Thursday, February 23, 2006

Hollywood’s slowly thawing reluctance to confront the events of September 11 conceals an even more inhibitory ambivalence about the wars in Iraq in Afghanistan.

Propaganda pictures would presumably be considered artistic travesties today — but we haven’t even seen satirical “Catch-22”-like protests, unless one counts Stephen Gaghan’s conspiracy-laden thumbsucker “Syriana” as an oblique expression of contemporary anti-war skepticism.

Quite simply, a chilly aloofness reigns under the Southern California sun.

So far, the television producer Steven Bochco has been a lone dramatic voice with his boots-on-the-ground series “Over There,” which chronicled the everyday tribulations of American soldiers in Iraq before its recent cancellation by cable channel FX.

The primary reason for the show’s demise, I think, is that it reinforced, in a fictional context, the deluge of bad impressions — rehashing the Abu Ghraib controversy, for example, and showing soldiers abusing drugs — about the war that Americans already receive from the nightly news.

Bruce Willis, angered over the media’s systematically negative portrayals of the war, is in talks to produce and star in a movie based on the heroic exploits of Michael Yon, a former Green Beret who maintains a blog at

Mr. Willis traveled to Iraq in 2003 and said last fall that he was “baffled to understand why the [positive] things I saw happening in Iraq are not being reported.”

The forthcoming movie, Mr. Willis said, will dramatize the lives of “these guys who do what they are asked to for very little money to defend and fight for what they consider to be freedom.”

Is pacifism so ingrained — and Bush hatred so rampant — in Hollywood that the industry can’t bring itself to produce heroic portrayals of American military personnel?

Not necessarily, according to screenwriter and Artful Writer blogger Craig Mazin.

“I’m sure there will be one before long,” he says of the prospects for a movie set in Iraq or Afghanistan.

The reason we haven’t seen one yet, he says, isn’t an industrywide political grudge, but, rather, a wait-and-see deference to events: The war on terrorism isn’t over yet.

“Hollywood is reasonably cautious when it comes to depicting any war in progress,” Mr. Mazin says. “Doing a movie after a war’s conclusion means that you can frame a narrative safely within the confines of historical fact and public perception.”

Consider what could happen if Hollywood offered up a war movie prematurely, he says.

If things go well abroad, a movie with an “ambiguous or bittersweet” ending would seem “intentionally pessimistic.” Worse still, Mr. Mazin adds, “would be the converse — you deliver a glowing portrayal, and things turn south.”

Such thinking is no doubt true on some level; Hollywood is nothing if not pragmatic about gauging potential audience reaction to its output.

Still, the fact remains that during World War II Hollywood enthusiastically abetted the war effort with a gusher of movies that contemporaneously depicted battles in Europe and the South Pacific.

It seems plain that in the war on terror, Hollywood finds itself inhibited from depicting the battle against terrorists with the same kind of robust conviction with which it depicted the struggle against Nazism.

“Writers and directors in Hollywood want to tell stories about heroes, and the common perception in the industry is that this is not a heroic endeavor,” says Warren Bell, a television writer and producer.

It’s also true that Washington itself does little anymore to goose the entertainment industry to change its tune.

During World War II, the Office of War Information served as an important propaganda agency. During the Cold War, the Central Intelligence Agency aggressively, if covertly, supported dissident writers and publications in Europe.

Today, the CIA employs a semi-retired field agent, Chase Brandon, to consult on pulpy movies such as “The Recruit” and TV shows such as “Alias” that deal with espionage but bear no relation to current realities.

Moreover, when I contacted the Pentagon to inquire about the resources available to filmmakers or writers in search of prospective stories of military heroism, I found myself quickly lost in the maze of overlapping public affairs offices for each service branch.

If it’s my job as a reporter to navigate bureaucratic byways, imagine how much less patience a Hollywood caller might have with such a process.

My colleague Christian Toto and other commentators have noticed the possibly causal relationship between Hollywood’s enthusiasm for fringe material such as “Brokeback Mountain” and “Transamerica” and tepid box-office fortunes.

Mr. Willis’ instincts, I’m willing to bet, will prove spot-on. A broad swath of the American public wants to see — and pay for — movies that portray what they know anecdotally to be true: The U.S. military is full of heroes, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are full of heroic stories.

But if Mr. Bell is correct, that where average Americans see heroes, Hollywood sees pawns of imperialistic folly, then get ready for “Syriana II.”

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