Pop culture interprets current events

In the movie “Battle: Los Angeles,” a Marine’s courageous action — against alien invaders, no less — prompts a comrade to call that “some real John Wayne shit.”

Even in movies, our reference point for military heroism and law enforcement is stuff we’ve seen in other movies and on television.

Small wonder the death of Osama bin Laden — killed by a Navy SEAL strike team in a clandestine operation — has already provoked a series of movie and TV comparisons. Since most people have nothing in their experience to reference, scenes from thrillers and war films leap to mind.

The problem with that, of course, is reality tends to be considerably messier than fiction — a fact repeated, time and again, not only in the shifting account of Bin Laden’s takedown, but the rush to craft familiar story templates around events where the book, as it were, turns out to be less satisfying than the movie.

The Iraq war alone has yielded its own small genre of such disappointments, from captured (and subsequently rescued) Private Jessica Lynch — who was initially said, wrongly, to have fired all her ammunition while wounded — to NFL star-turned-Army Ranger Pat Tillman, who walked away from a lucrative contract to serve in Afghanistan. His tragic death — initially depicted by the Pentagon as a Taliban ambush — wound up being an act of friendly fire.

Perceptions of spying and espionage are still informed by the exploits of James Bond, just as the war on terror has periodically been filtered through former Fox series “24,” which at various times in a lengthy run that began shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, was cited by elected officials in the context of ticking-bomb scenarios and justification of torture — or rather, “harsh interrogation techniques.”

Asked about torture as a means of thwarting imminent threats during a 2007 Republican presidential debate, former congressman Tom Tancredo responded, “I’m looking for Jack Bauer at that time.” The crowd applauded.

Leave it to Stephen Colbert to immediately funnel the Bin Laden mission through this prism, saying on his Comedy Central program, “It’s like something out of ’24,’ right down to the black president.”

Politicians and journalists unwittingly conspire in using movies as a kind of shorthand, for different but analogous reasons. Both are eager to connect with audiences on an emotional level, seeking to communicate in simple terms to win hearts and generate ratings.

Small wonder Ronald Reagan — who wove cinematic imagery and patriotism together in his speeches — continues to exert such a powerful hold on conservatives. The inherent power of that approach explains why every modern president feels compelled to pepper State of the Union addresses with heart-warming human-interest stories, tailor-made for “Today” show segments or “Hallmark Hall of Fame” movies.

For politicians, however, this has often proved a double-edged sword. Voters aren’t exactly known for their patience, and if “24’s” Bauer could save the world in a day, the government’s inability to deliver results on a similar timetable must be a sign of bureaucratic incompetence.

Nothing exemplifies the melding of reality and fantasy more than unscripted television, which reflects the public’s willingness — even eagerness — to shoehorn improbable scenarios into recognizable and relatable ones. Indeed, the whole genre relies heavily on the audience’s complicity, ignoring (unconsciously, for the most part) how editing, scoring and in some instances staging reshape raw footage into what looks like a coherent narrative.

Even in the absence of video, moreover, the need to imagine such events has largely been eradicated. Within hours of the raid on Bin Laden’s compound, elaborate computer-generated images recreated what transpired. Some future special is no doubt already putting out casting calls for a tall bearded fellow to play Bin Laden in dramatic reenactments.

Invariably, more nuance and less glossy details emerge later. But the news serves as history’s first draft, and like many scripts, the raw results require a bit of polishing.

So go ahead, tell us a story. There will be time enough to sort out the truth — or better yet, in some cases, not to.

Because the modern age has essentially reduced us all to the level of media sophistication found on a T-shirt — the one that says, “I’ve given up the search for reality; now I’m just looking for a good fantasy.”

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