If you prefer your global-news disasters through a Hollywood lens, there seem to be plenty of options these days.
Instead of a proper debate about Gaza, there is currently a proxy one between the likes of Javier Bardem and Jon Voight. If you want the latest on Ebola, there are numerous health authorities to consult — or there’s the screenwriter of "Contagion,” weighing in with a piece in the current issue of Time.
In Ukraine, where I spent recent weeks following developments in the country’s war against pro-Russia separatists, entertainment personalities from across the Atlantic have routinely let their thoughts be known, particularly after the crash of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 (thoughts being a generous term in the case of a certain male "Orange Is The New Black" star.
Film and television personalities have been weighing in on political news since Pharaoh first equivocated to Moses. (TMZ broke the story, catching some A-list Egyptian magicians as they hurried out of one the country’s trendier pyramids.) But the growth of celebrity culture and the outlets who cover it--not to mention entertainment-centric outlets that want a slice of all that global-news traffic--has multiplied the trend.
It's tempting to look at all of these statements and roll our eyes. At least the “Contagion" screenwriter had by professional duty done some research on the subject (and the piece does shed some light on the risks of the disease). And if money and mouth are in the same place—as they are for the George Clooneys, Sean Penns and Brangelinas of the world—then some humanitarian good can come of their attention.
But there’s something that can feel a little silly to us about many of these other pronouncements. Possessing the skill of impersonating someone else in front of a camera should not, in any meaningful way, correlate to a higher degree of authority about Vladimir Putin's foreign policy. There’s a reason it never works in reverse--we don’t ask Brookings Institution fellows what they think about the latest Marvel casting.
But in Ukraine, when I would tell people that back in the U.S. I cover Hollywood, I was struck by how many wanted to talk about comments celebrities have made about their political situation—particularly one celebrity, Jared Leto.
Leto, you may recall, gave an Oscar podium shout-out this year to the Eastern European country, which at the time was just beginning the recovery from a bloody revolution. "All the dreamers out there around the world… in places like Ukraine and Venezuela … as you struggle to make your dreams happen and live the impossible, we are thinking of you,” he said.
At the time it seemed well-meaning but slightly out of place, and certainly not significant. Leto is an intelligent interview subject, but it seemed unlikely he was spending whatever free time he had, what with being a rock star and a movie star and now an Oscar winner, poring over the EU Association Agreement or International Monetary Fund bailout proposals. Even if he did, he was hardly different than the millions of others versed on the issues, save for a camera that happened to be pointed at him for totally unrelated reasons.
Yet in cities like Kiev and Odessa, I was struck by how much his comments were not only noted but appreciated. Leto was embraced when he made those remarks, and then adored when he backed them up by opting not to cancel a concert in Kiev shortly after.
He won over locals’ hearts even further when he toured the city’s Independence Square, visiting some of its makeshift memorials. In fact, he became such a hero that a Photoshopped image of him in Ukrainian military attire soon took hold and became a national meme.
On the spectrum of celebrity involvement—with the Clooney-Penn high-impact efforts on one end and actors unwittingly posing with alleged human-rights abusers on the other—Leto found himself on the right side of the ledger.
In this summer of cataclysmic news, Hollywood should be next to the last place one looks for insight. (Pro athletes should probably be the last.) But traveling in Eastern Europe it became clear that a celebrity weighing in, in the right context, about a conflict can be actually be helpful to the people undergoing that conflict. As these crises continue, movie stars will no doubt, wisely or not, keep sounding off. It's just nice to know that sometimes the right people are listening.