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Hollywood expected to be punished. Instead, it was drafted. Only days after the terror attacks, the Pentagon-funded Institute for Creative Technologies at the University of Southern California convened several meetings with filmmakers—including screenwriter Steven E. De Souza (Die Hard, Die Hard 2), director Joseph Zito (Delta Force One, Missing in Action), and wackier creative types like directors David Fincher, Spike Jonze, and Mary Lambert. The proceedings were chaired by Brigadier General Kenneth Bergquist; the idea was for the talent to “brainstorm” possible terrorist scenarios and then offer solutions. (Why not? Did we not live in a country where Steven Spielberg had been called upon by Congress to offer insight into hate crimes and Tom Clancy was interviewed by CNN as an expert on terrorism?)
For the first time since Ronald Reagan left office, it became all but impossible to criticize the movie industry. After George Bush’s late September suggestion that Americans fight terrorism by taking their families to Disney World, Disney chief Michael Eisner sent an email praising the president as “our newest cheerleader.” One leader cheers the other. In Congress, conservative Republican Henry Hyde requested Hollywood’s help in addressing the “hearts and minds” of the Arab world. Unable to ignore the similarity between their religious fundamentalism and ours—thanks to the reverends Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson’s suggestion that the events of 9/11 might be God’s punishment for America’s sinful behavior—the administration sought to promote the patriotic values of “tolerance” and entertainment.
On the other hand, according to the October 3 Washington Post, video stores were enjoying “huge rentals of heroic combat movies” with Rambo and Die Hard With a Vengeance “flying off Blockbuster shelves.” Four days later, in retaliation for the Afghani Taliban’s refusal to surrender Osama bin Laden, US and British forces launched Operation Enduring Freedom. The studios moved up military films like Behind Enemy Lines (which tested even better post-9/11) and the Somalia combat film Black Hawk Down. Warner Bros., supposedly out beating the bushes for a new Rambo, could only regret having so hastily yanked Collateral Damage—surely the season’s perfect movie.
In the weeks following September 11, New York saw a number of notable openings, including David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, Catherine Breillat’s Fat Girl, Richard Linklater’s Waking Life, and Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums, not to mention the first installments of the Harry Potter saga and Lord of the Rings.
The December 2001 press screening for The Lord of the Rings was the first I ever attended where critics were frisked with a hand-wand metal detector and asked to check their cell phones. Although this was clearly a response to the possibility of the movie being pirated, these precautions were explained as necessary in view of a presumed terrorist threat.