Jueves 18 de Octubre de 2001, Ip nº 6

The Moods They Are A'Changing In Films; Terrorism Is Making Government Look Good
Por Bernard Weinraub

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.

This dark view of Washington, though it had antecedents, came to full flower in films during the late 1960's and the 70's.

In ''Three Days of the Condor,'' Robert Redford, a C.I.A. researcher, goes out for lunch and returns to find his colleagues slaughtered and a high-level intelligence agency plot under way. In ''Bonnie and Clyde,'' a fun-loving, gun-toting, bank-robbing couple are tracked down by a ruthless, humorless agent who heads up a murderous ambush.

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 since World War II has there been such a patriotic fervor in Hollywood. Flag waving, once scorned by Hollywood executives as behavior befitting the Archie Bunkers of the nation, is now visible everywhere, and scripts that denigrate the government, the Army or the C.I.A. are unlikely to see the light of day.

''Five years ago I did a series on NBC called 'Dark Skies,' whose premise was that most of American history in the last 50 years was a lie and a coverup by the government,'' said Bryce Zabel, a television writer who is chairman of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, which postponed the Emmy Awards on Sunday with CBS because of the United States and British attacks on Afghanistan. ''That kind of premise is unthinkable now.'' We've moved beyond that. The truth of the matter is we're less likely to tear down the people who stand up on our behalf.''

Similarly, Michael Frost Beckner, who wrote the forthcoming film ''Spy Game,'' about generally heroic intelligence agents played by Brad Pitt and Mr. Redford, said that he faced numerous questions -- before Sept. 11 -- about his new CBS series, ''The Agency.'' The television show received some cooperation from the C.I.A.

''When we showed the pilot to the press, many of them wanted to know if we were on the payroll of the C.I.A., which is utterly ridiculous,'' Mr. Beckner said. ''And the big question was, Who would want to make a television series about the C.I.A.?'' Such questions are unlikely now.

The first episode, which was to have had its premiere in recent weeks but was held after the attacks, was shown to journalists in the summer. It portrayed the C.I.A. and the M.I. 6, its counterpart in Britain, as seeking to prevent a bomb attack in London by operatives for Osama bin Laden. ''They didn't think it was all that interesting,'' Mr. Beckner said. That reaction, too, is unlikely with the current mood.

Even before the terrorist attacks, entertainment executives and academics had noted a new patriotism and support for government in popular culture. The flavor cropped up in a climate of cross-cutting political moods and beliefs that gathered strength and complexity with the surge of conservative political activity and success since the 80's. Many segments of society that have been most outspoken about their patriotism have also been the most disparaging about the concept of a big, assertive federal government.

And out of parts of this ground, rather than the leftish 60's, have come new conspiracy theories, provoked by occurrences like the Branch Davidian incident in Waco, Tex., and interpretations of any number of events during the presidency of Bill Clinton, the conservative bête noire par excellence.

During much of the 90's studios still tended to churn out movies like ''Conspiracy Theory'' (1997) and ''Murder at 1600'' (1997), which depicted federal officials in the worst conceivable light -- as outright murderers. But the films were commercially disappointing, indicating the audience's desire for something else.

The change in fare was most visible in works that extolled the heroism of American G.I.'s during World War II -- movies like ''Saving Private Ryan,'' television series like ''Band of Brothers'' on HBO and books by Stephen E. Ambrose (''The Good Fight,'' ''The Wild Blue'') and Tom Brokaw (''The Greatest Generation''). They seemed to tap nostalgia and a yearning for simple valor and patriotism.

The new pro-government trend is evident in one of television's most popular series, ''The West Wing,'' about a decent and liberal president who serves as a sort of father figure to his staff members. It would not have been produced two decades ago when the trauma of Watergate and the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon still echoed. The show is in some ways a pointed contrast to Fox's ''X-Files,'' which began in 1993 and takes as its basic paranoid premise a shadowy world of dangerous aliens and scheming government forces. The view was epitomized by the ''X-Files'' character Cancer Man, the unnamed cigarette-smoking high-level official, who died two seasons ago.

By contrast two of the most successful films were ''Air Force One,'' in which Harrison Ford played a tough president who beats back brutal terrorists from Kazakhstan who hijack his plane, and ''Independence Day,'' about an alien attack on the United States that is repelled by Will Smith, as an Air Force pilot.

The forerunner of the recent wave of military-man-as-hero movies, and one of the biggest hits of the 1980's, was ''Top Gun,'' with Tom Cruise as a fearless naval aviator.

'' 'Top Gun' was very significant because it revealed a very serious split between opinion makers in New York and L.A. and the rest of the country,'' said Marshall Herskovitz, a creator of ''Thirtysomething'' and ''Once and Again.'' '' 'Top Gun' showed that there were plenty of people out there who wanted to see a patriotic vision of the military and the country.''

The theme of government and officialdom as antagonists to everyday Americans is rooted in the general alienation of the 1960's and, especially, in the Vietnam War, with its image of evasive officials in uniform providing inflated enemy body counts for a cause that became increasingly uncertain and divisive. Perhaps the most powerful influences were the killing of President Kennedy and the Warren Commission findings, which concluded that the assassination was done by a single gunman; both events left a strong residue of doubt.

Then came Watergate, culminating in President Nixon's resignation. In this climate, it was the flag-waving ''Patton'' -- Nixon's favorite film -- that stood out for its unabashed stance. The tenor of the times was a far cry from that of the 1930's, when the image of Washington as friend of the working man was captured in optimistic movies like ''Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.''

Throughout the 1960's and 70's, 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.

Films that glorified rebels, pointed toward conspiracies or captured a mood of estrangement included ''The Graduate,'' ''Dr. Strangelove,'' ''Five Easy Pieces,'' ''Chinatown,'' ''The Godfather,'' ''Network'' and ''A Clockwork Orange.''

Perhaps the apex of the dark view of Washington came years later with the 1991 film ''J.F.K.'' by Oliver Stone, himself a Vietnam veteran. Its treatment of President John F. Kennedy's murder laid out such a murky morass of interwoven conspiracies that moviegoers left theaters wondering who was responsible -- the C.I.A., rapacious businessmen, Cuban exiles. Chris Albrecht, president of original programming at HBO, said: ''It takes a certain maturity to look at those kinds of events and appreciate them and not be children of the 60's. A lot of things that had to do with patriotism and sacrifice and war were things to run away from and criticize rather than embrace. Now it's time to reach back and tell those heroic stories. Especially now.''

Over the decades the depiction of government as a negative force has taken such hold that younger television writers viewed it as almost a cliché. J. J. Abrams, 35, a co-creator of ''Felicity,'' on the WB network, and the creator of a new action series, ''Alias,'' on ABC about a gorgeous woman recruited to be a spy out of college, said: ''It might have seemed an opportunist move to do a show so patriotic and so much about a young American hero in light of events. Of course, it was created eight months ago.''

Mr. Abrams continued: ''The truth is, I wanted to change the pattern. The idea of doing a show in which the government is an evil conspirator didn't interest me at all. It was so common. You didn't want to repeat that story.'' He theorized that the end of the cold war and the collapse of Communism contributed -- at least in recent years -- to the entertainment industry's turning on the government.

''There was no common enemy, nothing to unite the country, and in a way the entertainment business was looking for an enemy,'' Mr. Abrams said. '' 'X-Files' and the like used the government in a weird way as the enemy we often found across the borders.''

Thomas Schatz, chairman of the department of radio, television and film at the University of Texas in Austin and the author of ''The Genius of the System: Hollywood Filmmaking in the Studio Era'' (Pantheon, 1989), said that by the closing days of World War II, studios were turning away from the all-out patriotic films that stamped the war years.

There were films like John Ford's ''They Were Expendable,'' about a PT boat squadron in the Philippines, and Lewis Milestone's ''Walk in theSun,'' about an American battalion attacking German troops in Italy, that presented a complex view of heroism and warfare.

''These were about the psychological and emotional aspect of soldiering that we had not seen and that the public was ready for,'' Mr. Schatz said. The postwar years, he added, were colored by studio attempts -- some successful, some not -- to address real issues that were implicit criticisms of what Mr. Schatz called the government's ''passivity or hypocrisy.''

The films -- some dealing with racial prejudice or anti-Semitism -- included ''Home of the Brave,'' ''Gentleman's Agreement,'' ''Pinky'' and ''Crossfire,'' as well as movies dealing with social problems, like ''The Snake Pit.'' By the 1950's, with the advent of McCarthyism and the blacklisting of writers of some of the earlier films, Hollywood turned in veiled ways to the hero in conflict with the establishment in films like ''High Noon'' and ''Spartacus.''

With the exception of ''The Godfather,'' such movies would probably not be made today because they would be seen as too dark, too downbeat.

The negative themes of Hollywood eventually found their way to television. ''The notion in the early 1990's on television was that the government was big, out of control and a fertile ground for mischief,'' said Ron Simon, curator of television at the Museum of Television and Radio. ''Those were earlier times. I don't think that's what people want to hear now.''


  10/10/2001. The New York Times.


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