Sunday, February 06, 2011

Hollywood in the theatre of terror

In some recent Hollywood films, the good guys and the bad guys come from the same institutions, part of the US military or intelligence establishment. Is this a Freudian slip on the part of Hollywood? Is Hollywood trying to tell us something?

Look at some of the Hollywood releases in the recent past: A-Team, Losers, Salt and if you go a little back in time, Green Zone, Traitor, and Body of Lies. What do these films have in common? On the surface, they are action movies, about characters from the US military or intelligence agencies. But beneath the surface reality, there is even a deeper reality: the good guys and the bad guys in all these movies come from the same institutions, part of the US military or intelligence establishment. Is this a Freudian slip on the part of Hollywood? Or is this deliberate?

Freudian slip or not, this looks like a departure from the past. In the cold war days, there was a clear enemy—the communists. There are hundreds of films that have Russians and Vietnamese guerillas as villains. Anti-Nazi Second World War stories are a staple even today (Inglorious Basterds, Valkyrie). For a while, Japan was also cast in a villainous role because of its rise as an industrial competitor (Rising Sun, 1993).

After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Russia, Hollywood’s villains changed. The former Russian agents would still pop up on the screen from time to Time (Golden Eye, Tomorrow Never Dies, The World Is Not Enough, Salt), but the villain increasingly came from Asia, especially the Middle East (True Lies, 1994; Executive Decision). There would also be scenes of North Korean and Chinese prisons (Spy Game).

Post 9/11, Hollywood’s focus has been on the War on terror in Iraq and Afghanistan. But increasingly, the recent trend of Hollywood actioners to have both the protagonist and the antagonist from the same establishment (related government agencies) makes one wonder. Is Hollywood trying to tell us something? Or is it a chink in the psychological armor of Hollywood, betraying the fractured moral landscape of America?

It can be argued that Hollywood is largely about make-believe and to try to understand the world or the American foreign policy through the prism of Hollywood is an erroneous exercise. But to see Hollywood and Pentagon without any umbilical cord will be naïve too. In fact, Pentagon has been known to keep close ties with Hollywood. It has helped in producing films such as Patton, The Green Berets, From Here to Eternity, Transformers, Pearl Harbor, Armageddon, Crimson Tide, Black Hawk Down, and Top Gun.

According to David Robb , former journalist for Daily Variety and The Hollywood Reporter and author of Operation Hollywood, there is often a quid-pro-quo agreement between the Pentagon and Hollywood studios. For making military-themed or war-themed movies, Hollywood needs Pentagon’s help to shoot on military locations or use military equipment—this is important as it saves cash for the producer.

This Hollywood-Pentagon relationship goes as far back as 1927 (The first Oscar-winning picture, Wings, was made with support from the US Air Force) and even today, says Robb, if a Hollywood producer has to get Pentagon’s assistance, he has to toe Pentagon’s line and show the military in a favorable light (submit five copies of the screenplay, accept their suggestions and changes, and get approval from them before release). In this sense, Hollywood is seen as an “aid in the retention and recruitment of (US military) personnel”. However, the flip side of this deal is that filmmakers have to make compromises in the storyline to suit the image of the US military establishment.

But all filmmakers are not ready to knowtow to the US military. Some of the best Hollywood war movies have been made without the forces’ help: Apocalypse Now, Platoon, MASH, Catch-22, Full Metal Jacket, Dr Strangelove, Three Kings. In recent times, anti-Iraq/Bush war movies such as Redacted, Rendition, Battle for Haditha, Stop Loss, In the Valley of Elah were also produced without the military’s help.

But of late, it looks like there is an open rebellion against the military in Hollywood. The only other plausible reason is that Hollywood is unable to find any other convincing villains but from the establishment. That’s why, even some of the not so serious movies are showing the villains from the establishment. They are depicted as rogue (such as double agent David Headley who was involved in the terror attacked on Mumbai). For example, in Joe Carnahan’s A-Team, an elite army team led by John “Hannibal” Smith (Liam Neeson) is imprisoned for a crime they did not commit in Iraq. The guy who frames them is a CIA agent (Patrick Wilson). In Sylvain White’s Losers, an elite United States Special Forces team sent into the Bolivian jungle on a search-and-destroy mission is presumably killed by their own mission commander. Phillip Noyce’s Salt fits into the cold war era spy thriller genre but it still has the enemy coming from within the CIA itself (though, for a twist, the rogue agent works for the Russians).

Similarly, in Green Zone, Traitor and Body of Lies—damage to US interest is shown to be done by an insider. In Green Zone, a movie inspired by the non-fiction 2006 book Imperial Life in the Emerald City by journalist Rajiv Chandrasekaran, director Paul Greengrass shows that the lie that was fed to the US administration, and in turn the public, for Iraq’s having weapons of mass destruction came from an insider with other interests. Likewise, both Traitor and Body of Lies—the two films that powerfully handle themes of Islamic terrorism—highlight the bad apples within the US military establishment.

The question that begs asking is this: how come Hollywood is showing the fracture in the US defense establishment? How is this schizophrenia of moral polarity being allowed so unchecked?

Has mainstream Hollywood recently discovered its tongue, and the pleasures of freedom of expression? Or is it the case that Hollywood’s new heroes must ask tough questions and fight against the rot in their own midst. Perhaps in a post 9/11 net-savvy world, Hollywood can’t blatantly show the propaganda of the US military any more. The filmgoers are aware of the bungling of the US military: lies about the WMDs in Iraq, the Abu Ghraib episode, rendition, atrocities committed by troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, loss of American soldiers in the war zone and so on.

At a psychological level, Hollywood’s new heroes are also trying to sooth the guilt of ordinary Americans in whose name more than a million of people have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. If there are bad Americans who are causing pain in the world, there are good Americans too who take care of the bad ones. That seems to be the psychology at work in Hollywood.

Meanwhile, Pentagon is focusing on sci-fi movies aimed at younger audiences for military recruitment. So you will see more of War of the Worlds, Iron Man and Transformers in coming years.

Here is an Aljazeera documentary/discussion on Hollywood and the war machine with Oliver Stone, the eight times Academy Award-winning filmmaker; Michael Moore, the Academy Award-winning filmmaker; and Christopher Hedges, an author and the former Middle East bureau chief of the New York Times.

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