Hollywood and the War Against Terror
Jack Valenti is the president and CEO of the Motion
Picture Association of America. He is coordinating the efforts of the
Hollywood studios to help the Bush administration's war on terrorism.
He spoke with NPQ in Los Angeles.
NPQ | The Bush administration has hired the marketing guru of Uncle
Ben's rice for an international public relations campaign whose message
seems to be "if only the Muslim world understood us better, all would
be okay." Hollywood has also been enlisted to tell the world "this
is not a war against Muslims."
Isn't this naive? After all, the propaganda of American mass culture has
been out there globally for a long time. MTV has gone where the CIA could
never penetrate; Madonna is the Muzak of globalization. Muslims have gotten
the message. And, in part, that "material girl" image-materialism,
sexual immodesty, impiety-of America is what conservative Muslim cultures
JACK VALENTI | I totally disagree that Hollywood images in any
way are propelling this war against the West. I don't think Bin Laden
goes to the Bijou theater on Saturdays to watch the latest American flick.
He wants to bring down the Saudi government and moderate Arab governments
in the region so he can replace them with fundamentalists. It has nothing
to do with American movies or music.
In Syria, Egypt, Lebanon and Jordan, for example, you will find young
people who vilify the United States as decadent and evil out of one side
of their mouth, and then praise American movies out of the other side,
rattling off their favorite American movie stars.
So there is this vast contradiction out there. I know it is de rigeur
even among some Americans, like (Al Gore's running mate) Sen. Joe Lieberman
to rant about how American movies are coarsening the culture and driving
society to the depths of moral degradation.
This is all bullish-. A study by the Surgeon General of the US found that
alcohol, drug abuse, physical abuse, one-parent households, deterioration
of the schools-all these were far greater incitements to antisocial behavior
than media. That was about No. 15 on the list.
So, I don't know why it should be any different abroad than at home.
NPQ | What exactly is Hollywood hoping to do?
VALENTI | I have been trying since late September to enlist the
movie industry in getting involved in contributing its creative imagination
and persuasion skills to support the war on terror, not only in America
Recently the heads of every major studio and TV network met in Los Angeles
with Bush's top political advisor, Karl Rove, to figure out what to do.
For example, I suggested that the writers and actors guilds canvass their
memberships for Farsi or Arabic speakers who can get messages out in the
language of the people we are trying to reach-not just about how wonderful
America is, but about things that America has done. We have clothed and
fed and sheltered millions and millions around the world without asking
anything in return. We have educated hundreds of thousands of people from
all over the world in our universities.
And we want to get across the point that this is not a war against Muslims,
because killing innocent people is a violation of the teachings of the
Prophet. Those who murdered thousands in New York are thus abusers of
the Koran. We need to make that point-in a warm and affectionate way,
and in their language and idiom.
There are many venues to get the message out. MTV, as you mentioned, is
in 400 million households all over the world! Beyond that we want movie
stars to send messages to our armed forces out there saying, "We
love you, we care about you. Thank you for what you are doing. We haven't
As for the homefront, one of the things I've said to the people in the
White House is that you have to make Americans understand over and over
again that this war against terror requires patience, and it is going
to take casualties. That is what soldiers do in a war. They die.
Americans are going to have to screw their courage to the sticking place.
It is going to get brutal. Anybody captured will surely be tortured, their
arms and legs torn off, by these malignant zealots.
We need to prepare the American public for this. We learned from Vietnam
that it is a mistake to try to fight a war unless all the people are rallied
behind you and your allies are alongside.
So the efforts of Hollywood will be to shore up that will, especially
as the passions of Sept. 11 fade over the long time it will take to exterminate
Hollywood is a seamless web on this project, we are all united. Warren
Beatty, Bob Zemeckis, Steven Spielberg, Arnold Schwarzenegger are all
asking what they can do to help.
NPQ | Again, it would seem to me that the world, for better and
worse, has gotten America's message already since American mass cultures
permeates the planet. Perhaps the greater effort should be in the opposite
direction-America becoming more aware of other cultures by importing their
films and literature and listening to their intellectuals?
Most Americans are so unaware of the dynamics in the Muslim world that
they have been blindsided by the vast resentment against them. If we lost
Vietnam because we didn't understand the culture, in this war maybe we
should know more.
VALENTI | Well, we know one thing about the culture of some of
these people we are dealing with. They only understand force. To back
down in the face of someone who has hit your family is to show weakness
and softness. If you are not willing to avenge the death of your own,
then you are nothing. So, this is a war where you cannot be hesitant.
Benevolence is a word that must be struck from our vocabulary in this
war. To talk about peace and forgiveness at such a time as this would
provoke waves of derisive laughter in those caves in Afghanistan.
Now, through some elusive magic, American movies are hospitably patronized
in 185 countries. The American film industry has a surplus balance of
trade with every single country in the world when America itself is hemorrhaging
The American movie is supreme not because I'm standing on the Champs Elysee
with a bayonet forcing people into the theater to see them. There are
no b-52s laying waste to theaters that don't play our movies. Like everyone
else who favors American films, the French make that decision on their
own. People don't wake up in the morning saying, "Let's go see an
Indian or a French or an American movie," they say, "Let's go
see a good movie." America makes the most entertaining films, so
that is why people go to them. It is not complicated. There is no secret
recipe buried under Spago's restaurant in Beverly Hills. While most people
make movies for their neighborhood, America makes movies for the world.
That is the difference.
As for film distribution in the US, it is a commercial venture. Those
who own the theaters want the seats filled, so they book movies people
want to see. They are not in the business of subsidizing foreign cultural
imports so Americans can be better informed.
If the rest of the world wants its films to be seen in America, then they
should go out and buy their own movie theaters in Chicago, New York and
Los Angeles and show only Russian or French or Arab films. If the audiences
come, that is great. If they don't, it is their loss.