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'Three Kings' director looks at Iraq war

David O. Russell documentary to air on IFC on Election Eve

By Stephanie Snipes

George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg and Ice Cube star in 1999's "Three Kings."
George Clooney
Ice Cube
Mark Wahlberg

(CNN) -- In 1999, director David O. Russell showed the world a different side of battle in "Three Kings," a film set during the first Persian Gulf War.

The film tells the story of four frustrated soldiers (George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Ice Cube and Spike Jonze) serving in Iraq who set out to steal Kuwaiti gold originally stolen by the Iraqis. Clooney and his colleagues are looking for a little something extra for their service, but they get tangled in the chaos of the postwar period.

With the current Iraq war making the film relevant again, Warner Bros. -- the film's studio and, like, a division of Time Warner -- planned a rerelease of "Three Kings" in theaters and DVD.

With no additional footage from the film available for DVD bonus features, Russell joined with directors Tricia Regan and Juan Carlos Zaldivar to make a new documentary called "Soldiers Pay," about the current war, to be added to the DVD. (The title is a reference to William Faulkner's first novel, called "Soldiers' Pay," which concerns World War I and its aftermath.)

The documentary tells the story of the current war from the eyes of soldiers, Iraqis, politicians and journalists involved. Russell says it was intended to be nonpartisan.

In an eleventh-hour decision, Warner Bros. scrapped the rerelease, citing time constraints (the film was supposed to hit shelves before the November 2 election) and leaving the documentary homeless.

The studio said it needed 60 days after the final delivery of the material to produce the DVD, according to a September 4 article in the Los Angeles Times, and various situations -- described by the Times as "controversy surrounding the documentary, combined with a later-than-expected arrival of the bonus footage" -- made an early November release impossible, said Warner Bros. officials.

At the time, Russell disputed Warner Bros.' contentions. "I think if they really wanted to they could make it happen," he told the Times.

He told CNN he was surprised when Warner Bros. decided against releasing the documentary because "I feel the film is evenhanded. There's a lot of Republicans interviewed in it; there's a lot of Iraqis who really support Bush interviewed in it. It just raises a lot of questions. It's not done in a reckless way or in an inflammatory way. It's not even close to the style of a Michael Moore movie."

Russell was able to find backing with the Independent Film Channel, which will air the documentary in its entirety Monday night, the day before the election.

"IFC's young, intelligent viewers want uncut, commercial-free, alternative programming, presented as the filmmaker originally intended -- without the corporate filter so prevalent on TV these days," said Evan Shapiro, IFC senior vice president of marketing, via e-mail.

"Why do we air these shows as a lead-up to the election? For the same reason networks show scary movies at Halloween and football movies before the Super Bowl. Programming works best when it is relevant to the world around it. Right now, the world is obsessed with this election. To pretend it didn't exist would diminish IFC's relevance as a reflection of our culture."

Russell spoke with CNN last week about the film.

CNN: What was the most interesting thing you uncovered while making this film?

RUSSELL: We tracked down the guys who actually lived "Three Kings." ... A bunch of guys found $300 million in cash, in American cash, in a safe house of Saddam [Hussein's], not a palace, like a little neighborhood house that had been boarded up. And they were busted.

CNN: Why would they try and get away with something like that?

Former supply sergeant, Matt Novak, searches through a destroyed building in Iraq.

RUSSELL: They were in a culture of, I think, conquest and acquisitions over there. ... I think it mirrors the relationship we have with the region to begin with, which is that we go there for oil. We use it like our supermarket to pick up our oil and leave. And for 50 years we didn't care that the supermarket was run by these fascist guys who didn't have democracy, which ultimately came back to haunt us on 9/11.

CNN: The soldiers in the film talk about the trouble behind their requisitioning.

RUSSELL: Sometimes that's really important stuff for the troops to move, like gasoline or vehicles or water, but a lot of times it's TVs and videos and computers, and things they just want to use, to have, to entertain themselves. And that is not the way you kind of win hearts and minds, I think, in a country you're trying to turn over to democracy.

CNN: How did the Iraqis you spoke with regard the war?

RUSSELL: I spoke to Iraqis who love George [W.] Bush. ... Then you meet brothers of these same Iraqis who have served on the State Department commissions who are not happy with George Bush because they think the occupation hasn't been handled with the proper sensitivity. ...

Every Iraqi I know is glad that Saddam Hussein is gone. I would completely disagree with Michael Moore about that. I think it's good that Saddam Hussein is gone. And I think basically the movie takes the position of, is Iraq better off without Saddam? Yes. Is the world better off with this war? Not sure, don't think so.

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