John Cusack: "What is Absurdity But the Logical Extension of Current Trends?"

By Sean Axmaker

John Cusack

With a few exceptions, John Cusack never really made a go for the blockbuster movie career. Sure, he made Con Air and The Runaway Jury, but he's better known for smaller projects like Say Anything and Bullets Over Broadway and offbeat pieces like Being John Malkovich and The Ice Harvest, not to mention Grosse Point Blank and High Fidelity, which he helped develop, write and produce. War Inc. [official site], his third starring production as co-writer/co-producer, is a savage satire of the modern war industry as a veritable government in its own right driving and defining national policy in the name of disaster economics: every war is an opportunity for profit.

I confess that I didn't really like the film - I didn't find the broad humor funny or the direction particularly deft - but I appreciate the politics and the perspective and I admire Cusack's nerve to go for the jugular. Behind the laughs, his portrait of corporate politics behind the war in Iraq (or rather, the not-so-thinly disguised stand-in, Turqistan) is dire and depressing. The low-budget production was released to a handful of theaters in New York and Los Angeles in May but is rolling out to other cities, including Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle, Austin and Boston, on June 13. I spoke with Cusack by phone on Sunday, June 1. He was in London, where he is currently shooting the film Shanghai, directed by Mikael Håfström (who previously directed Cusack in 1408), but took the time to talk about the production and the politics behind it.

Your character is called Hauser in the film but listed as "Brand Hauser" on the IMDb. Where did that name come from? I ask because it almost sounds like a name brand itself, and this is a film all about corporate branding and franchising American business to other countries.

Actually his name was never mentioned to be Brand Hauser, but there was a time when we were going to call the movie "Brand Hauser," kind of like the corporate branding, and then this Hauser: corporate mercenary. So everyone who has written about it has used it and it's sort of stuck, so that everyone calls him Brand Hauser, but his name was not actually Brand, it was Gaylord Hauser.

War, IncDo they use the name Gaylord in the film?

No, he's just known as Hauser. The Gaylord reference got cut out. Joannie, my sister, called me Gaylord a few times. Did you get a chance to see the film? Did you like it?

I just saw it last night. Pretty damning stuff, but done with a very sarcastic sense of humor. You've got an occupied Mideast country called Turqistan, you've got a former American vice-president more beholden to the war industry than to the government, and you've got a war that is 100% outsourced. That sounds like what the military industrial complex at least aspires to.

I'd say they're 50 to 60% there already.

How much would you say War, Inc. exaggerates what corporate America is really up to in Iraq and how much would you say is simply a reflection through the lens of satire?

Well, it's interesting, because the basis for a lot of the criticism and praise for the movie is what the perspective is. If you go on MySpace - we have a big space on MySpace, check it out - we have some of the heaviest people I know who have written about Iraq, from chief foreign news correspondents for 60 Minutes to Naomi Klein, who spent a lot of time there, to Jeremy Scahill, who's been there a bunch, to artists and writers like Damian Hirst and Gore Vidal, comedian Sarah Silverman, we have a bunch of people who all think the movie is prescient and they all get what the movie's about.

Then you have some people who say the tone of it is way over the top or it's five years too late or it's five years too early or you can't mix all these tones and styles together and it's a failure. So you have this chasm between movie critics and people who write about the world from a different perspective and the chasm is pretty extraordinary. So we have plenty of supporters out there for it, but we've also had people who have said the movie goes soft and it's a happy ending. And I think, "Are you even watching the same film?" If that's a happy ending...

[SPOILER ALERT: John Cusack's next two sentences appear on Page 3; don't read them 'til you've seen the film]

It's very experimental. My point, I guess, is just to talk about how some people view it as absolutely two minutes around the corner and some people say it's way over the top, but the people who say it's way over the top aren't usually the people who have written or know extensively about the subject. So it’s been interesting.

Grace Is GonePrevious films about the Iraq war and the American presence in Iraq have been dramas. You yourself were in Grace Is Gone.

That's right.

Why did you choose to use comedy, to use satire, to approach the issue?

Well, what is absurdity or absurdism but the logical extension of current trends? So if you have a war that is almost half privatized - there are 630 private companies making a gold mine in Iraq and you these companies, the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times, describing it as a gold rush, which is like creating the frontier; you have all these things - I don't know another way of processing the information except through absurdism or satire. I think maybe it helps, if you look at it through an absurdist lens, it kind of puts it in focus in a way that if you did a very straight piece, like I did with Grace Is Gone, it's just almost too depressing to watch. Because it's so dark and it's so depressing and there's this sense of inevitability about the whole thing, that the bastards are just going to win and greed is too powerful to combat and it's too structural and there's nothing you can do.

I think a lot of those films about Iraq are fantastic, but it's very depressing. If you look at it through comedy, it also ignites a sense of your outrage or your defiance or your spirit: "Well, the first thing I'm going to do is reclaim my sense of subversion or my sense of defiance. At least I can shame or mock this ideology, even if I can't beat it." So I think that's what comedy or absurdity offers you.

Do you think you can reach more people through this lens?

Well, apparently it's working this way. It seems to be working.


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