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Jewish World Review March 29, 2000 /22 Adar II, 5760

John Leo

John Leo
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Hollywood message films leave no room for other views -- EVEN OUR BEST MOVIES often seem chock-full of stock characters. "American Beauty," for example, is a strong, funny, original film. But it's no surprise to hear that middle-class suburbanites, behind their facade of normality, are screwed-up folks leading lives of turmoil and hypocrisy. The only exceptions are the drug dealer next door and the nice gay neighbors. The villain is right off the Hollywood shelf, too -- a gay-hating, gun-loving, probably psychotic military man. The only thing the writers forgot to do was to make him a tobacco company chemist and a trustee of a segregated college.

This is the normal iconography of Hollywood. Oscar week is a good time to reflect on how unlike the rest of the country the movie industry is. In Hollywood's America, for instance, virtually all gay characters are so noble that they make Mother Teresa look sleazy. Any character in uniform, on the other hand, is a good bet to commit some awful felony. In any film wholly about the military ("A Few Good Men," for instance, or "The General's Daughter"), lower-ranking people are allowed to be relatively sane, but only if they work to expose the criminal insanity at the top. ("Saving Private Ryan" was a big exception. How did it slip past the radar?)

This reflexive Hollywood contempt for the military must have something to do with the severe recruiting problems of our armed forces. Young people tempted to sign up don't get their ideas about the service from books or private chats with old vets. They get them from the popular culture, which is still feeding us dark Dr. Strangelove tales about an evil military.

A related problem is Hollywood's inability to imagine principled political views different from its own. Take the TV show "The West Wing," which is basically a soap opera about what the Clinton White House might have looked like if Clinton had been principled and vaguely monogamous. It's an interesting show, and I watch it when I can. But when I watch, I realize I am inside the Hollywood brain stem. I am like an atheist reading a Graham Greene novel about a tormented priest. In "The West Wing," all the good people of America are liberal Democrats. Everyone else is part of the problem. When one staffer goes on a "Crossfire"-type show with a conservative minister, we all know what to expect. The minister turns out to be an anti-Semitic, anti-abortion bigot who doesn't even know the Ten Commandments.

"The West Wing" derives from the 1995 Michael Douglas movie "The American President," the original Hollywood daydream about Clinton. In this fantasy, sexual charges against the Clinton character are delivered by a hateful Republican candidate for president based on Bob Dole. These charges amount to little; the Clinton character isn't cheating again on Hillary. He's just a high-minded widower courting an environmental lobbyist (Annette Bening). In one classic Hollywood moment, the Clinton character gets to make a stirring speech, asking why the villainous Dole character isn't a member of the ACLU. (Possible answer: because the ACLU is now a hard-left pressure group, and Republican presidential candidates tend not to be part of the hard left.)

Sometimes the Hollywood message machine runs off the rails. Norman Jewison made a terrible mess out of "The Hurricane" and was clearly punished for it -- no Oscar nominations for the movie itself, just the one for Denzel Washington. Jewison took "Hurricane" Carter, a mediocre boxer with a substantial criminal record, who may or may not have committed the three murders he was charged with, and converted him into a character who is half-Jesus Christ, half-Nelson Mandela.

In the movie, Carter never does one thing wrong. He is a lifelong victim of white racism. Even a fight that Carter clearly lost, according to reporters and fight critics, is presented as a victory stolen by ringside racists. Jewison took the conventional Hollywood line, but stretched the truth way too far and got slapped down. An amazing outcome.

Hollywood is much prouder of another message movie, "The Cider House Rules." On the surface, it's about the mentor relationship between the Michael Caine character, who runs an orphanage in Maine in the 1940s, and his young protege, the Tobey Maguire character. But the movie is really about abortion. The Caine character performs them on demand and is furious that his protege will not.

The screenplay is by John Irving, based on his own novel. Irving is a strong backer of abortion rights who has made some strident and ugly comments about people who disagree with him on the issue. So we expect the issue to be stacked in the movie, and it is. There is no room for moral uncertainty. Peforming abortions is elevated to an absolute moral duty. Not performing them is corrupt. No wonder Planned Parenthood is showing the film at fund-raisers.

The problem is not that the movie is pro-abortion, but that a difficult moral issue is so crudely manipulated to illustrate a political stance. This movie could never be made in reverse, with an abortionist developing moral qualms and stopping. The political terrain here is the same as in the White House of "The American President" and "The West Wing": Opponents of the Hollywood belief system are just plain wrong. How many times do they have to tell us this before we get the message?

JWR contributor John Leo's latest book is Two Steps Ahead of the Thought Police. Send your comments by clicking here.


03/22/00: The Vatican confesses, but is it enough?
03/14/00: Watch what you say: The left can no longer be counted on to defend free speech
03/07/00: McCain's malleable messages
03/01/00: Bush's appearance at Bob Jones U. will dog him all the way
02/23/00: 'Multi-millionaire' show is new evidence we're insane

© 2000, John Leo