Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Hollywood and the war on terror

The Los Angeles Times ran a column Monday by thriller author Andrew Klavan entitled Is Hollywood too timid for the war on terror? Klavan, whose novels “True Crime” and “Don’t Say a Word” were adapted for the big screen, believes that FBI agents are getting a raw deal cinematically and that we should be portraying their current great conflict: the war on terror.

“In the history of our time as told by the movies, the war on terror largely does not exist,” wrote Klavan. “Which is passing strange, you know. Because the war on terror is the history of our time. The outcome of our battle against the demographic, political and military upsurge of a hateful theology and its oppressive political vision will determine the fate of freedom in this century.”

Historically speaking films that come out during wartime are typically propaganda. This is what happened during World War II. It was easy to churn out films in support of World War II because it was a war that was being supported. But now, as was the case during the Vietnam War, the war is not a popular one. At the end of the day, Hollywood wants to make money and to make a movie glorifying the war on terror is a hard sell.

During the Vietnam War, the only Hollywood film that came out about the war during the conflict was 1968’s “The Green Berets,” directed by and starring John Wayne. The film reeks of propaganda and the message was clear: we have to stop the communists in Vietnam or they will spread to other countries. The film was doing nothing more than regurgitating the then current administration’s domino theory.

Certainly, the Vietnam War was the history of that time, so why wasn’t it being documented by Hollywood? Because there is a danger of being too close to the issue and of being taken in by misinformation. To do the subject matter of war justice, you need perspective and distance from the conflict.

The majority of the films to come out about Vietnam weren’t released until four years after the war end. In 1978 “The Deer Hunter,” “Apocalypse Now” and “Coming Home” were all released and took a hard look at the conflict in Vietnam. In the 1980s films like “Full Metal Jacket,” “Platoon” and “Born on the Fourth of July” would continue this study of the war.

The first film to come out about Desert Storm was 1999’s “Three Kings,” several years after that conflict ended. It took five year before we could properly address the 9/11 attacks on the big screen. Events as big and as tumultuous as those need to be given space to breathe.

The war on terror is the new cold war. Terrorism is the new communism. The words are at times interchangeable. We are fighting an idea, not a country or person. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the idea doesn’t provide a genuine threat, but it does mean that things are a little bit more complex than black and white, good and evil.

During the cold war numerous espionage and thriller films came out showing the battle against communism. Characters like James Bond thrived in this atmosphere and now that we have the new buzzword of terrorism, perhaps it is why Bond had a new relevancy in “Casino Royale.”

But watching such films in retrospect, it is clear they are not documents of history. They are interesting as a reflection of a state of mind, but hardly a mirror of reality.

For Klavan the reason Hollywood isn’t portraying the war on terror is simple:

“In order to honestly dramatize the simple truth about this existential struggle, you have to depict right-minded Americans — some of whom may be white and male and Christian — hunting down and killing dark-skinned villains of a false and wicked creed. That’s what's happening, on a good day anyway, so that’s what you’d have to show. Moviemakers are reluctant to do that because, even though it’s the truth, on screen it might appear bigoted and jingoistic.”

There is some truth to that statement, but it is an oversimplification as well. The danger of that portrayal isn’t of seeming bigoted, but of spreading bigotry and hatred of an entire group of people instead of extremists. There are too many complex issues at hand for a view that simplistic. For a film to do this struggle justice it would have to show its many facets.

“Syriana,” which Klavan dismissed as “comfort fantasy,” was an important film, despite its flaws, because it legitimately attempt to show the many sides of the issue. It even went as far as trying to understand the mind of a suicide bomber instead of immediately dismissing them as Klavan’s “dark-skinned villains of a false and wicked creed.”

The war on terror is making its way to the big screen, albeit indirectly. Films like “Children of Men” and “Babel” are very much reflecting the political and social unrest that the war on terror is creating throughout of the world. Maybe these are the films that are documenting our current history.

Perhaps “The Kingdom,” due out in April, is the film Klavan is waiting for. The film stars Jamie Foxx, Chris Cooper, Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman as a team of U.S. government agents sent to investigate the bombing of an American facility in the Middle East.

It looks like the sort of big action movie Hollywood loves, but it also seems to have a balanced, intelligent look at the current events in the Middle East. I’m hardly against films about the war on terror, as along as they don’t make it a simple good versus bad scenario and at least try to capture the bigger picture.

1 comment:

Brendan said...

Alec - great op ed piece! Very well thought out and presented. I especially like your points on the difficulty of presenting detail and nuance when dealing with an issue of this scale.

As I was reading this, I was reminded of the 'Road to 9/11' on ABC last September, and the criticisms that it received.