At an investor’s conference a few years ago, I appeared on a panel entitled “The Soft Power of Hollywood” with a show-business executive who breathlessly reminded the audience that American movie stars were the “most popular” and “most famous” people on earth.
Which isn’t quite true, as I told him. If you’re going by the sheer number of human beings who watch their movies, the most popular and most famous people on earth are indisputably South Asian. It’s Bollywood, not Hollywood, that really packs in the audiences.
The Hollywood executive smiled thinly. “That’s a good reminder, thanks,” he said in a tone that conveyed zero thanks. But my point stood. It’s not just that Bollywood movies have a bigger audience; it’s that they’re more popular in places where America and the West in general aren’t.
In Muslim Africa, the Persian Gulf, Indonesia, the Middle East—places where anti-American and anti-Western feelings run high—the entertainment of choice is most often something from Mumbai. In Pakistan, where Bollywood movies are essentially banned, there is nevertheless a robust and widespread market in DVDs and thumb drives with the latest releases from India.
Reflecting on this, a friend and I came up with the following plan to save the world from Islamic terrorism: We’d fly to Mumbai and open up some swanky offices, and with funds provided by the American taxpayer, we would invest in as many Bollywood movies as we could. We’d spread cash around on the worst possible terms for investors—No audits necessary! We don’t expect a return!—in exchange for one or two teensy little creative requests.
For the hero’s best friend, can we cast an American? And you know the doctor who saves the life of the heroine in the third act—would it be too much trouble for him to wear a yarmulke while he does this?
Our theory was this: Small, incidental moments in popular entertainments where Americans and Jews are “the good guys” might do what drone strikes cannot.
Covert propaganda isn’t new, of course. In 1975, the Church Committee—a Senate star chamber convened to trash the CIA—alleged that it had been used to varying effect since the beginning of the Cold War. Operation Mockingbird, which I think we can all agree is a terrific name for a covert operation even if it didn’t exist, was described as a media network in which news organizations were persuaded to print CIA-approved news reports. It was the origin of #FakeNews.
Governments, though—even the black-ops parts, like the CIA—are hapless amateurs at this sort of thing. When it comes to embedding political messages into media, nobody beats Hollywood. In the 1950s and 1960s, which the Church Committee said was the prime moment when the CIA manipulated worldwide media with anti-Communist and pro-American messages, Hollywood was busily producing movies with the opposite sales pitch.
At the height of the Cold War, two of the most popular action-adventure thrillers were the James Bond pictures From Russia with Love and, 14 years later, The Spy Who Loved Me, in which the West and the Soviet empire found it necessary to join forces to battle evil, unfettered capitalism. Even back when the CIA was just a baby, the peerless anti-American Graham Greene wrote The Third Man, set in war-ravaged Vienna just as the Iron Curtain was being drawn tight across the map of Europe. The villain of The Third Man wasn’t Joseph Stalin or Adolf Hitler. It was Harry Lime, an American opportunist. The trouble with the world, according to a huge portion of American movies since 1949, is capitalism.
For decades, Hollywood villains were a collection of caricatures straight out of the Daily Worker: rapacious nuclear-power utilities, big chemical cartels, the defense industry, Wall Street sharpies, uptight squares. You always knew who the real bad guy was in a movie or television show because he—and it was always a “he”—was the guy in the suit with the corporate job.
Then, suddenly, things got more interesting. The overall quality of the Hollywood Bad Guy went way, way up, largely because of the television boom that really took off at the turn of the century. There has not been a more complicated and absorbing screen villain than Walter White, the high-school science teacher turned drug kingpin of Breaking Bad. Tony Soprano was a complex and charming psychopath, a monster and a family man all rolled into one. Both of these portrayals took advantage of the bigger storytelling canvas afforded by a multiyear television series, but they also benefited from having no detectable political message, covert or otherwise. They were just character studies, products of a fractured cultural brew made up of the end of the Cold War, an economic collapse, a stateside terrorist attack, Barack Obama, and the rise of the Internet.
The happy result has been some really great storytelling, with surprising and unforgettable bad guys. Until the presidency of the Baddest of Bad Guys, Donald J. Trump.
For Hollywood, Trump is a cartoon bad guy, too awful for a multiyear biographical television series, where we really get into his issues with Dad, women, hair, weight, pride, money, and public approval. Which is a shame, because honestly, I’d watch that. Where Hollywood looked at Tony Soprano or Walter White (or The Joker, or Hannibal Lecter) and saw something worth exploring and understanding, in Donald J. Trump they see only low-rent one-note badness.
Put it this way, had Trump won a second term, the entire Hollywood propaganda machine would have creaked and groaned into place, and we’d have been subjected to four years of lazy and predictably ham-fisted festivals of outrage, with thinly disguised portrayals of the entire Trump operation including, probably, Jared Kushner stroking a white cat, Blofeld-style.
That version may still be on the way. Hollywood remains inclined to the lazy and predictable, even when the lazy and predictable are insane. Lionel Chetwynd, the gifted writer and director, tells a wryly funny story about pitching a World War II movie to room full of studio executives. The project was about a Canadian regiment on D-Day that had to invade a heavily fortified German redoubt on the French coast to divert Nazi forces away from the actual invasion at Omaha Beach. It was a suicide mission. A crucial suicide mission, but nevertheless one designed to result in catastrophic casualties. In his story, the brave men of the Canadian regiment ultimately know exactly what their fate is and face it with bravery. I’ve heard him give that pitch, and it’s a stunner. When he winds it up, there are lumpy throats all over the room.
“Love it,” one of the executives said at the pitch meeting. “But tell me, who’s the enemy here?”
“Um, Hitler,” Chetwynd replied.
“Yes, yes, right, of course,” the executive said. “But who’s the real enemy?”
All Chetwynd had to do was say “bloodthirsty American generals” or “munitions makers” and he would have walked out of there with a green light.
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