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Hollywood gets angry

The current crop of protest films has everything to do with the political climate in the U.S. and Hollywood's reaction to it, writes Katherine Monk.

Katherine Monk, The Ottawa Citizen Published: Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Five years ago, shortly after George W. Bush won the White House for the first time in a divisive election, Academy Award winning screenwriter Stephen Gaghan offered the following prophecy about Bush's administration and its potential effect on Hollywood.

"It will be the best thing to happen to Hollywood in 50 years. It is going to be the death of conservative leadership, but I think we are going to go down four years into such a hole, and I think that those four years are going to be the best time for arts in America in a long, long time."

Gaghan made the remarks in an interview with the Associated Press after picking up the Oscar for his screenwriting work on Traffic. At the time, in February 2001, 9/11 didn't mean what it means today, and the War on Terror had yet to become the rhetorical equivalent of a national anthem.

Gaghan was simply pointing out a traditional pattern that generally sees a flourish of artistic activity in the wake of extreme conservatism.

After all, the birth of the Spanish Inquisition was accompanied by the first brush strokes to the Sistine Chapel, and the rise of the Third Reich brought on the Golden Age of Hollywood -- thanks to the emigration of Billy Wilder, Otto Preminger and others. And without the Peninsular War, there would probably be no special mention of artist Francisco de Goya, and his drawings depicting the horrors of war.

Gaghan was certainly on the right track, but the first four years of Bush's administration did not give birth to a whole new world of cinematic artistry. The attack on New York and Washington, plus continuing military actions in the Persian Gulf, stunted any potential for challenging the status quo in a creative or intellectual way. If anything, Bush's first years in power gave birth to reactionary hate-mongering, and a heartland boycott of country sirens the Dixie Chicks.

When Michael Moore used the Academy spotlight to hurl stones at Bush's "illegal" war in Iraq after winning the best documentary prize, he was booed by as many people as he was applauded. Even George Clooney found himself in hot water when he dared question the current state of global politics in the wake of the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Things have changed considerably over the past year. No one talks about weapons of mass destruction anymore and Bush's approval ratings continue to slip, but the most notable change of all has taken place in the moral and intellectual wasteland called Hollywood.

With the recent release of Syriana -- a political thriller written by Gaghan about the real cost of oil -- as well as Clooney's clever flashback to the McCarthy era in Good Night and Good Luck, there seems to be a growing appetite for movies that take a run at the establishment line with the best propaganda tool ever created: the moving image.

"You have to remember, Hollywood is slow to act. It takes two years, sometimes more, sometimes less, for a script to make it into production -- if it ever gets made at all. The first draft for Syriana arrived at the studio on the same day George W. Bush declared victory in Iraq. The mood was different then. It was a real time of patriotic drum beating -- but the script didn't die," says Gaghan.

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