DAILY VARIETY‘S ACCOUNT LAST WEEK of government intelligence specialists tapping into the imaginations of Hollywood filmmakers produced some understandably skeptical reactions. What does Hollywood know about the realities of modern warfare, some huffed. This is a surreal exercise.
But is it?
Here are the facts: Working groups of writers and directors have been holding furtive meetings with Army operatives at USC’s Institute for Creative Technology. The government, it seems, wants to brainstorm about possible terrorist schemes and how to combat them.
Their reasoning is that warfare has entered a troubling new phase and government agencies arguably have been slow to react. So why not get some fresh ideas?
Well, I don’t want to diminish the seriousness of the present conflict nor the sacrifice of those who have been caught in its vortex, but let’s take a breath and review our dilemma.
Since World War II, this nation has not demonstrated a keen aptitude for conducting and winning wars. Hollywood, on the other hand, has been turning a handsome profit from warfare for generations. From “All Quiet on the Western Front” to “Band of Brothers,” war has been anything but hell for show business.
VIEWED FROM A HOLLYWOOD perspective, one can argue that the nation’s dire experiences have often stemmed from misguided story structure. The Korean War had a serious third-act problem, with China suddenly intruding itself into an otherwise tight plot. The Gulf War had no third act at all; the president just said “cut” and everybody went home. The Vietnam drama was seriously lacking in audience involvement or empathy.
The studios would ask, where were the rewrites? For that matter, where were the story notes?
These issues take on all the more urgency now that modern combat plays out before the world on live TV, as though it were a giant reality show. People watch with numb fascination as each side makes its moves and the president summons help from “America’s Most Wanted.” The audience is both global and critical.
Given this spectacle, it may not be such a dense idea after all for intelligence experts to tap into showbiz savvy. This war may go on sporadically for years, we are told. If that’s the case, the key players better find a way to sustain audience involvement. There clearly will be a need for dramatic surprises, and a viable three-act structure.
With all this in mind, the government has thus chosen an interesting cast of characters for its exercise in brainstorming. When you mix in such filmmakers as David Fincher, Spike Jonze and Randal Kleiser with writers like Steven De Souza, you’re certainly registering an impatience with orthodoxy. Suddenly you have “Fight Club” meets “Being John Malkovich”; you have “Die Hard” married to “Grease.”
Now introduce some special-effects wizards into the equation and you develop the makings for serious brainstorming. Warfare may never be the same.
IN TIMES PAST, REMEMBER, show business has mobilized to bolster morale in dire times. The studio system thrived during the Great Depression by providing an escapist diet. Our spirits were buoyed during World War II by the outpouring of heroic movies. War became the noble pursuit of the noble generation.
So, can Hollywood help once again?
Well, let’s applaud the writers and directors for giving it a try. They’re accustomed to brainstorming on demand. They have trained themselves to think fast when a superstar suddenly demands a more heroic plot twist or a studio hierarchy detects an absence of tension.
Now they face a new cast of characters: Self-styled holy men who finance their operations peddling heroin; weirdos slipping anthrax into newsrooms; nihilists who’ve been brainwashed into thinking they have a ticket to paradise.
On reflection, all this may be too surreal even for Hollywood.