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Hollywood Tackles War on Terror


The U.S.-led war on terror is proceeding on several fronts, and producers and stars in Hollywood have offered their help. Hollywood is still trying to determine its proper role in the effort.

Hollywood's immediate response to the terrorist attacks of September 11 was to withhold its most violent fare from theaters and television, for fear of upsetting a sensitive public. A film starring Arnold Schwarzenegger that dealt with a terrorist theme was held back from release, and several major awards shows were cancelled or postponed. One that was finally presented, television's Emmy Awards, combined light humor with patriotism and tributes to the rescue workers who died in New York.

There were other tributes on television and radio, as well as benefit concerts and special recordings. But many in Hollywood wanted to do more, so White House advisors set up two meetings with Hollywood entertainers and executives. Those meetings in October and November were private, but White House advisor Mark McKinnon outlined what happened in a recent public forum titled "Hollywood Goes to War?" Mr. McKinnon says senior White House official Karl Rove offered some general guidelines on the administration's approach to the war on terrorism.

"And a couple of points that Karl talked about were that this is a war on terrorism, not on Islam," he said. "That's really fundamental in this whole effort. That it's not about Islam, it's about terrorism."

The White House advisor also said the Bush administration wants to express support for U.S. troops and their families, and is stressing that the war on terrorism is an international effort.

Among executives from the entertainment industry who attended the second meeting were production heads of the major studios. The White House officials made no definite requests of the Hollywood movers and shakers, which left some dissatisfied, says Bryce Zabel, chairman of the Television Academy. The only concrete proposals were suggestions for public service announcements by Hollywood entertainers, and provisions for getting entertainment to troops overseas.

"That's the kind of framework that we laid out, and we said, 'listen, if there are ways that you can promote that kind of message in your television or your movies, terrific,'" White House advisor Mark McKinnon said.

"Listen, I think a lot of people were dissatisfied that they didn't hear more specifics, but had they heard more specifics, they'd have been angry about it," responded Bryce Zabel of the Television Academy. He believes the White House struck the appropriate balance.

Director and writer Paris Barclay was not invited to the Hollywood meetings with White House officials, but he took part in the recent public forum on Hollywood's response to the war on terrorism. When the terror attacks occurred, Mr. Barclay was producing a play in Boston based on letters written by Americans fighting the Vietnam War.

"On September 11, there was no performance. On the 12th, we cancelled the performance. And when we came back on the 13th, we realized we were doing a different show, even though he script hadn't changed," he said. "It totally shifted. The conscientious objector that they loved on September 8th was met with silence. And the super-patriotic killing machine redneck became the hero. And we saw the actors saying, wow, the world and our entertainment world is different because the audience is feeling different things."

Still, those in Hollywood say that gauging what the public wants is difficult. One of the few producers to respond to the terror attack almost immediately was Aaron Sorkin, creator of the television drama The West Wing. The series stars actor Martin Sheen as a fictional president. A segment produced just 10 days after the attacks showed officials addressing a terrorist threat as they tried to explain its causes to group of visiting students. The show cautioned against a possible backlash against Arab Americans in the aftermath of an attack by Islamic extremists.

Mr. Sorkin says he felt compelled to address these issues in his program. But he says his fictional drama now pales beside the real-life drama of Washington.

"The real White House and Washington became a fascinating place. I don't want to compete with that and try and pretend we're them," said Mr. Sorkin. "I want to give the viewer the sense that we're all living in the same world, that we're living in a world where this is a threat and a problem and where our [fictional] White House is just as vigilant about attacking it as the real one is."

Mr. Sorkin says that since September 11, there is a little less satire in his program and a little less ridicule of public officials.

"Certainly since September 11 as a writer, I've become much less interested in attacking the real Washington, [ridiculing it] as a place where nothing happens and there's no inspiration and there's no passion," he said. "There's a lot of inspiration, there's a lot of passion right now, and I think enough to go around so we can have it in the real world and on our show too."

Actress and producer Sheryl Lee Ralph worries that the profit motive is still the basic inspiration in Hollywood. Jeff Zucker, the president of NBC television's entertainment division, is not so skeptical of Hollywood's motives, but he also questions whether the entertainment business is changing. So far, he says that apart from several special programs tied to September 11, he has seen no increase in requests for series about terrorism, the military or patriotic topics.

"I think it's a good story to believe that the entertainment world changed after September 11," Mr. Zucker said. "It makes better copy. But so far, we're not seeing that, and I think we're all talking about who's going to make the first movie about what happened on Flight 93 and things like that, and when is that appropriate. And I don't think any of us really knows that. "

Possibly, says producer Aaron Sorkin, the changes caused by the terror attacks will be subtle but long-lasting. Like many in Hollywood, he is unsure what the changes will be. Said another Hollywood figure in the recent public forum, September's terror attacks profoundly affected the nation, including Hollywood, but the entertainment business is moving into uncharted territory.

Part of VOA's Year End Series for 2001

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