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War? What War?

From the October 10, 2003 Wall Street Journal: Why Hollywood is ignoring the biggest story of the day.

12:00 AM, Oct 13, 2003 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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THIS PAST WEEKEND marked the beginning of prestige season at the movies. The rollout of Quentin Tarantino's "Kill Bill" will be followed in the coming weeks by "The Matrix: Revolutions," "The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King," "Cold Mountain," "The Human Stain" and other high-profile releases. What you won't see this fall--or winter, or spring, or summer for that matter--is a single movie about the war on terror.

It's a little hard to believe. Yes, we have had a small-screen documentary and the film version of a play ("The Guys"), both about Sept. 11 itself. And Showtime aired a TV original movie, "DC 9/11." But that's it. Contrast this with Hollywood's output during World War II, when it seemed like every fifth movie was about America's heroic struggle to fend off the Germans and Japanese. Clearly, something's going on here.

But it's a complicated something. When asked why Hollywood hasn't made movies about the war on terror, the first-blush answer is almost always political correctness. "Who would you have as the enemy if you made a picture about terrorism?" Jack Valenti, the head of the Motion Picture Association of America, asks. "You'd probably have Muslims, would you not? If you did, I think there would be backlash from the decent, hardworking, law-abiding Muslim community in this country."

Valenti isn't being paranoid. The last big-budget movie with terrorists was the 2002 adaptation of Tom Clancy's "The Sum of All Fears." In the novel, Arab terrorists set off a nuclear bomb at the Super Bowl. But as soon as the book went into development in Hollywood (long before Sept. 11), the Council on American Islamic Relations sprang into action. "Before we had typed a word on paper," producer Mace Neufeld told Slate, "I was getting complaints." And, voilà! The terrorists in the movie became neo-Nazis.

If anything, the PC pressure has been upped since the war on terror began--almost a reversal of the way Hollywood operated in the early 1940s. It is difficult to imagine a movie like "G.I. Jane," "The Siege" or even "True Lies"--all of which have Middle Eastern villains--being green-lit by a studio now. "The only unorganized groups you can make as the enemy," Mr. Valenti says with a laugh, "would be the U.S. government, the police, the FBI and corporate America."

But the joke cuts both ways. If Hollywood has a PC problem with antagonists, it's got another problem with protagonists. In a movie about the war on terror, "Who's going to be the hero?" asks Lionel Chetwynd, the writer of "DC 9/11" and its producer. "The CIA? The government? Our government?"

"I mean, my goodness," he chuckles. "What an idea!"

When you stop to think about it, Chetwynd has a point. In post-Vietnam cinema, the government is almost never good, and when a government figure is heroic, as in "A Few Good Men," it's because he's a maverick fighting against a corrupt government establishment.

HYPERSENSITIVITY, however, is only one part of the story. Show business is another. "They don't believe terrorism sells," explains an old Hollywood hand. For a variety of reasons, it isn't clear that American audiences are ready to embrace war-on-terror movies. Robin Bronk, the executive director of the Creative Coalition, wonders whether it's because we already have saturation coverage from the cable news networks or because "we are still just too raw."

And the war on terror rests a little closer to home. "In World War II, you didn't have to worry--except for a couple of days in Santa Barbara or Long Beach--that the movie theater you were taking refuge in was safe," muses Joel Engel, author of "The Rookie." "The war on terror is on this soil. If theoretically movies had existed during the Civil War, you might have had the same situation we do now. You wouldn't go to see a movie about the Civil War in 1862 in Charleston."

Even if a war-on-terror movie could be sold to American audiences, there is no evidence that it would be viable overseas, where the war is decidedly unpopular. In 2000, "Rules of Engagement," a movie about an American embassy being attacked by an Arab mob, grossed $60 million domestically, just barely covering its production costs. Its foreign grosses were almost nil--a disturbing fact, since studio movies now expect about half of their receipts to come from foreign box offices.

"The answer," one prominent screenwriter shrugs, "is that I don't know how you gamble it. John Wayne made 'The Green Berets' because he directed it and he starred in it and he was John Wayne. And I'm going to guess that if Tom Hanks or Tom Cruise wanted a movie about the war on terror, they could do it. But I think they're the only two."

Still, some insiders believe that if a war-on-terror movie were released and grossed big money--$150 million-plus--other would follow.