Hollywood enlists in Bush’s war drive

By David Walsh
19 November 2001

“Samuel Johnson’s saying that patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels
has some truth in it but not nearly enough. Patriotism, in truth, is the great
nursery of scoundrels, and its annual output is probably greater than that
of even religion. Its chief glories are the demagogue, the military bully,
and the spreaders of libels and false history. Its philosophy rests firmly on
the doctrine that the end justifies the means—that any blow, whether
above or below the belt, is fair against dissenters from its wholesale
denial of plain facts.”—H. L. Mencken

On November 11 more than forty top Hollywood executives met for two
hours with Karl Rove, George W. Bush’s chief political advisor, to
discuss ways in which the film industry could contribute to the “war on
terrorism.” Here truly was a meeting of great minds!

Present were some of the most powerful figures in the motion picture
industry and corporate figures whose holdings include entertainment
companies, such as billionaire Sumner Redstone of Viacom Inc. (which
owns Paramount, CBS and UPN). All the major studios were
represented—Warner Bros., Twentieth Century Fox, Columbia Pictures,
Universal Studios, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and DreamWorks SKG—as
were the US television networks—ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, UPN and
WB—and the film industry unions.

Rove is a right-wing ideologue and dirty trickster, one of those who
played a key role in Bush’s hijacking of the presidential election last year.
The film executives, most of them Democratic Party loyalists, are
extravagantly paid mediocrities, in large part responsible for a seemingly
endless supply of banal and vulgar products. Studio films in recent years
have scrapped most traces of oppositional sentiment, except of the most
anti-social and retrograde variety, and reveled in militarism, chauvinism
and general reverence for all the institutions—police, church,
business—of American capitalism. To ask more of Hollywood seems a
daunting challenge! What further contribution could it make to the cause
of conformism and political reaction?

During the two-hour meeting at the lavish Peninsula Hotel in Beverly
Hills, Rove reportedly outlined seven themes: that the US campaign in
Afghanistan is a war against terrorism, not Islam; the government’s call
for “community service” should be publicized; US troops and their
families need to be supported; the September 11 attacks were global
attacks requiring a global response; the US campaign is a “war on evil”;
the government and the film industry have the responsibility to reassure
children of their safety; propaganda should be avoided.

After the meeting, following up on the last point, everyone involved
hastened to assert that the Bush administration was not attempting to
dictate in any fashion the content of Hollywood’s films. “The industry
decides what it will do and when it will do it,” Rove told reporters.
Apparently lost on the media commentators was the obvious redundancy
of reassurances that the government would not impose its views in an
arena where its policies find absolutely no opposition.

Rove did not elaborate on how filmmakers should grapple with the
problem of a “war on evil.” He left that task to the creative minds at the
film studios’ disposal. Nor did he explain how children (or anyone else)
were to be made to feel safe when the government promises to conduct a
war of indefinite length and scope using the entire lethal arsenal of
modern weaponry against enemies it defines as it goes along.

Jack Valenti, the long-time president of the Motion Picture Association
of America and an attendee at the November 11 gathering, suggested
that Hollywood’s contribution could begin with a series of public service
announcements, to be broadcast in the US and abroad, making “clear to
the millions of Muslims in the world that this is not an attack on
Muslims—this is an attack on people who murder innocent people.”

After a previous meeting on October 17 between lower-level Bush
administration figures and Hollywood executives, right-wing producer
Lionel Chetwynd commented, “There was a feeling around the table that
something is wrong if half the world thinks we’re the Great Satan, and we
want to make that right. There’s a genuine feeling that we as Americans
are failing to get our message across to the world.” That the US is seen
as an oppressor by “half the world” is a remarkable admission and a
reality that is not likely to be cleared up by a round of public service

The film studio executives assembled on November 11 responded
enthusiastically to Rove’s appeal. Sherry Lansing, Paramount Pictures
chairwoman, told the media following the meeting, “All of us have this
incredible need, this incredible urge to do something.”

The “incredible need” and “incredible urge” to go along with the Bush
administration’s campaign of lies and propaganda has apparently been
felt by virtually the entire film industry. Not a single leading figure has
been capable of condemning the terror attacks in New York and
Washington and at the same time opposing the slaughter in Afghanistan
and the sweeping assault on democratic rights in the US.

The universal response among Hollywood’s “left” (i.e., tepid liberal
Democrats) has been to drop all criticism of George W. Bush and throw
in their lot with the war drive. Not one of these stalwarts can apparently
find it in himself or herself to resist the tide of media-driven right-wing
opinion. There is nothing so terrifying for an American “celebrity” as the
thought of being excluded from the limelight and facing even temporary
isolation. There is a certain logic to these fears: how much would be left
of most of these people if the element of celebrity were removed?

From the point of view of the film studio executives, as Jon Friedman of
CBS.MarketWatch.com put it, the “big challenge now is figuring out
how it can look like a do-gooder [i.e., toe the Bush line politically] while
it actually focuses on its ongoing obsession: making money.” Tom
Pollock, former vice chairman of MCA, bluntly told a panel at the recent
New York Film Festival: “We live in a capitalist society, and what
motivates the studios is making money.”

Hollywood has been notoriously poor in recent years at predicting
popular tastes. It has managed to satisfy or please almost no one with its
increasingly bland and bombastic works. Whichever direction, or
combination of directions, the studios choose to take—ever lighter fare,
patriotic and nationalistic rubbish, moral uplift—the further degeneration
of their products is virtually guaranteed.

(It should be noted, along these lines, that the inimitable Sylvester
Stallone, whose last film success no one can or probably wants to
remember, has reportedly been considering reviving his Rambo persona
and taking on the Taliban in a new film, skydiving into Afghanistan to
challenge terrorism. This could have unfortunate consequences as it might
stir up memories of Rambo III (1988), in which Stallone’s one-man army
fought against the Soviet army in Afghanistan alongside the Mujaheddin,
described as “freedom fighters”—in other words, as an ally of Osama
bin Laden—in a work generally described as unintentionally hilarious.)

Films made under the conditions Rove and his friends in the film industry
envision, more or less on orders from a warmongering ruling elite out for
world domination, cannot possibly have serious artistic or human value.
Meaningful works will increasingly be those that are made in the teeth of
official disapproval and on the basis of a thought-out criticism of the
entire social order, including its ideology, its morals and its art.

The attempt to align Hollywood more closely with the political and
ideological needs of the American ruling elite did not begin on September
11, despite the claims of various superficial observers. For example,
Bernard Weinraub in the New York Times (“The Moods They Are
A’Changing In Films; Terrorism Is Making Government Look Good”)
suggests that “For more than 30 years, a staple of popular culture in
movies, books and television has been the depiction of the government as
a hostile, corrupt, even evil force spinning elaborate conspiracies to
manipulate and suppress Americans. ... By every account, the terrorist
attacks on Sept. 11, and the war being waged against Afghanistan, has
changed the way the entertainment industry portrays the government, at
least for the moment.” Not to be outdone, Deborah Solomon advanced
the same notion in the Times in relation to the visual arts in “Once Again,
Patriotic Themes Ring True as Art.”

This claim, that “everything changed” on September 11, is belied by
Weinraub’s own account. He notes that several television series about
the CIA and other intelligence agencies were scheduled to air this
autumn, and that “Even before the terrorist attacks, entertainment
executives and academics had noted a new patriotism and support for
government in popular culture.” He refers to Steven Spielberg’s Saving
Private Ryan, the action films Air Force One and Independence Day,
the “Band of Brothers” television series and books by Stephen Ambrose
and Tom Brokaw, as well as “The West Wing,” about “a decent and
liberal president who serves as a sort of father figure to his staff

The steady rightward movement of prominent filmmakers and others in
the arts and entertainment field is one aspect of a generalized social trend:
the lurch to the right by privileged layers of the upper middle class,
increasingly isolated from and hostile to the working population. It is not
for nothing that the policeman, in one guise or another, has become an
almost omnipresent protagonist on television and cinema screens.
Instinctively, film producers, writers and directors seek to flatter and
idealize one of the principal social types to whom they entrust the task of
defending their wealth and position.

It was not always thus. As Weinraub indicates, “Throughout the 1960s
and 70s, the anti-government fervor accelerated. The Nixon presidency,
its collapse, and the end of the war in Indochina made it improbable, if
not unthinkable, to release films that depicted the government—or the
establishment—in positive ways.” He refers to such works as Bonnie
and Clyde, Three Days of the Condor, The Graduate, Dr.
Strangelove, Five Easy Pieces, Chinatown, The Godfather and A
Clockwork Orange, and at a later date, J.F.K. One might add All the
President’s Men and The Parallax View, as well as—for their warning
about the threat represented by the military high command—films like
Seven Days in May and Fail Safe. And there are many others, in a
general anti-establishment vein, including Robert Altman’s work in the
1970s, the films of John Cassavetes and certain early films by Martin

The above-mentioned films were hardly all works of genius, nor did they
necessarily demonstrate great social insight. Nonetheless they sought, in
one way or another, to examine American life in a critical fashion.
Weinraub makes the extraordinary comment: “With the exception of The
Godfather, such movies would probably not be made today because
they would be seen as too dark, too downbeat.” If Weinraub is correct
(and he probably is), what a devastating indictment of the American film

There has been some discussion in the press of the possibility or
advisability of reproducing “the kind of intensive collaboration Hollywood
had with Washington during World War II, when acclaimed filmmakers
such as Frank Capra created inspirational movies and documentaries on
the conflict” (Washington Post). Capra produced and directed a
seven-part film series, Why We Fight (1942-45), for screening to US

Capra’s series was unabashed propaganda, but it appealed to and
played upon the democratic instincts of those who had joined the military
to take up a struggle against fascism. It could, in other words, tell at least
a portion of the truth. For example, in Part 2— The Nazis Strike —the
filmmakers examined the growth and ambitions of the Nazi movement, its
military buildup and conquest of eastern Europe. The Battle for Russia
(Part 5) was obliged to pay tribute to the titanic resistance of the Soviet
people and the Red Army, which had “shattered the whole legend of
Nazi invincibility.”

How would Hollywood approach the same theme today? Perhaps Why
We Fight in Afghanistan could begin with the Unocal or Halliburton
logo flashed on the screen. In any event, a serious discussion of the
origins of the Taliban or the recent history of Afghanistan, impossible
without examining the role of the US in fomenting and financing Islamic
fundamentalism, would be entirely out of bounds. Any film produced
today on the conflict in Afghanistan would be nothing but a tissue of lies
and apologies for barbarism.

The basis for the sort of democratic-patriotic appeal made during World
War II has not simply been undercut by the openly predatory character
of American interventions overseas, but also by the transformed social
relations within the US. The creation of a deeply polarized society, in
which vast wealth is possessed by a brazen handful, has undermined
patriotic sentiment. The power of appeals to the traditions of the
American Revolution and the Civil War depended, in the final analysis,
on the ability of the population to improve its living standards and the
maintenance of what one might call a generally democratic atmosphere,
one that at least encouraged the notion that the people had some say in
political affairs. The open consolidation of American oligarchic rule has
put paid to all that. Subsequent events will demonstrate how shallow the
reserve of patriotism has become in the US.

Even the New York Times’ Clyde Haberman was obliged to note that
the government’s manipulative conduct in regard to the war effort in
Afghanistan insured that “finding a latter-day Frank Capra may not be
easy. ... Essentially, all that the American public knows is what the
government wants it to know. Some critics ask if the line between
information and propaganda has been uncomfortably blurred.”

In the long run the result of the present rush by the film and music
industries to throw themselves at the feet of the imperialist politicians in
Washington, D.C. will be a salutary one. A great deal of dead wood will
be sorted out: overrated screen idols of both sexes, rock and roll stars
that no one cares about any more, a legion of hack directors and writers,
assorted hangers-on. Those who adopt the aims and insatiable appetites
of the US ruling elite as their own will sooner or later become the objects
of popular scorn and disgust. Their appearance will coincide with their
essence: human zeroes.