I RECENTLY attended “FBI 101,” a G-man seminar for Hollywood writers. I do this kind of thing a lot: law enforcement seminars, ride-alongs, citizen academies and the like. It’s a simple deal. The writers get information and research contacts; the lawdogs get a fighting chance at being portrayed realistically and maybe, on occasion, even sympathetically.
Now, in my case, the federales were preaching to the converted. Any agency with a record of battling gangsters, communists and dirty pols can show up as good guys in my work anytime. And never mind just their record. Since 9/11 -- chastened by blunders from within and above -- the FBI has reinvented itself as a thin gray line against Islamic terrorism. Pulling 16-hour days, volunteering for repeated tours of duty at FBI outposts in the Middle East, constantly aware that their failures will be remembered when their successes are forgotten, the G-people are clearly heroes.
But if they’re hoping that their seminar will win them props from filmmakers in general -- a picture or two celebrating their courageous work in the war on terror -- I suspect they are going to be disappointed. In the history of our time as told by the movies, the war on terror largely does not exist.
Which is passing strange, you know. Because the war on terror is the history of our time. The outcome of our battle against the demographic, political and military upsurge of a hateful theology and its oppressive political vision will determine the fate of freedom in this century.
Television -- more populist, hungrier for content and less dependent on foreign audiences -- reflects this fact with shows such as “24" and “The Unit.” But at the movies, all we’re getting is home-front angst and the occasional “Syriana,” in which “moderate” Islam is thwarted by evil American interests. But the notion that this war is about our moral failings is comfort fantasy, pure and simple. It soothes us with the false idea that, if we but mend ourselves, the scary people will leave us alone.
The real world is both darker than that and lighted brighter in places by surprising fires of nobility. It’s darker because our enemies were not created by the peccadilloes of free people and will not melt away before a moral perfection that we, in any case, can never achieve. It’s brighter because there are heroes like the FBI, the military and the cop on the corner who will give up everything, even their lives, to stop these madmen.
That kind of rousing story seems tailor-made for films. So why aren’t they telling it? It’s not just about left and right, blue and red; it really isn’t. You don’t have to like President Bush or support our efforts in Iraq to understand the threat of conspirators plotting to kill your children in the name of jihad.
In all fairness, moviemakers have a legitimately baffling problem with the nature of the war itself. In order to honestly dramatize the simple truth about this existential struggle, you have to depict right-minded Americans -- some of whom may be white and male and Christian -- hunting down and killing dark-skinned villains of a false and wicked creed. That’s what’s happening, on a good day anyway, so that’s what you’d have to show.
Moviemakers are reluctant to do that because, even though it’s the truth, on screen it might appear bigoted and jingoistic. You can call that political correctness or multiculturalism gone mad -- and sure, there’s a lot of that going around. But despite what you might have heard, there are sensible, patriotic people in the movie business too. And even they, I suspect, falter before the prospect of presenting such a scenario.
We cherish the religious tolerance of our society, after all. Plus, we’re less than a lifetime away from Jim Crow and, decent people that we are, we’re rightly humbled by the moral failures of our past. We’ve become uncomfortable to the point of paralysis when reality draws the limits of tolerance and survival demands pride in our traditions and ferocity in their defense. We can show homegrown terrorists in, say, “Deja Vu” or real-life ones, as in “United 93,” but we can’t bring ourselves to fictionalize the larger idea: Islamo-fascism is an evil and American liberty a good.
Which is a shame. It’s a shame for so powerful an art form to become irrelevant because we can’t find a way to dramatize the central event of our time. It’s a shame that we live under the tireless protection of lawmen and warriors and don’t pay tribute to them. And purely in artistic terms, it’s a shame that so many great stories are just waiting to be told and we’re not telling them.
But thanks, anyway, to the men and women of the FBI, for the seminar and, oh yeah, for trying to keep me alive and free. You truly have my gratitude. Just don’t expect to see it at the movies.