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Saving Grace

From Sundance favorite to box-office flop, what the fate of John Cusack’s Grace Is Gone says about us

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Screenwriter James C. Strouse wanted to cut through the noise surrounding the war in Iraq and write a movie about its human cost. The Goshen, Indiana, native set his script, Grace Is Gone, in the heartland and told a story he thought would resonate with both liberals and conservatives. John Cusack loved the script and signed on to produce it.

Grace got off to a great start. At the 2007 Sundance Film Festival, crowds gave both the audience award and outstanding screenplay honors to the movie, which stars Cusack as a Midwestern father struggling to tell his two young daughters that their mother—a soldier—has been killed in Iraq. After Sundance, the Weinstein Company bought it for about $4 million.

But when Grace Is Gone came out late last year, excited relatives called Strouse, 31, wondering what was going on. They couldn’t find the movie anywhere. Grace ended up in seven theatres at its widest release. Box-office receipts tallied a little more than $50,000—an astonishingly low figure. What happened? “My feeling from talking to friends and family was that they had enough [of the war]—they were turning it off; they were turning away,” Strouse says.

It wasn’t just audiences who turned away. Between purchase and release, the Weinstein Company seemed to lose enthusiasm for the film. They would not make anyone available to talk about Grace, but three months before it came out, audiences had responded poorly to In the Valley of Elah, an Iraq-themed movie that garnered Tommy Lee Jones an Oscar nod for best actor.

The barrage of Iraq news coverage has hurt, says Kevin Hagopian, a film historian at Pennsylvania State University. Moviegoers get constant reminders that the conflict won’t have an easy resolution. “This is not a war that’s going to end like Michael Clayton, where bad guys go down and good guys emerge whole,” he says. Historically, audiences have been more receptive to wartime films if there is a general consensus about the necessity of the conflict, such as World War II, says Rick Worland, chair of the division of cinema and television at Southern Methodist University. “People are expressing their disinterest in [Iraq] by ignoring these movies,” he says.

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