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Hollywood Goes To War

Hollywood, D.C
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

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  • By DOUG SAUNDERS, The Globe and Mail
    Saturday, November 17, 2001
    Page 4

    This late-afternoon reverie was not to last long. Star Wars would soon remind the entertainment industry that movies in general, and in particular two-dimensional battles between good and evil, were a very potent source of profit. With the ascent of Ronald Reagan to the White House came the almost simultaneous emergence of John Rambo (in 1982's First Blood), and Hollywood was once again part of the government. Although Rambo's form of militancy may seem aggressively anti-Washington today (a wrongfully persecuted Vietnam vet, he spends the movie shooting police and federal officials), it must be remembered that Reagan won his election, and ran his government, on aggressively anti-Washington terms. A violent loner with no time for bureaucrats or liberals, Rambo was the man for the moment.

    He soon had support. Bruckheimer and Don Simpson created the most potent product of the 1980s, the "high-concept" film, and this led to their signature works such as Crimson Tide, Days of Thunder, Iron Eagle and the mighty Top Gun franchise. Scores of imitators awaited, and as U.S. military projects became increasingly surreal (Grenada, Panama, Afghanistan), the movies seemed to increase their firepower and absurdity to match. It all culminated in 1991's Persian Gulf war, during which it was hard to tell whether a Pentagon war or a Hollywood movie was being waged (French philosopher Jean Baudrillard wrote a book that argued seriously that the war had not occurred except as an entertainment event).

    The past dozen years saw two trends emerge: the extension of the high-concept war-booster film into an enduring genre (Pearl Harbor) and the emergence of a more subtle form of nationalistic war-message film, embodied by Spielberg's works. These, like their 1950s forebears, took pride in showing the real agonies of war (a technique made famous in the 1962 Don Siegel hit Hell is for Heroes), and trying to portray the real diversity of backgrounds, views and moralities within the U.S. ranks. Spielberg does this with more delicacy than a Wayne movie; nevertheless, his films are built on themes that are neither artistically ideal (for they are far too ham-fisted) nor historically accurate (because they rebuild history around the American experience), but instead are part of a nation-building project: the collusion of Washington and Hollywood in creating a patriotic identity.

    As a result, Washington hardly needs to call Hollywood to action for the current war: It is as if Hollywood has been fighting it for 20 years, and Washington is just catching up. Although many describe liberal Hollywood and Republican Washington as being on opposite poles, this applies only to lifestyle issues (drugs, divorce) and the seemingly strange causes, such as animal rights, that celebrities tend to adopt. On issues of global politics, America's role in the world and the relationship between art and the state, the two coasts are branches of one organism.

    "People from Hollywood are most glamorous and popular in Washington, and people from Washington are most glamorous and popular in Hollywood," Martin Kaplan, a former Washington speechwriter and Disney executive, explained in a news interview. "There's a combination of distrust and affection. There has been the culture-wars side of it, but there's also been quite a passionate relationship with legislative outcomes. They understand each other in a fundamental way."

    As if to prove this, Hollywood has made the ultimate gesture of camaraderie to Washington: Earlier this week, it was reported that Miramax boss Bob Weinstein has asked Stallone to appear in a final Rambo instalment. According to one report, Stallone is penning a sequel in which that bitter old Green Beret returns to Afghanistan and, in a final flourish of Washington's heart and Hollywood's soul, captures Osama bin Laden alive.


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