Conflicts give life to film and TV villians

THE IRAQ WAR breathed life into a special breed of movie and TV bad guy — and no, it wasn’t the already well-populated ranks of Arab terrorists.

Partly out of post-Cold War necessity, corporate tycoons had previously been elevated to the plateau of James Bond villainy, as embodied by Jonathan Pryce’s mogul in “Tomorrow Never Dies.” Yet the Iraq invasion and subsequent horror stories about private military contractors — principally represented by two key companies, Blackwater (since renamed Xe) and Halliburton — upped the ante on terrible on-screen acts assigned to the military-industrial complex’s for-profit side.

Continuing along the lines of “Syriana,” the new movie “State of Play” features a very Blackwater-like company suspected of using murder to advance its nefarious agenda, as did the original British miniseries. Otherwise disparate updates of two 1960s artifacts — “The Manchurian Candidate” and “Iron Man” — both recast the face of evil by shifting from communists to conglomerates.

Finally, there’s the current season of Fox’s “24,” in which fictitious military contractor Starkwood has declared war on America. That’s ostensibly quite a turn for a show whose popularity was self-servingly embraced by conservatives as evidence of public support for torture and controversial Bush administration anti-terror policies.

HOW DO THOSE companies feel about their alter egos’ depiction through Hollywood’s funhouse mirror?

Halliburton spokeswoman Diana Gabriel cited a “common misperception” about the company, which “is not, and has never been, a government contractor” but rather a service provider to the energy industry — albeit one that, along with former subsidiary KBR, has been ankle-deep in Iraq.

A spokeswoman for Xe in Moyock, N.C. (where they answer the phone “The U.S. Training Center,” which probably won out over “Mom & Apple Pie Inc.”) punted to Ashley Vanarsdall, a Washington, D.C.-based public-affairs consultant who has worked for defense contractors.

“One of the major challenges facing many corporations today is a popular culture that increasingly blends facts, isolated anecdotes, truthiness, opinion and outright fiction,” Vanarsdall said via email. “I think the public understands the dynamics that drive Hollywood. … Script writers need a good narrative, and every story needs a hero and a villain. Sometimes these storytelling imperatives meet in a script that unfairly vilifies an entire industry.”

Vanarsdall added that the “important story” about the good works that defense contractors do is not “likely to sell tickets at the box office or get great numbers during sweeps.” If it did, by the way, Fox would be all over it.

Granted, there’s obvious dramatic license at work here, and the audience is generally smart enough to recognize as much. As “24″ exec producer Howard Gordon told me, despite his program’s reputation it has always been an equal-opportunity offender. Indeed, villains have included Middle-Eastern terrorists, an African dictator, amoral corporatists and the president of the United States.

“We’ve always had this weird dance with current events,” Gordon said, adding that it’s clear the program operates in a “heightened reality. We allow ourselves to be a little more outrageous” than a movie like “State of Play.”

As for this season’s Starkwood storyline, he said, “We tried to paint it as a rogue conspiracy … in what’s clearly an insane plot” masterminded by Jon Voight’s character, who in the latest installment sought to blackmail the president to establish his company as a “fifth branch of the military.”

AS GORDON NOTED, corporate greed is hardly a new dramatic foil, though the growing outlandishness of these threats appears to reflect a more jaded view of big business as a corrosive force — one unlikely to be softened by the global economic meltdown. Although declaring war on the U.S. is far-fetched, series like “Damages” or movies like “Michael Clayton” unblinkingly portray a reality where shadowy corporations have no compunctions about eliminating those who dare undermine their interests.

Back in 2006, the conservative Business & Media Institute issued a study titled “Bad Company” that complained about movies and TV dramas being “overwhelmingly negative” toward business. Based on the profound mistrust of such institutions, an imminent PR turnaround seems unlikely.

Somehow, the heavies in recent projects bring to mind another unscrupulous businessman from “Chinatown,” a movie made during another unpopular war. As he explained it, “Most people never have to face the fact that, at the right time and the right place, they’re capable of… anything.”

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