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Hollywood AWOL in war on terrorism

Fear factor cited for unwillingness to emulate example of World War II

- - Thursday, September 8, 2011

When the United States went to war after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the film industry soon followed suit. Movies like "Flying Tigers" (1942), "Wake Island" (1942) and "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo" (1944) rallied the nation to the Allied cause.

Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda and Clark Gable personally joined the battle, while famed director Frank Capra oversaw "Why We Fight," a series of films meant to inspire the troops.

Even Bugs Bunny did his part, with shorts like the provocatively titled "Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips."

Hollywood's response to the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent war on terrorism couldn't be more different.

Studios initially avoided direct mention of radical Islam's assault on the home front. An image of the twin towers was removed from a teaser poster for the 2002 film "Spider-Man."

Later, when the industry finally decided to tackle the subject head-on, it cast a critical eye on America's response to those attacks via "Fahrenheit 9/11" (2004), "Lions for Lambs" (2007), "Rendition" (2007) and "Redacted" (2007), not the terrorists who perpetrated them.

What were you expecting? A "Rambo"-esque franchise chronicling a Taliban-killing hero?

Not a chance — not in a Hollywood that never fully recovered from post-Vietnam syndrome.

Yahoo! Movies executive producer Sean Phillips says filmmakers' attitude toward U.S. military action began to change in the 1960s when soldiers started dying in the jungles of Vietnam.

Gary Cooper was out, and "layered, tortured heroes" were in, Mr. Phillips says.

Chalk it up to — take your pick — Hollywood's politically correct mindset, its increasing reliance on the global market or plain old cowardice.

Conservative author and pundit Andrew Klavan says Hollywood's blame-America-first reaction to 9/11 boils down to fear.

"[Moviemakers] just will not grasp this nettle for fear of looking like bigots," Mr. Klavan says.

Not to mention fear of reprisals.

"Doing something that annoys Muslims may get you killed," he says.

Timothy Barnard, visiting assistant professor of film studies at the College of William & Mary, recalls not only the imbroglio over the "Spider-Man" poster, but a tweak made to the film post-9/11. The filmmaker added a scene in which New Yorkers rally around their favorite wall-crawler.

"You mess with one of us, you mess with all of us," a fiery New Yorker tells the Green Goblin, the film's supervillain.

That epitomized the industry's way of incorporating 9/11 into its content, what Mr. Barnard calls "stealth rah-rah."

Films like "Master and Commander," plus more recent films like the "Transformers" trilogy and "Battle: Los Angeles" integrated elements of good vs. evil without making the connections overt.

It's not exactly what presidential adviser Karl Rove had in mind when he approached Jack Valenti, then head of the Motion Picture Association of America, in November 2001. Mr. Rove hoped to gin up a repeat of Hollywood's response to World War II, but the effort never gained traction.

Steve Holzer, executive producer and show runner of original programs at Reelz Channel, says one reason for Hollywood's uneasy reaction to 9/11 boils down to the new revenue paradigm.

"We are a completely global entertainment medium now," Mr. Holzer says. "That made it very difficult for Hollywood to make movies that support any sort of war effort."

During World War II, entertainment producers could get away with using derogatory words to define the enemy. That no longer is possible, he says.

"You have to be careful," he says. "Don't infuse or spark anger or riot against someone who is not responsible."

Jason Apuzzo, conservative filmmaker and editor of Libertas Film Magazine, says politics clearly played a role in Hollywood's initial reaction to 9/11.

"Their primary response [to 9/11] was to ignore it," Mr. Apuzzo says. But that appears to be changing, witness the upcoming film on Osama bin Laden's death at the hands of Navy SEALs due for release next year, as well as director Peter Berg's adaptation of "Lone Survivor," a film detailing the hunt for a Taliban leader.

"As the baby boomers start to retire off the scene in Hollywood, it's becoming less of a factor," Mr. Apuzzo says of the industry's politically charged greenlighting process. "Younger people are not as hesitant about dealing with this issue."