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
Sometimes, there is a direct relationship between U.S. government and U.S. entertainment: The Central Intelligence Agency's representative in Hollywood, Chase Brandon, is a busy and popular man here these days, serving as a credited "adviser" (which is to say that he approves scripts) on shows such as the current hit 24 (which portrays the agency as a group of omniscient, plugged-in folk). The Federal Bureau of Investigation, Pentagon and National Aeronautics and Space Administration have similar advisers, who provide military settings and equipment with the understanding that scripts will show the government branches in a positive light.
Last year, it emerged that the White House's drug-war office had spent tens of millions of dollars paying the major U.S. networks to insert antidrug plots into the scripts of prime-time series such as ER and The Practice. But, more often than not, the studios and networks need no help from Washington to make their products seem like instruments of state. Recent years have seen the rise of Hollywood patriots such as Steven Spielberg (Saving Private Ryan, Band of Brothers) and Jerry Bruckheimer (Pearl Harbor), whose films come across as government-funded efforts to revise military history - with the Americans, and hyperidealized versions of their interests, painted into the centre of the photo. Just as Rambo turned the CIA's Afghan misadventure into an excuse for heroism, films such as Saving Private Ryan turn complex, multilateral events like the liberation of France into two-dimensional moments of American greatness.
Here lies the most profound paradox of Hollywood: Although the United States is the only major filmmaking nation whose movies are not funded by the government, it is the one whose films tend to hew closest to the government's military ambitions. In other western democracies, filmmakers work at an artistic and critical distance from the state. Although it is possible to name dissenting U.S. directors who have worked for the studios (Oliver Stone, Orson Welles) and eras when American films reflected the country's ambitions through a less-than-crystalline lens (the 1920s, part of the 1970s), Hollywood's output usually looks like a glowing advertisement for the American project, at peace and especially at war.
This relationship goes back to the origins of Hollywood. The founding filmmakers of European nations were first and foremost artists; they emerged from the theatre and the world of art, and they reflected their world in the elite, allusive, ambiguous manner of fine art. Hollywood 's founders, on the other hand, were entrepreneurs, Eastern European Jews who were struggling to make a living in a strange new land. They were eager to play the populist, nationalist card, both to seize upon an ever-present strain of national pride in U.S. audiences and to avoid being seen as untrustworthy outsiders. As film historian Neal Gabler made abundantly clear in his book An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood, those entrepreneurs, in their zeal to appear as American as possible, actually invented many of the images of U.S. patriotism. As fellow historian Aljean Harmetz said: "I'm not sure there was an American Dream until the Jews came to Hollywood and invented it."
In its earliest decades, Hollywood's heroes looked a lot like proto-Rambos, angelic fellows battling the U.S. enemies of the day in settings of absolute good and evil (Rudolph Valentino got his big break in the 1921 anti-German film Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse). Yet this era also produced a few stunning films that explored the paradoxes and dark shadows of war: All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) and King Vidor's 1925 masterpiece Big Parade, in which a U.S. soldier realizes that his German opponent is just a kid, and thus cannot bring himself to fire the killing shot. Such films may seem exceptional, until you remember that isolationism was a dominant, and sometimes official, political voice in the United States during the 1920s and 1930s. To deplore war as a waste of life and money was not a dissenting view; it was part of the American outlook at the time.