Anti-war Hollywood is being very careful of what it says right now, especially because the news is so tragic out of Iraq and the talk out of the White House, Pentagon and Congress so turgid. But we can say it for them: Hollywood was right to oppose the invasion. Beltway-blindered Vulcans were wrong. This past week has shown that to us all. The closest anyone has come to daring to point this out has been Tim Robbins, who was asked, during an appearance on NBC’s anemic MTV clone, Last Call, with Britney-for-brains host Carson Daly, “Isn’t it really a case of ‘I told you so’?” The question was broached given the mess in Iraq now and former White House counter-terrorism coordinator Richard Clarke’s assertions in his new book that the war there has detracted from America’s anti–al Qaeda campaign.
“I don’t like that kind of attitude. And it’s so sad that it happened,” a sanguine Robbins replied. “But it’s nice to have someone that’s an insider back up what all of our concerns were. That’s what we were trying to say last year and we got shouted down and vilified. To question it eight months later is unfortunate because there’s just a lot of people dead because of it.”
Obviously, our troops are paying the ultimate price for George and Dick and Rummy’s Unexcellent Misadventure. But those in the entertainment community have paid the higher price for it than Washington’s moguls of warmongering. Over the past 18 months, the right wing has tried to get Hollywood’s most outspoken anti-war activists fired, never hired, and/or treated like pariahs. At most, the Bush administration finds itself a tad down in the polls. Yet, rarely in recent memory has a week seen Hollywood and Washington so parasitically ensnared that it was hard to tell who was leeching off whom.
Example: SNL host Janet Jackson did a better Condi than the real-life robotic Miss America wannabe who looked to be licking Vaseline off her teeth so she could keep that inappropriate smile plastered during her testimony. Who knew Janet could act? Who knew SNL’s writers could still be funny? And Leno had some lame sight gags transplanting American Bandstand’s Dick Clark from his office in Burbank to the 9/11 commission podium inside the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill.
Is everything a joke to everyone? Don’t these matters of war and peace, life and death, truth and lies, deserve more serious treatment and consideration by us? Instead, there’s this discordant disconnect between what’s happening in Iraq or in the 9/11 commission and the American public who should be wringing their hands and wailing.
The reason why we aren’t is that, increasingly, pop culture overwhelms the news.
We no longer view terrible events through the stark prism of reality unadorned but through the far more palatable soft-focus lens of reality as theater or television or film and, yes, even satire and comedy. Talk about bad taste, the president himself exploited our pop culture sensibilities to diffuse his own ineptness and cover his administration’s missteps in that comic short film he made showing him in the Oval Office looking high and low for WMDs. Disgusting.
Sometimes, in times of trouble, we need all of that to help us heal. After the sensationalized Starr report assaulted our sensitivities with lurid detail about sex in the Oval Office, Leno turned our shock into smirks when he made those Bill-and-Monica blowjobs a running shtick. And after 9/11, Letterman showed us by example that grief and amusement are not mutually exclusive emotions.
But don’t let us off the hook now. Serious times call for serious outrage. This is the real difference between the Vietnam War era and now. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young spoke for a generation with its plaintive “Ohio” in the wake of the National Guard’s murdering of four at Kent State in 1970 — a far cry from Young’s perversely jingoistic post-9/11 “Let’s Roll.” Where is today’s anti-war anthem? (For Chrissake, “Mr. Blowin’ in the Wind” Bob Dylan is doing Victoria’s Secret commercials.) Will anyone pen a musical liturgy for Thomas Hamill, the Mississippian taken hostage in Iraq who, faced with crushing debt, his wife’s open-heart surgery bills, a family to support and a recession-plagued economy, took a last-resort job with a contractor supplying the troops in the most dangerous place on earth only to become an unwitting icon of GWB’s miserable failure of a presidency?
Instead, even the facts are turned into fiction. Take, for instance, the recent New York Times review of the book by the real Dick Clarke, Against All Enemies: Inside America’s War on Terror. It reads more like a film review than an examination about a burgeoning political and international crisis, even to the point that the writer opined: “I hope Clarke has sold the rights to Hollywood, because I would pay to see this movie.”
Nor is it a surprise that Clarke hit the jackpot — and he wasn’t even J. Lo’s mom winning two mil on the slots — when his book was bought by mogul-turned-producer John Calley. Instead of a documentary based on the book, or even a docudrama, Calley has told Sony he envisions a political-thriller clone of All the President’s Men (which this Industry dinosaur greenlit as head of production at Warner’s in the Mesozoic Era). There’s talk of attaching The Insider’s screenwriter Eric Roth and Erin Brockovich’s director, Steven Soderbergh. (Yes, Michael Mann would have been the obvious choice — what with John Frankenheimer dead and all — but he’s persona non grata at Sony after that box office debacle Ali.) The next months will be filled with speculation about who’ll play Clarke, with guesses ranging from Kevin Spacey and Russell Crowe to, inappropriately, Ashton Kutcher.
Meanwhile, on MSNBC, Chris Matthews was interrupting guests to pepper them with pop-culture references, probably so he’d look “groovy.” He questioned why Convoluted Rice and Uncurious George didn’t realize the PDB entitled “Bin Laden Determined To Attack the United States” should have “led to a picture that might have, like if we’re watching Wheel of Fortune, added up into a statement: They’re coming next month,” or “jumped off the screen at you, like a preview of coming movie attractions.”
Then, the media kept reminding us ad nauseam that those pictures of American bodies being dragged through the streets by angry mobs in Falluja weren’t merely gruesome, they were “déjà vu” direct from Black Hawk Down, which depicted the eerily similar Clinton-era Somali scenes that the Bush administration was so rabid to avenge with their own perverse logic of a pre-emptive attack on Iraq. Isn’t it enough for something to just be ghastly without having to equate it to “seeming like a movie”?
When the announcement was made that Dubya would hold a rare prime-time news conference Tuesday night, the media focused not on the next lie that Bush might tell, but on whether Fox would cover it. After all, Rupert Murdoch would rather cough up a lung before bumping American Idol. After a nanosecond of Nielsen-induced indecision, Murdoch decided that his fanatical need to continue cheering the now flailing Bush administration took precedence over his stockholders. On to the next bit of Iraqi War Lite. Like the news reports that American troops in Iraq routinely carry a rifle, a wrench and headphones to listen to Marilyn Manson, Ludacris and R. Kelly picked up from a European satellite music channel or downloaded to a communal MP3. And Jack Valenti’s heart might have stopped — that is, if he had one — when he read that our soldiers over there were scoring bootleg DVD copies of Hollywood’s newest movies like 50 First Dates, just days after it opened in the United States. Forget the Fog of War: Oh-my-god, there’s film piracy.
Indeed, there was so much Hollywood-Washington confluence that when Condi told the 9/11 commission there was no “silver bullet” that could have prevented the attacks, any film buff could be excused for thinking she meant that 1985 werewolf movie of the same name starring Gary Busey, which rated a 46 on Joe Bob Brigg’s Vomit Meter. What we should have been thinking and feeling during her testimony was not how this would be another pathetic excuse for Letterman, Leno and SNL writers to tickle our funny bone but was really a bona fide reason to trigger the gagging reflex.
E-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.