about Iraq: an American gets himself in a terrible mess (for unplanned pregnancy, read the invasion of Iraq), but sticks around to sort it out. The "A" word (abortion) stands in for the equally taboo "W" word (withdrawal). Well, I'm convinced.

It's been a slow start for Iraq-watching cinema-goers, with only the excellent documentary Iraq in Fragments and the Hollywood thrillers The Kingdom and Rendition venturing into this territory. But brace yourselves. Causing a downturn in popcorn sales at a cinema near you soon are: In the Valley of Elah, in which a soldier goes missing after returning from Iraq; Brian De Palma's Redacted, which won the Silver Lion at this year's Venice Film Festival, and is based on the real incident of a 15-year-old Iraqi girl raped and murdered by US Marines; Stop Loss, about a soldier refusing to return to Iraq; and Grace Is Gone, with John Cusack as a man comforting his daughters after their mother is killed in action. (Cusack also co-wrote the forthcoming War, Inc - a black comedy partly inspired by Naomi Klein's article "Baghdad Year Zero".)

Then there are films that address Iraq and the "war on terror" indirectly, among them Robert Redford's Lions for Lambs, a star-studded precis of the arguments for and against war. And that's before you tally up the documentaries, including the award-winning No End in Sight, which exposes the shortcomings of the post-invasion strategy, or docudramas such as Nick Broomfield's Battle for Haditha, a reconstruction of the massacre of 24 Iraqi civilians by US soldiers in the immediate aftermath of the bombing of a military vehicle.

All this activity looks impressive on paper. But the rash of Iraq films feels too late, if not exactly too little, given that more than four years have elapsed since the commencement of hostilities. The turning point between the film industry adopting a "Don't mention the war" stance - remember how daring it felt when Michael Moore spoke out against the invasion during the 2003 Oscar ceremony? - and then countenancing any script with the word "Iraq" in its pages, came when the public mood changed palpably. Matthew Michael Carnahan, who wrote The Kingdom and Lions for Lambs, said recently: "In 2003, when [the war] looked like a cakewalk, a lot of people at Universal were like, 'Oh, I don't know about this.' But by the time that Lions for Lambs was out there, there was no problem. It's perfect timing right now, where people are starting to publicly question the war." Had the occupation been a resounding success, it's safe to assume that A-list stars and major studios would not be lining up to criticise the state-sanctioned slaughter of civilians.

The question of why today's film-makers are focusing on the war when their Vietnam-era predecessors were disinclined to do so is easily answered. It isn't just the weight of public opinion - Vietnam had its vocal antiwar protesters (though not as many as Iraq does), as well as the draft, which literally brought the war to America's doorstep. But while television and newspaper images from Vietnam were available, there simply wasn't the proliferation of unchecked evidence made possible by the internet. What we hear and see from Iraq may be censored and sanitised, but the truth is out there - it just happens to require a few clicks of the mouse, rather than the remote control. In this climate, cinema has to work hard to compete with accounts of the war available in soldiers' blogs, and on YouTube and its ilk, or else risk appearing obsolete.

This helps explain the rise of the docudrama, which falls between fact and fiction, aspiring to the authenticity of the former and the imaginative reach of the latter. Battle for Haditha was one of many war-themed efforts at this year's London Film Festival, where escapism was hard to come by. Like Redacted, it comments not only on the complexities of Iraq, but also on the means by which we absorb (mis-)information. Both films eschew a singular perspective in favour of a mosaic-like storytelling style. Broomfield splices together interviews, news excerpts and vérité-style footage, cutting between soldiers (played by real-life former marines), civilians and the terrorists who plant the bomb.

Redacted is even more unorthodox in its distribution of emphasis. De Palma, whose 1989 film Casualties of War told a near-identical story set in Vietnam, relies heavily on his characters' video diaries as they plan their attack on the teenage girl. We also get scenes from an imaginary French documentary about Iraq; excerpts from online video blogs and YouTube-style sites; and, most daringly, De Palma inserts (fictional) footage from an extremist website celebrating the killing of US troops.

The level of invention is so impressive in Redacted, and its rebuttal of Hollywood's narrative model so uncompromising, that it pains me to say the film is rarely convincing. Questions of truth are bound to be on the mind of any film-maker tackling Iraq. But it's surprising that even the docudrama has not laid to rest entirely the old Hollywood fraudulence. This manifests itself in Battle for Haditha in a terrible, Titanic-esque score that undermines every scene in which it is heard, while in Redacted, the supposedly ordinary grunts keep delivering obviously scripted lines like: "The first casualty of this war is gonna be truth."

I believe the problem lies in the inability of the Iraq films to capture the uniquely ramshackle nature of the war itself. Broomfield and De Palma certainly try, but even they reach for the old cinematic conventions that they should be resisting. No one can predict how or when the war will end, so any film made now can only feel tentative and provisional - characteristics that sit unhappily with cinema's tendency toward reassurance and closure. A film can capture a moment or achieve longevity, but unless its makers are possessed of great prescience, it can rarely be up to the minute. This truism applies as equally to Redacted as it does to, say, Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo: whatever mood or trend was prevalent during the scriptwriting stage is likely to have changed or burned itself out by opening night. Even with a tight budget and a quick turnaround, a film can rarely get from green light to cinema screen in much under a year.

But it will be intriguing to watch this new sub-genre go through its various permutations. It's worth remembering that between those late-1970s pictures regarded as definitive comments on the Vietnam War, and the equally influential late-1980s throwbacks such as Platoon and Full Metal Jacket, there emerged a brief but popular wave of action pictures that restaged the war with America emerging triumphant this time - Rambo: First Blood Part II, Uncommon Valor, Missing in Action and others all recycled the same plot about rescuing PoWs left behind in Vietnam. Although the Iraq film is currently in its sensitive, Coming Home phase, we may yet see action heroes despatched to Baghdad to whup some Iraqi butt in years to come. The Kingdom is halfway there - you can sense the army fatigues it's wearing under that well-pressed liberal exterior.

Only the commercial fortunes of the current Iraq-based dramas will dictate whether more get made, and what form they take. Recent war films (Days of Glory, Letters from Iwo Jima) have without exception been box-office flops. And industry analysts, citing poor business for A Mighty Heart as evidence that serious-minded releases are unpopular, have offered a gloomy prognosis. But that's Iraq all over. At least Hollywood can cut and run when the going gets tough, its only casualties being a few slashed expense accounts and bruised egos.

"Lions for Lambs" is released 9 November; other "coming soon" films mentioned open next year