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Hollywood's Role in the War on Terror


Terrorism has become a popular subject in the entertainment media, from books to movies to television shows. Nearly five years after the 2001 terror attacks on the United States, Hollywood is taking a close look at the subject of terrorism.

After the terror attacks of September 2001, filmmakers were reluctant to tackle the subject of terrorism, says Anne Thompson, Deputy Film Editor for The Hollywood Reporter newspaper.

"Whenever there's a really tough disaster that upsets people a lot, it takes a while for filmmakers in Hollywood to catch up. And sometimes they're afraid that audiences won't be ready. But for whatever reason, this year, 2006, we're seeing 'United 93,' which opened and is moving its way out of theaters already, despite very, very good reviews," says Thompson.

Four planes were hijacked on September 11, 2001. Three of them reached their targets in New York and Washington. The film "United 93" is the story of the fourth, which crashed in Pennsylvania.

Realism in Movies

Jonathan Taplin of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California says the crop of current films aims at realism. Mr. Taplin knows Hollywood well. He is a producer who has worked on such films as "Mean Streets," "The Last Waltz" and "To Die For."

"Whether a movie like 'Munich' or a movie like 'Syriana,' even most recently 'United Flight 93', all attempt to portray the terrorists with a little bit of nuance, in a way that you understand that they have their own reasons for doing what they're doing, and it's not such a cliched caricature as it used to be," says Taplin.

But can filmmakers go too far in creating understandable characters? Some critics say Steven Spielberg did that in his recent film "Munich," which shows Israel's retaliation for the murders of 11 Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Israeli agents set out to track down and assassinate those responsible.

Jonathan Taplin says Spielberg was criticized for showing the motivations and human costs on both sides of the story.

"But I think it was an important attempt on his part to show the two sides of the question, that both sides were filled with a sense of resolve and a sense of purpose," says Taplin.

Terrorism and the Media

Analysts say that terrorists use violence, and the media, to get across a message, and their goal is political change. Some feel the media should not make the terrorists' job easier. Others say law enforcement can also profit from what the media does.

Lieutenant John Sullivan of the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department is Director of the National Terrorism Early Warning Resource Center.

"Terrorism at its core is political violence, is designed to send a message and develop a following. The media is important in understanding what the terrorists are trying to communicate, and what the appropriate level of government response is," says Sullivan.

He says political violence is not new, and that history teaches that terrorists are seldom able to topple society.

"Terrorism is a weapon of the weak. The media can allow people to put terrorism into the proper balance. Terrorism only causes great political change when there's overreaction or improper reaction by governmental authorities," says Sullivan.

Producer Jonathan Taplin says films such as "United 93" can convey in a paradoxical way the differing perspectives of the terrorists and their victims.

"The scene that was most striking for me in 'United 93' is a scene at the very height of the crisis, where you cut between the Americans praying to their god in the cabin as the plane is plunging downward and the Arabs who have taken over the plane praying to their god. And it's literally cutting back and forth between these two sets of prayers." Taplin says, ironically, they are praying to the same god.

Hollywood films are not meant to educate. Studios want to make money and writers and directors want to tell a story. But terrorism expert John Sullivan says movies can inform, and still make a profit.

"I don't think that making money, educating and assessing the issues, and entertaining are necessarily mutually exclusive. You can do all of them at the same time. I suspect to truly educate in a democratic society, it needs to be entertaining, so people will be engaged and watch it," says Sullivan.

Anne Thompson of The Hollywood Reporter says Hollywood will continue addressing difficult topics, including terrorism. "And it's to their credit that they're doing it. I really disagree with critics who suggest that the subject of 9 11 is not something that filmmaking should be a part of, as if it were somehow protected from view," says Thompson.

She says the subject of terrorism requires a dialogue that Hollywood is helping to foster.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.