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Terrorism -- The New Hollywood Genre


In the normal course of a free society, art usually reflects aspects of reality. In the case of our most prominent art form -- filmmaking -- creators often choose topical issues to put on the screen. In fact, lately it's difficult to not find a movie or television show that doesn't have some sort of political comment woven into it.


But a new genre with a particularly relevant focus is beginning to become a popular choice for creators on the big screen, and while it has no official name, I like to refer to it as Action Terrorism.


After the September 11, 2001 attacks, there was a short lull in violent movies from Hollywood. Then we began to see a few titles that looked at the event from a docudrama perspective. United 93 and World Trade Center are examples of two films that offered a relatively accurate and respectful look at the events that took place that dreadful day.


Since then, many other titles have emerged that are pure fiction, usually plotting Islamic extremists and other entities against the homeland, offering shockingly violent scenarios that play upon our fears of future attacks. Is this good or bad? Are these movies simply playing upon fears within an already nervous society and promoting new stereotypes? Or are they helping us to digest past events and accept the fact that we are living in a new world of heightened worry?


Entertainment capitalizing on public panic is hardly a new phenomenon. After World War II, bad Germans became a hugely popular stereotype. Even today, a German accent usually indicates a character who can't be trusted. Russians don't fare much better, thanks to the Cold War and hundreds of films with villainous commies.


But since the Berlin Wall fell and, shortly thereafter, the ruling communist government in Russia became history, Hollywood has been short on "bad guys." We went through a decade of films where these historical stereotypes seemed out of place. But after the WTC attacks, creators are back on track, and today the gun-toting bomb-wearing terrorist is the new evil...  and often is of Middle Eastern descent.


Syriana and The Kingdom are two examples of these new high-octane thrillers, where Americans are under fire and subjected to bombs from their desert attackers. This week (February 22, 2008) another movie in this genre releases. Titled Vantage Point, it depicts the assassination of a fictitious US President by overseas terrorists. Other films, like Next and Déjà Vu, depict terrorist activities here in the United States. One movie, American Dreamz, went so far as to attempt to generate comedy from a bomb-wearing Arab who infiltrates an American Idol-like television show.


My point in raising this discussion is to help parents be aware of yet another media topic that should be discussed with their teens. We live in a world of increased uncertainty, and viewing entertainment media that heightens those feelings of insecurity may only make a young person (or even an adult) needlessly fearful. The stereotypes these movies promote may also unfairly taint their impressions of other people they attend school with or work with.


Perhaps I am sensitive to this particular new trend because I didn't live through World War II and was in diapers during the height of the Cold War. But the terrorist attacks that opened this century are still clearly burned into my memory, and it's difficult to relive those feelings of loss and vulnerability for the pure sake of entertainment.


Yet, I recognize it is a natural reaction to want to create stories about our common fears and enemies. However, no matter what we see, read or hear in the media, it's important to help both old and young viewers question the messages and to understand how creative works can sometimes be so convincing that we begin to lose track of where fact and fiction divide.


Rod Gustafson


Besides writing this column for the Parents Television Council, Rod Gustafson authors Parent Previews® - a newspaper and Internet column (published in association with movies.com) that reviews movies from a parent's perspective. He's also the film critic for a major Canadian TV station, various radio stations and serves on the executive of the Alberta Association for Media Awareness. Finally, his most important role is being the father to four wonderful children and husband to his beautiful wife (and co-worker) Donna.

Parenting and the Media by Rod Gustafson

The Parents Television Council - www.parentstv.org

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