The Art of War

How Hollywood Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

A landscape of smoky rubble littered with American corpses: Mogadishu, the Ia Drang valley, downtown Baltimore. For seven weeks out of the past 22, the nation's No. 1 or 2 box-office attraction has been a spectacular war film. Add to these hits—Black Hawk Down, We Were Soldiers, and The Sum of All Fears—such crypto-combat, high-body-count chart-toppers as Collateral Damageand Attack of the Clones and 2002 has been springtime for carnage, at least at the movies.

As Black Hawk Downinstructed, "Leave no man behind." Last weekend's Windtalkersmay have been butt-kicked by Scooby-Doo, but more spectacles of organized mayhem are on the way: To End All Warscontinues the World War II revival, Men in Black IIenvisions warfare in outer space, K-19: The Widowmakerand Belowbring back the Cold War nuclear submarine drama, Gods and Generalsresurrects the Civil War. Meanwhile, on television, CBS floated the since-canceled AFP: American Fighter Pilot, and the VH1 reality-based series Military Diarieswill soon be joined by ABC's Afghanistan-set Profiles From the Front Line.

Not since the flurry of Vietnam movies in the late 1980s has the combat film been so viable or so visible. And not since the gung ho Reagan-era warnography of Ramboand Top Gunhas the brass been as pleased. Vice President Dick Cheney took a breather from his undisclosed location to join Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld at the gala Washington premiere of Black Hawk Down, the first movie for which (thanks to Rumsfeld's personal intervention) U.S. troops were dispatched to a foreign country to aid in its production. We Were Soldiersand The Sum of All Fearshave similarly been treated as official art. We Were Soldierswas previewed for George W. Bush, Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice, Karl Rove, and sundry military VIPs at a well-publicized White House screening. (An aide summarized the president's evaluation of the movie as "violent" but "good.") The Sum of All Fearshad its world premiere in Washington, D.C., as Paramount took care to alert the media that the producers had enjoyed considerable, even unprecedented, CIA access and Pentagon support.

All of last spring's movies, if not the TV shows, predate September 11. Their inspiration came not from the attacks on New York and Washington or Team Bush's war on terror but the strong showing of Saving Private Ryan(which grossed $216 million and topped the box office for a month during the Lewinsky summer of '98, when Bill Clinton too was striving to show he was not just a lover but a fighter). Hollywood jumped into bed with the Pentagon last fall, but the ongoing courtship goes back to the Clinton administration. And this is only the beginning. Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev once famously shuddered to imagine the "terrifying" blueprints his scientists had in their briefcases. The same could be said for those projects that might even now be traveling through the Hollywood pipeline, perhaps even producer Jerry Bruckheimer's long-awaited World War III.

Credit the entertainment industry, or at least Bruckheimer and writer Tom Clancy, with uncanny prescience. Bruckheimer's Pearl Harborgrossed $200 million last spring, but what truly seemed prophetic the day after September 11 was the movie's blend of blockbuster mega-disaster and historical war epic. Black Hawk Down, Bruckheimer's art film (directed by Ridley Scott), was rushed into theaters in late December (and subsequently furnished on video to U.S. military bases) to capitalize on the nation's new bellicosity. Throughout the winter, this visceral spectacle of U.S. soldiers pinned down under Somalian fire effectively functioned as an example of virtual combat. Black Hawk Downinspired patriotic sentiment, precipitated European ridicule, and invited anti-war protest, even as it stood in for the American debacle in Afghanistan that never quite happened (and to which reporters had even less access than Operation Desert Storm).

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Spectacles of organized mayhem: from Windtalkers
photo: Stephan Vaughan

The scenario structures the event. Bruckheimer co-produced Top Gun, the movie that military historian Lawrence H. Suid credits with rehabilitating Hollywood's image of the U.S. armed forces. Clancy is the closest thing the military establishment has to a Homeric bard. The writer had been recognized by the afternoon of September 11 as a near precog and pundit supreme for his 1994 novel Debt of Honor's climactic description of terrorists wiping out the entire U.S. government by crashing their hijacked airplane into the Capitol during a joint session of Congress. The Sum of All Fears, adapted from an earlier Clancy book, opened amid widespread international jitters that the perennial Kashmir dispute might precipitate a nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan—resurrecting a cinematic mode more or less dormant since the early 1960s by bringing the Bomb home.

Back then, in the duck-and-cover days of the crisis-ridden Kennedy era, Hollywood operated as though prepared to go to war but uncertain which branch of the government—the Pentagon or the president—it was to obey. The Department of Defense declined to help Columbia with the studio's nuclear disaster movie Fail-Safeor to assist Paramount film the military coup in Seven Days in May, though the latter project—according to its star-producer Kirk Douglas—was supported by JFK himself. (The makers of Dr. Strangeloveknew better than to even ask.) Armed with the knowledge that two films on accidental nuclear warfare were in preparation, General Curtis LeMay encouraged Universal producer Sy Bartlett, a former bomber pilot with 21 years in the air force, to make the 1963 A Gathering of Eagles—dedicated to the Strategic Air Command—and starring Rock Hudson as a fanatically hard-nosed wing commander.

Nor was this the first Pentagon update that the onetime SAC commander shepherded through a Hollywood studio. MGM's Above and Beyond(1952) told the story of Colonel Paul Tibbets, the pilot who dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima; Paramount's Strategic Air Command(1955), described by Timemagazine as a "soaring, supercolossal recruiting poster," introduced SAC's brand-new B-47 bombers with a peal of sacred organ music. LeMay not only endorsed Strategic Air Command but also participated in its promotion by providing exhibitors with military bands and lobby hardware displays. Warner Bros.' more modest Bombers B-52 (1957), which was somewhat overshadowed by the Soviet Union's just-launched sputniks, similarly showcased the latest SAC weaponry.

The Sum of All Fearsis scarcely so comforting. A week before it opened to become the nation's top-grossing movie, a New York Times Magazinecover story warned of the inevitable nuclear terrorism that was bound to befall American cities. "Not if but when" is how Bill Keller's remarkably fatalistic "Nuclear Nightmares" began, going on to term the deployment of a high-radiation dirty bomb as "almost childishly simple." The Sum of All Fearsobligingly visualizes the possibility of such a radiological dispersion device detonated by foreign terrorists at Camden Yards, where virtually the entire U.S. government is attending the Super Bowl. It's the ultimate advertisement for Homeland Security. The president's men are hustled out faster than you can say "anthrax." A frenzied attempt at poignant montage presents the American people as goofball cheerleaders, their faces painted in support of their team, idiotically oblivious to their imminent incineration.

Imagining nuclear war used to be called thinking about the unthinkable. What's startling in The Sum of All Fearsis that the nuke actually happens—rolling shock waves flinging cars into the air and swatting planes to the ground, a big black mushroom cloud rising over what once was Baltimore as the movie's surviving protagonists race around the white-light radioactive inferno. As The Sum of All Fearscaptured its second weekend, U.S. Customs officials called a news conference to demonstrate their bomb detection capability. Meanwhile, the Chris Rock vehicle Bad Companyoffered a similarly radioactive terrorist scenario played for laughs. On cable, Turner Classic Movies topically offered historical perspective with a triple bill of Dr. Strangelove, Fail-Safe, and The China Syndrome.

The Pentagon's Office of Strategic Influence may have officially backed off its announced intention to plant disinformation in the foreign press, but it would seem that Washington takes its cues from Hollywood—as well as vice versa. Attorney General John Ashcroft timed for the Monday morning that followed The Sum of All Fears' second triumphant weekend his proud announcement that the currently beleaguered FBI and CIA had successfully collaborated on the arrest of one Abdullah al-Muhajir, born Jose Padilla in Brooklyn.

Already detained for a month since deplaning in Chicago, Padilla was being held as a military prisoner and suspected of abetting an Al Qaeda plot to produce the very scenario The Sum of All Fearsso vividly illustrated—the drama of a dirty bomb detonated in an East Coast American city. The attorney general will receive another timely cue this week with the opening of Minority Report. Adapted from a 1956 Philip K. Dick short story, Steven Spielberg's new science-fiction feature posits a futuristic police force that arrests criminals before they have a chance to commit their crimes.

That Ashcroft was in Moscow when he announced Padilla's capture echoed the last-minute U.S.-Russian cooperation that, at least in The Sum of All Fears, saves both nations from Mutually Assured Destruction. Of course, these days, the MAD doctrine can no longer be considered applicable to Israel and its neighbors, the U.S. and Iraq, or India and Pakistan. Bruckheimer's spectacular World War IIImight well be trumped by a surprise, actual World War IV. That reality-based disaster is, however, less likely to be televised.


Research assistance: Laura Rothstein, Ben Kenigsberg

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