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Analysis: War, peace and cinema

By PAT NASON, UPI Hollywood Reporter   |   May 19, 2004 at 9:59 AM   |   Comments

LOS ANGELES, May 18 (UPI) -- Take Michael Moore's unreleased documentary "Fahrenheit 9/11," combine with difficult photos of Iraqi prisoner abuse and the beheading of Nick Berg, toss in a couple of newly released DVDs challenging the legitimacy of the Vietnam War as well as the current war in Iraq, and you get a vivid illustration of the powerful influence that visual information can exert on public discourse over war and peace.

There is nothing new about using visual arts to propagandize on behalf of one side or the other in war. During World War II, Hitler had Leni Riefenstahl and Roosevelt had just about all of Hollywood.

Outstanding examples of the effectiveness of entertainment on boosting wartime morale are contained in the new Disney DVD box set entitled "On the Front Lines," which features 32 Disney wartime shorts including the most famous of them all, "Der F├╝hrer's Face," starring Donald Duck. Another recent DVD release, "The Best of Abbott and Costello: Volume I," features the popular comedy team in uniform in such comedies as "Buck Privates" and "In the Navy."

Celluloid images abound from the World War II era, showing Hollywood stars in uniform, performing for the USO or lending their celebrity to war bond sales drives.

It's impossible to say what movie images will recall the current war in Iraq years from now, but "Fahrenheit 9/11" seems likely to be among them -- even if only by default. There are abundant images of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and their immediate aftermath, but Hollywood seems to have no plans for spinning the Iraq war into box-office gold.

Moore sounded less concerned with how his film is seen in the distant future than with whether it will have an impact now, when he told reporters at the Cannes Film Festival that his main wish for the movie is for it to motivate people to vote this November.

Moore may be an Oscar-winning documentarian and a best-selling author, but he remains an outsider, relying to a large extent on guerilla filmmaking tactics. "Fahrenheit 9/11" includes footage shot by a Moore crew that apparently was embedded with the U.S. military -- in much the same way as network TV news crews were, but with results that will doubtless frustrate military managers of the news.

Information wants to be free, the conventional wisdom goes, and the increasingly rapid proliferation of digital technology is shredding conventional methods for holding information back.

Robert Wright, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation in Washington, wrote in a Los Angeles Times op-ed that the release of digital photos showing abuse of Iraqis by U.S. soldiers at Baghdad's Abu Ghraib prison illustrates the democratization that results when technology promotes decentralization of power.

"During World War II, American prison guards didn't have the power to flood their government with bad publicity," wrote Wright. "And in Saddam Hussein's Iraq, abused prisoners had no chance of seeing their plight vividly brought to the world's attention."

Wright suggested that the digital revolution will change the nature of war and its place in U.S. foreign policy.

"Even if we avoid future prisoner abuse scandals, wars will bring more bad publicity than they used to, as smaller, cheaper and ever-more-pervasive cameras and camcorders create images that are manna for grass-roots propagandists," he wrote.

While partisans work over the fresh fare of Abu Ghraib, connoisseurs of vintage political infighting have a new occasion to pick over the bones of Vietnam with the DVD release of "The Fog of War." Filmmaker Errol Morris won an Oscar for this retrospective look at the life and work of Robert McNamara, widely regarded -- or reviled, as the case may be -- as the architect of U.S. military strategy for the war in Southeast Asia.

McNamara's confession of regret for the course he charted included an admonition that cannot be comforting to the sponsors of the war in Iraq.

"Any military commander who is being honest with himself or the people he is speaking to will admit that he's made mistakes with the application of military power," said McNamara. "He's killed people unnecessarily -- his own troops or other troops -- through mistakes, through errors of judgment."

Many discussions about Iraq include speculation about any resemblance it might bear to Vietnam. Morris told United Press International that Iraq is not Vietnam, but the resemblance is undeniable.

"I believe that we are making many of the same mistakes, and it's horrific to watch," he said. "History doesn't repeat itself, but the mistakes that we make do repeat themselves."

Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., is a fan of "The Fog of War" -- so much so that he wants to arrange a screening for his colleagues on the House Armed Services Committee.

"A distressing number of my colleagues have not seen it and are also unaware of our Vietnam War history," Cooper told UPI. "They know the cartoon version, but they don't know the real truth."

Harald Stavenas, a spokesman for the committee, said Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., would "respect that request" if Cooper wanted to arrange a screening, but he suggested it might be more practical to hand out DVDs to the members.

"To get everybody in one room for something like this is like herding cats," said Stavenas.

"Uncovered: The Whole Truth About the Iraq War," director Robert Greenwald's documentary based on interviews with former CIA officials, State Department officials and other assorted Washington insiders, has become a favorite among opponents of the Iraq war.

According to a publicist for Ryko Disc, the distributor of "Uncovered," there has been some resistance among retailers, on political grounds, to stock the title -- although it is available at major retailers such as Wal-Mart, Tower Records and Borders. It was not available for sale online at either Best Buy or Hollywood Video.

Much has been made about The Walt Disney Co. decision not to distribute "Fahrenheit 9/11" and the possibility it might suppress the potential audience for the movie. The theatrical-distribution issue may wind up hurting the movie's box-office prospects, but the reach of visual images has expanded to the point where virtually any image is accessible to anyone who is curious enough to search for it.

After all, the decapitation of Nick Berg and the Iraq war have knocked Paris Hilton and Britney Spears off the top of the list of the most-searched items on the Internet.

--

(Please send comments to nationaldesk@upi.com.)

© 2004 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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