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.
But Chetwynd isn't convinced. "I'm not sure that one swing of the bat would be persuasive," he says. Why the pessimism? Politics. "Political affiliation is very much at the root of how people identify themselves in Hollywood," he explains. "Many of my colleagues would have difficulty in trying to decide which was the greater threat to their liberty, Islamic fundamentalism--as an abstract notion--or John Ashcroft, as a clear and present danger."
"Hatred of Bush is a big factor," says another Hollywood player. "It's his war, not their war, and none of them wants to be seen as toadying to the president." Supporting that sentiment, one movie person I talked with told me: "I'm one of those people who believes the entirety of the war in Iraq is to get our president re-elected. . . . I believe Bush will find Saddam for the election--and I'm not liberal."
ETHNIC SENSITIVITY, economic reality and politics all play a role, but the biggest reason may be something else altogether. Historically, the cinema is a lagging, not leading, cultural indicator, and the World War II movies of the early 1940s may be the exception, not the rule. The definitive movies on Vietnam, "The Deer Hunter," "Apocalypse Now," "Platoon" and "Full Metal Jacket," for example, were all made after the fighting was finished and after a national consensus had been reached on the war.
"In 50 years, when this war is over," one screenwriter notes, "there will be movies about the war on terror and they will show that the bad guys were the bad guys and that the Islamofascists did want to take over the world."
Until then, sword fights and middlebrow literary adaptations will have to do.
Jonathan V. Last is online editor of The Weekly Standard.