George W. Bush called last week, and Hollywood's executives answered. But Washington needn't have asked America's moviemakers to enlist in the war effort. As Doug Saunders reports, they've been doing it voluntarily for decades
By DOUG SAUNDERS, The Globe and Mail
Saturday, November 17, 2001
Los Angeles: It was a defining moment for the wild-eyed men who would soon call themselves the Taliban. They had been poor and weaponless until the brawny American soldier arrived to give them rocket launchers, guns, ammunition and moral support to aid their struggle for ultra-fundamentalist Islamic government.
The soldier's name was John Rambo. Called upon to don his green beret one more time and enter the secret war in Afghanistan, he quickly befriended the future Taliban and embraced their cause. He armed and assisted his new friends, Mousa and Hamid, young mujahadeen who presumably would soon be beating women and banning music.
As Mousa said, prophetically, to Rambo as they whipped up clouds of dust and blood midway through this tale, the 1988 hit Rambo III: "May God deliver us from the venom of the cobra, the teeth of the tiger and the vengeance of the Afghan." Rambo was characteristically tight-lipped, too busy paving the way for religious totalitarianism to say much, but he did deliver a terse motto to a Soviet soldier who asked who this ever-morphing American hero could possibly be. Rambo replied, with his trademark scowl: "Your . . . worst . . . nightmare."
Little could Sylvester Stallone know how deeply those words would someday resonate. Rambo's zealous friends were 13 years away from becoming America's worst nightmare, responsible for violent scenes that couldn't have been imagined in Rambo III, the most expensive movie of the 1980s. Rambo's unfortunate Afghan mission was shared with Timothy Dalton, whose James Bond took up the cause of the future Taliban, with Bond fighting on horseback for their case in his 1987 thriller The Living Daylights.
Hollywood has an amazing ability to support the Pentagon's projects, whether worthy (the current war) or silly (everything that happened in the 1980s). So if big-budget blockbusters could be created to back the most absurd Cold War misadventures, including the creation of the Taliban, is there any doubt that Hollywood will fall into step with Washington's current military program?
Apparently, there is some doubt, at least in the White House. Last Sunday, Hollywood's top movie and TV executives held a much-chronicled summit meeting in Beverly Hills with Karl Rove, U.S. President George W. Bush's senior aide. Washington wants Hollywood's help in the Afghan war, and Mr. Rove was there to rally the cinematic troops: "Concrete information, told with honesty and specificity and integrity, is important to the ultimate success in this conflict," he told the producers.
They were eager to salute. "This was about contributing Hollywood's creative imagination and their persuasion skills to help in this war effort," explained Jack Valenti, who, as head of the Motion Picture Association of America, is Hollywood's most powerful lobbyist. In fact, so eager were the executives to get behind Washington's agenda, whatever it may be, that both sides felt it necessary to reassure the public that they weren't going to be making out-and-out propaganda movies. In the words of Robert Iger, chief operating officer for the Disney studio and the ABC network: "We're not going to set out to influence opinion in a manner that could in any way be construed as a propaganda effort backed by the administration."
Why would they need to bother? For many years, Hollywood's most prominent products, its major studio films and TV series, have been almost indistinguishable from government-funded propaganda. With rare exceptions, whenever men in uniform appear on-screen, Hollywood has been singing Washington's song from the beginning. The flaws and grave errors in U.S. military and intelligence operations may loom large in history, but 50 years of cinema and TV have painted them in bright and unmottled hues. If Bush were to erect a soundstage on the White House lawn, he could not do a better job getting the official line across than movies and TV shows have been doing for years.