All as It Had Been

Hollywood Revises History, Joins the Good Fight

In the absence of the Communist menace, the foe was everywhere—just ask Pat Buchanan. For Hollywood, this "unspecified enemy," in Deleuze and Guattari's phrase, was variously visualized as Euro-terrorists in Die Hard (1988), narco-terrorists in Die Hard 2 (1990), neo-Nazi terrorists in Die Hard With a Vengeance (1995), homegrown terrorists in Under Siege (1992), "international" terrorists in Under Siege 2 (1995), extraterrestrial terrorists in Independence Day (1996), micro-organic terrorists in Outbreak (1995), dino-terrorists in The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997), Russian terrorists in Air Force One (1997), Bosnian terrorists in The Peacemaker (1997), and Islamic terrorists in True Lies (1994), Executive Decision (1996), and The Siege (1998), a movie that, in dramatizing the wholesale roundup of Arab American suspects, can also be understood as prophetic.

Republican politicians and American jihadists argued that the real enemy was Hollywood itself—the movie industry spent the past decade carrying out a form of soft terrorism. What force was more pervasive? Or persuasive? By positing several billion casualties, Independence Day—to name but one blockbuster, extremely popular in the Middle East as everywhere else on earth—pretended to massacre nearly as many as paid to see it.

If Die Hard With a Vengeance, released only weeks after the Oklahoma City bombing, was inspired by the first attack on the WTC, it's also possible that the original Die Hard—in which Bruce Willis's NYPD street cop battled international terrorists in an L.A. skyscraper—may have contributed to the 1993 WTC scenario. People get ideas. Who now can forget the stirring image of Independence Day good guy Will Smith fearlessly piloting his aircraft into the very citadel of alien power . . . kaboom!

Illustration by Peter Scanlan

The Hollywood response to September 11 was fascinating—but then magical thinking is what movies are all about. In the days following September 11, Warner Bros. postponed Collateral Damage, a movie in which Arnold Schwarzenegger—the biggest star in Beirut—plays a firefighter who wreaks cosmic vengeance when his wife and child die in a Los Angeles skyscraper blown up by narco-terrorists, changed by director Andrew Davis from the original script's Arabs. (The screenwriters, David and Peter Griffiths, suffered another setback when Fox suspended their top-secret project, Deadline, a hijack drama written for James Cameron.) Jerry Bruckheimer decided that the time might not be right for World War III, which simulated the nuking of Seattle and San Diego.

Even comedies suffered some collateral damage. Disney put off the release of the Tim Allen vehicle Big Trouble, which involves a nuclear bomb smuggled aboard a jet plane; MGM shelved Nose Bleed, with Jackie Chan starring as a window washer who foils a terrorist plot to blow up the WTC. ("It represents capitalism," one of the terrorists was to explain. "It represents freedom. It represents everything that America is about. And to bring those two buildings down would bring America to its knees.") Scheduled telecasts of the X-Files movie and Independence Day were canceled, along with a Law & Order episode about bioterrorism in NYC. It was as though the future might be made safe by rewriting the past.

A new self-censorship was in place. The CBS show The Agency dropped a reference to Osama bin Laden. Sex and the City trimmed views of the twin towers; Paramount airbrushed them from the poster for Sidewalks of New York. Sony yanked their Spider Man trailer so as to eliminate images of the WTC and similarly ordered retakes on Men in Black 2 that would replace the WTC with the Chrysler Building. DreamWorks changed the end of The Time Machine, which rained moon fragments down on New York.

Hollywood felt guilty. Only days after the Trades fell, the studios eagerly reported that the FBI had informed them they could well be the terrorists' next target. On September 21, Los Angeles was swept with rumors of an impending attack. That great whirring sound wasn't the swallows returning to Capistrano but all those chickens coming home to roost. Not everyone was as blunt as director Robert Altman, who told the Associated Press, "The movies set the pattern, and these people have copied the movies. Nobody would have thought to commit an atrocity like that unless they'd seen it in a movie. . . I just believe we created this atmosphere and taught them how to do it."

As the Chinese videos suggested, the Events of September 11 would be hard to top. It was the end of the end of history, the beginning of the clash of civilizations, a powerful boost to the Greatest Generation Band of Brothers World War II revival. In the days following the disaster, the Los Angeles Times reported entertainment industry concern that "the public appetite for plots involving disasters and terrorism has vanished."

What then would movies be about? A prominent TV executive hastily assured The New York Times that entertainment, post-September 11, would be "much more wholesome" and that "we are definitely moving into a kinder, gentler time" (presumably 1988). A DreamWorks producer explained that the present atmosphere precluded his studio from bankrolling any more movies like The Peacemaker and Deep Impact: "We make the movies that reflect, in one way or another, the experiences we all have. There are just some movies that you can't make from here on in."

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