Iraq scripts are political as well as introspective

They examine the war, but also what it means to be American and the grief of losing family
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For all we see on TV about the war in Iraq, actor John Cusack said, we don't see many images of people grieving.

"We see a lot of grandstanding, and we see a lot of exploitation of grief," Cusack said in a phone interview. "If you go to Europe and you see the stuff on the BBC, you see visions of the war where you see people writhing and dying on television. We don't see that. We have a sanitized version of it. It's OK for Wolf Blitzer to be solemn, but we don't see . . . the hours and hours of grief that must go on."

Grief is at the heart of the drama "Grace Is Gone," one of three movies playing at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival that deal with the Iraq war. In "Grace," Cusack plays Stanley, a hardware store manager trying to avoid telling his daughters that their mother has been killed in Iraq.

Neither "Grace's" writer-director, James C. Strouse, nor documentarian Rory Kennedy, whose "Ghosts of Abu Ghraib" is in competition at Sundance, intended at first to make a movie about Iraq.

Strouse said the script for "Grace Is Gone" combined a lot of personal elements - his brother's family, a summer trip he once took, his father's eagerness to serve in the military and the current war. "It all kind of came together kind of organically," Strouse said. "It was kind of like a perfect storm of personal and world events."

Strouse, who wrote the drama "Lonesome Jim" that played Sundance in 2005, said his dialogue in early drafts of "Grace" was more didactic. But he soon realized that "people don't explicitly state their beliefs in families like this. . . . It's not a story that you can force an agenda in. It's not natural."

Kennedy said her first interest was "exploring the topic of why ordinary people commit extraordinary acts of evil," particularly in acts of genocide. But seeing the horrific images of prisoners abused at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison got her asking, "How could Americans do this? Who were the people who did this? And why would they have done it?"

When Kennedy interviewed the people on the ground, those who either took part in or witnessed the abuse, she got the same answer. "Each one said pretty much the same thing, which was, 'I did it because I was told to do it,' '' Kennedy said.

That answer moved Kennedy from making a psychological profile to a dive into investigative journalism, connecting the existing evidence of who ordered what from the G.I.s in Abu Ghraib up the chain of command, ultimately to the policies of President Bush and then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

(The third Sundance film about Iraq, Charles Ferguson's documentary "No End in Sight," is described in the festival's film guide as a "surgical analysis" of Bush administration failures in conducting the Iraq war and occupation.)

Images of Bush and Rumsfeld pop up occasionally in "Grace Is Gone," like an early scene in which Cusack's character walks in on his 12-year-old daughter, Heidi (Shelan O'Keefe), surreptitiously watching the evening news.

Cusack said he had been looking to make a movie about the Iraq war, and Strouse came to him with the "Grace Is Gone" script at just the right time. Cusack said he was intrigued by playing Stanley, a political conservative who loses his wife to the war he supported.

"We pour so much concrete into our belief systems, and we absolutely bet everything that has to be the way it is," Cusack said. "And I think the universe has a way of shocking us into opening our hearts again."

That kind of introspection is what Kennedy hopes will come from her documentary.

"To me, the film's not just about Abu Ghraib. The film is about who we are as Americans," said Kennedy, sounding a bit like her relatives. (Rory is the youngest daughter of Robert F. Kennedy, and Sen. Edward Kennedy is her uncle.) "There have been decisions made in the last few years, particularly in the face of 9/11 and the threat of terrorism. And I think there are real implications to those decisions that have very real material effect that we have to come to terms with - and I think Abu Ghraib is part of that. . . .

"And it's not just about looking back, it's about looking forward," Kennedy added. "I think it's equally important to look ahead to policies in place right now which could lead to a repeating of what happened in Abu Ghraib."

Neither Strouse nor Cusack is sure how audiences will react to "Grace is Gone." Strouse said he "didn't want to make something where you could walk away and have a tidy ending," while Cusack called the film "a bit of a Rorschach test" of people's views about the war. And both men stress their movie is a drama, not a political speech.

"You don't need to be polemic," Cusack said, "because the grief speaks for itself."

* "Grace Is Gone": Today at 3 p.m. at the Sundance Screening Room, Sundance Resort; Monday, 9:15 a.m., Eccles Theatre, Park City; Tuesday, 11:30 a.m., Racquet Club Theatre, Park City; Wednesday, 9:30 p.m., Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, Salt Lake City; and Thursday, 8:30 a.m., Racquet Club Theatre.

* "Ghosts of Abu Ghraib": Wednesday, 3:15 p.m., Holiday Village Cinema III, Park City; and Friday, 11:30 a.m., Holiday Village Cinema II.

* "No End in Sight": Monday, 2:45 p.m., Library Center Theatre, Park City; Tuesday, 5:30 p.m., Holiday Village Cinema II; Wednesday, 3 p.m., Sundance Screening Room; Thursday, 9 p.m., Holiday Village Cinema IV; Friday, 9 a.m., Holiday Village Cinema III.