John Cusack Goes to War
By DAVID CARR
POLITICAL satire has its work cut out for it in the current environment. An unpopular war, the tortured rhetoric of a government defending its various pratfalls and news media that many see as complicit in the mess have created a burlesque – one that may not require annotation or exaggeration. Not that John Cusack isn’t willing to give it a whirl. His “War, Inc.,” which opens in New York and Los Angeles this weekend, is a satire that goes over the top and stays there.
Mr. Cusack is one of the writers as well as the star of the film, set in a mythological country called Turaqistan over the course of a militarized trade show in a privatized war. (Joshua Seftel is the
director.) The well-compensated conqueror and savior is a company named Tamerlane, which delivers a full menu of capabilities, including leveling the country with bombs, rebuilding what’s destroyed, and even using its war-making technology to glue limbs back on victims.
As a conflicted mercenary seeking a toehold amid the lucrative mayhem, Mr. Cusack has some big-name accomplices, including his sister Joan Cusack, Marisa Tomei, Dan Aykroyd, Ben Kingsley and,
underneath a mop of black hair, Hilary Duff.
Given the number of war-theme movies (“Redacted,” “In the Valley of Elah” and “Lions for Lambs,” among others) that have been disasters at the box office, and given that moviegoers may not be much in the mood for a comedy about Mideast misadventures, Mr. Cusack is well aware of the obstacles on the road ahead.
“We’ve had strong reactions both ways,” he said, speaking from London, where he is filming “Shanghai,” about an American expat visiting that city right before Pearl Harbor. “We wanted to make something and not just talk about it, and we were aware of the challenges that went with it.”
Those who suggest that the movie’s core premise – war as a profit engine – is so five years ago are right in a way. Mr. Cusack and his co-writers, Mark Leyner and Jeremy Pikser, have been grinding away
almost since the start of the very long war it takes aim at.
“We have been swimming upstream from the beginning,” said Grace Loh, Mr. Cusack’s producing partner. “There was a long struggle to get it funded, and when we didn’t really get the kind of budget we had hoped, we filmed in Bulgaria and really tried to make the best movie we could with the money we had.”
The resulting $8 million film, distributed by a small independent (First Look Studios), plays America’s aspirations and darker characteristics for both laughs and dramatic effect. The initial responses from the critics were as roundly negative as many opinions about the Iraq war. The Hollywood Reporter called it a “complete misfire,” and Spout Blog suggested it was “a debacle.”
Mr. Cusack, who had a box-office miss with the war-themed “Grace Is Gone” last year, prefers to concentrate on word of mouth in the antiwar movement and said he thinks that at some point there will be a backlash to the backlash. As an opponent of the war – a question about it sparked a 10-minute soliloquy about bloody corporate and government mis- and malfeasance – he is less concerned with critical fatigue than public apathy. He predicted that the public will identify with the revulsion of Hauser, the “disaster capitalist” he plays, who eventually decides that he is pointing his gun in the wrong direction.
“We are just trying to take the current trends to their logical ends,” Mr. Cusack said of a film in which tanks running roughshod over Turaqistan carry enough advertising logos to decorate a Nascar
vehicle. “It is really just a short walk to an entirely privatized war. And the irony is that the corporations that are benefiting from the war aren’t paying for it. The taxpayers are.”
A cartoon version of Western culture, replete with a dastardly ex-vice president played by Mr. Aykroyd and an Americanized Middle Eastern pop tart named Yonica Babyyeah played by Ms. Duff, “War,
Inc.” gives way to a straight-up morality play that has echoes of “Grosse Pointe Blank,” a movie in which Mr. Cusack played another hit man who carried some existential baggage in additional to lethal
Mr. Leyner, the author of the post-postmodern novel “Et Tu, Babe” (whose protagonist, a fictionalized version of himself, is, according to the inside flap jacket, “a leather-blazer-wearing, Piranha
793-driving, narcotic-guzzling monster”), said the combat capitalism was just a backdrop for themes ripped not from the headlines but from history.
“I have always been interested in the Samurai movies and westerns, the lone wolf or ronin who has lost the patronage of his master and roams the countryside,” Mr. Leyner said, dressed down for an
interview on iChat in his writer’s uniform of a T-shirt and a few days’ worth of whiskers. “We took those themes and overlaid them on a part of the world that had been destroyed by a privatized war machine and then colonized to literally capitalize on the suffering.”
“It is really about the characters and what happens to them,” he continued. “Again and again in the movie the characters are hiding, saying that if you knew the real me, you’d despise me even more. To
me what happens to the characters in the movie is far more interesting than the polemical content of the movie.”
There is no shortage of polemicists, including Walken, the spymaster played by Mr. Kingsley. His single dimension – evil writ large – serves as a foil for Hauser, who develops a distaste for his own
baloney, including his argument early in the movie with the truth-to-power crusading journalist Natalie Hegalhuzen, played by Ms. Tomei: “What are we supposed to do? Turn our backs on all the
entrepreneurial possibilities? Business is a uniquely human response to a moral or cosmic crisis. Whether there’s a tsunami or a sustained aerial bombardment, there’s the same urgent call for urban renewal.”
O.K., so maybe that’s about as subtle as the maimed but cheery chorus line of amputees dancing anew with assistance from the same Tamerlane technology that removed their legs in the first place. But a satirist has to be on a dead run to stay ahead of the news these days.
Mr. Cusack said the inspiration for the amputee bit came from a news item about Donald H. Rumsfeld, when he was defense secretary, making an appearance at a ski tournament for Iraq war veterans who had lost limbs.
“Just last week there was a guy talking about opening up a kind of Disneyland in Iraq,” he said. “Some of what is happening is so absurd, so outrageous, that you have to do something wild to capture
what is actually under way.”