- The Washington Times - Friday, May 26, 2006

Surely no film based on a best-selling novel — 60 million copies sold after three years and still counting — has garnered as much media coverage as Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code.”

U.S. News & World Report queried in its May 22 issue: “What’s Wrong With ‘The Da Vinci Code’?”, subtitling it: “Behind the Vatican’s War With Dan Brown’s Blockbuster Book and Movie.” On Monday, Newsweek chose to go with “Beyond ‘The Da Vinci Code’ ” and investigate “The Mystery of Mary Magdalene” and “How the ‘Code’ recasts Da Vinci’s ‘The Last Supper’ with a look at a conspiracy theory.” The New Yorker featured the film two weeks in a row. First, with a long piece by Peter Boyer discussing how the producers decided to handle its release. Well aware the film would be controversial, they developed a strategy to co-opt the Christian critics by following the example of Mel Gibson’s handling of the controversy surrounding “The Passion of the Christ,” i.e., reaching out for a dialogue.

The second week, the magazine ran a full two-page review of the film with a full-page illustration. Critic Anthony Lane concluded with: “I bring you tidings of great joy. The Catholic Church has nothing to fear from this film. It is not just tripe. It is self-evident, spirit-lowering tripe that could not cause a single member of the flock to turn aside from the faith.”

As it came to pass, the film racked up a very hefty return on its opening weekend — $77 million — but the true test will come in succeeding weeks. Will folks be telling their friends they absolutely must see this movie? Or will they be turning out en masse to catch “X-Men: The Last Stand” with Wolverine and his mutant chums?

On a related note, Esquire has given its June cover to Tom Hanks for the sixth time. Not to Tom Hanks the Harvard symbologist with the weird hairdo, but rather actor Tom Hanks as Mr. Average Guy who talks about a lot of movies he’s made, but not “The Da Vinci Code.”

More interesting in that issue is a really long piece — 14 pages in all — by C.J. Chivers, who covered the terrible hostage-taking in a Russian school by Chechen terrorists for the New York Times in 2004 (Incidentally, cable’s Showtime network, on Thursday, premiered a documentary on the attack titled “Three Days in September”).

No question it’s a horrific tale, with women and children being shot and blown up.

Written in a way to make the reader feel he is personally experiencing every violent act makes for compelling stuff. And that seems to be the way it grabbed Brian Grazer, as, according to Variety, he has just bought the film rights to Mr. Chivers’ story. Mr. Grazer, you may be interested to learn, is the producer of none other than “The Da Vinci Code.” Call me a cynic, but I can’t help feeling that was what Mr. Chivers had in mind all the time he was writing this piece for Esquire. It reads just like a screenplay, practically like a shooting script.

• • •

Another scary tale has been penned by writer Vince Beiser for the June issue of Wired. It’s about an Army camp in a remote area of Louisiana known simply as the Box.

As Mr. Beiser describes the place, it really does seem like “the world’s most violent theme camp.” Actually, the Box is the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, a 100,000-acre training facility simulating the Middle East down to the tiniest detail and on a positively massive scale.

Every year this outpost has served as one of the last stops for 44,000 Army and National Guard troops before they deploy to Iraq or Afghanistan. They face off a group of opponents, known as the Opposing Force, or Opfor, as well as some 1,200 role players acting as Iraqi mayors, imans, journalists, humanitarian workers and just ordinary citizens (a mix of Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds.) Surely there has never been any comparable training course for U.S. soldiers: Fog machines, helicopters, 30 tanklike Bradley Fighting Vehicles, and a thousand jeeps, Humvees and sundry other moving targets. Every soldier and every vehicle carries a small black plastic receiver that can tell what kind of weapon they’ve been hit with and from how far away. If you get hit at close range, your vest cuts loose with a piercing siren. You’re dead. It all sounds like first-class preparation for a war —or maybe a nervous breakdown.

• • •

To end on a somewhat more cheerful note, consider the June/July issue of Plenty, which bears the subtitle of “It’s Easy to Be Green.” There’s something almost touching about this environmentalist-angled publication. Take, for instance the article under the heading of Culture: “Weddings don’t have to be wasteful affairs. Learn how to tie the knot in sustainable style.” I do like such fancy bits as: “Your caterer shouldn’t have a problem tracking down planet-friendly items like free-trade, shade-grown coffees and teas, and organic soymilk, cream, and sugar.” I especially savor their civic spirit in their recommendations about leftovers: “You can arrange in advance to have a local food rescue organization bring what’s left to a nearby homeless shelter.” And for favors, why not send the guests home with plantable saplings, complete with growing instructions prettily wrapped in burlap with a satin ribbon? Oh, why not, indeed.

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