Of all the people responsible for making a movie, the producer may be the most important, but the least understood. What does a producer do, anyway?
He or she is the one who controls the movie’s budget and all its personnel, and who is ultimately responsible for its commercial success or failure.
Irwin Winkler, 75, is one of Hollywood’s most durable producers. He started his career in the late ’60s with the influential Depression-set drama They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969) and the student-protest film The Strawberry Statement (1970), and went on to earn 12 Academy Awards and 45 nominations, for films including Raging Bull, The Right Stuff and Goodfellas. He also produced a long list of other noteworthy dramas, including Comes a Horseman, True Confessions, Music Box, The Net and Life as a House, the latter two of which he also directed, and the Hollywood blacklisting drama Guilty by Suspicion, which he wrote and directed.
He’s also the man who brought Rocky to the screen in 1976, a longshot project by a then-unknown Sylvester Stallone, which Winkler and his partner at the time, Robert Chartoff, believed in so strongly they mortgaged their homes to finance it. He has produced all of Rocky’s progeny as well, including the recently released Rocky Balboa.
Winkler specializes in serious drama, often with a strong message. “I like to make dramas where you see what happens to people, and how they react to circumstances,” he explains in a phone interview from L.A.
In his nearly four decades in the business, Winkler has always found it challenging to get studios interested in making serious films. “There’s always been that sense that audiences want to be entertained and see comedies and dramas that don’t have too heavy a message,” he says. “And I’ve always fought that.”
His latest movie, Home of the Brave, which he also directed and whose story he helped write, focuses on the experiences of soldiers returning home from the Iraq war, and their difficulties readjusting to civilian life.
The inspiration for the movie came one day when Winkler was at an airport, watching a group of combat-dressed soldiers arrive from a flight. “People stood around the airport cheering and applauding,” he recalls. “I said to myself, I wonder what happens to these people when they get home and the cheering stops and the parties are over, and they have to go back to their jobs in real life.”
Home of the Brave earnestly highlights an issue that will become more visible as the war grinds on, claiming the lives and limbs of more and more Americans and Iraqis. The script is flecked with realistic touches, the result of extensive interviews Winkler and screenwriter Mark Friedman conducted with Iraq veterans as part of their background research.
The movie opens with some harrowing battle scenes (filmed in Morocco), and follows four veterans as they return home to Spokane, Washington. Samuel L. Jackson stars as Will Marsh, a surgeon who returns after two tours of Iraq duty unprepared for the psychological fallout from having witnessed so much bloodshed. He argues with his teenage son, who opposes the war; lashes out at his patient wife; and palliates his sorrow with booze before finally agreeing to get counseling. The other returning soldiers are Vanessa (Jessica Biel), who loses her hand to a roadside bomb and has trouble adjusting to her disability; Tommy (Brian Presley), who struggles to find a sense of purpose after his best friend dies in his arms on the battlefield; and Jamal (rapper-actor Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson), who is so frustrated by VA red tape and his girlfriend’s rejection that he turns to violent crime.
While its theme is reminiscent of The Best Years of Our Lives, the 1946 melodrama about returning World War II veterans, Home of the Brave is about an ongoing military morass more akin to Vietnam than to “the good war.” Is Winkler concerned about how the movie will be received, given the public’s growing cynicism about Iraq?
He bristles at the suggestion. “Do you perceive this movie as being pro-war?” he asks, his voice rising. “This is a movie that shows how unpopular war can be with those who are fighting it — it gets ’em killed! I went out of my way to show this whole combat scene in the beginning so that we see what a hell of a situation these people are in.”
The movie mostly avoids the politics of the war, except for the arguments between Marsh and his son. “Why don’t you read a newspaper?” the son shouts. “I don’t have to, I was there!” Dad retorts, sounding disturbingly like the reality-averse commander in chief. The movie doesn’t question the basic rightness of the Iraq adventure, and none of the soldiers expresses the view that he was “used and lied to by my government,” as I heard one Iraq veteran say recently. One character actually decides to reenlist.
Home of the Brave delivers on its intention to pay tribute to the young men and women who risk their lives to fight other men’s wars, and who return home maimed, emotionally scarred, or in coffins. It isn't the strong statement movie that will someday be made about this war, but it is an earnest attempt to tell the story of the universal soldier, the one who fights and dies in every war. Because in that one very tragic sense, all wars are, and always will be, the same.