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SUMMER BOX OFFICE

Hollywood is training its lens on a popular villain this summer: the federal government.

In "Chain Reaction," a scientist is working on a new energy source, but a CIA mastermind is out to get him, arguing that the world isn't ready for it. When the president is indecisive in "Independence Day," the White House is among American monuments blown to smithereens by aliens. And in "The Rock," an old-time Alcatraz prison inmate is locked away by feds who fear his knowledge of their secrets.

One way or another, government is our enemy. That's the message in film after film - and not just action pictures, but even more thoughtful movies like "Courage Under Fire" and "A Time to Kill."

What's going on here? Is government really such a villain for moviegoers who swarm to Hollywood blockbusters? Are film studios making Washington the Evil Empire of the '90s, flooding us with a wholesale "inversion of traditional values," in the words of one concerned critic?

Examining the role of "traditional values" in this trend assumes that these are the same for everyone - a notion that's clearly not true. For one obvious example, there's a long liberal tradition saying that government is a productive tool for solving social problems, and a long conservative tradition holding that the best government is the least government.

Hollywood epics are complicated creatures that take years to make. The current crop entered the pipeline at just about the time many Americans were taking a conservative line in the 1994 elections. Betting on a continuing conservative swing, Hollywood cast its lot with an antigovernment agenda, affirming one set of traditional values at the expense of another. Now the results are reaching the screen.

Do these movies reflect a considered response to real problems with modern government? Or do their violent plots and explosive effects reveal a less laudable impulse to exploit growing anger felt by many Americans - toward elected officials, the current economy, and the entrenched institutions that rule them?

The first of these options is hard to take seriously, since warm-weather entertainments rarely fret about coherent analysis even when important issues are at stake. Producers are experts at hiding self-contradictory notions in a rush of visceral action; who notices the logical gaps in "Chain Reaction" and "Mission: Impossible" with all those pyrotechnics going on? They're equally good at smoothing over social problems in feel-good finales that deny the complexity of the questions they raise.

While it's true many Americans feel increasing discomfort over everything from stagnating wages to popular culture, moreover, it's not clear their anger is focused directly on government. The chief contenders in this year's presidential race, after all, are a longtime Washington insider and a sitting president riding high in the polls.

Patriotism is still a word to conjure with, as candidate Bob Dole showed in his recent speech praising "Independence Day" as wholesome entertainment. Ever mindful of the box office, Hollywood has anticipated this possibility and fudged its antigovernment message. Hidden facts are uncovered, slippery prosecutors are defeated, CIA conspirators are killed, exposed, or led to see the error of their ways.

The system isn't so bad, these movies tell us, and everything will be fine as long as we weed out the occasional bad apples. This message is certainly critical of government, but it suggests that individuals rather than institutions are the troublemakers.

Movies of earlier decades often delivered a far more biting indictment - the scathing "Network," for example, with its vision of Americans shouting their antiestablishment rage to the rooftops, or the "Godfather" movies, full of unregenerate gangsters with a paid-for political system at their beck and call.

As the memory of these older movies suggests, what's really at work in this summer's films may be one of the most traditional values of all - the perennial satisfaction Americans take in the deflation of self-satisfied power, often personified by government officials who've grown too big for their britches. The heritage of such movies stretches back to silent-film days, when Charlie Chaplin became famous for his Little Tramp character.

He was a lovable have-not whose troubles frequently grew from unfair laws (why can't a homeless guy sleep on a park bench?) and an economic climate that left ordinary folks out in the cold. While he entertained audiences by sliding banana peels under the expensively shod feet of the rich and famous, Chaplin never allowed laughter to erase the poignant reality of the tramp's poverty and powerlessness.

This message found one of its clearest outlets in the silent comedy "City Lights," where the homeless tramp makes a unique entrance - asleep in the arms of a municipal statue unveiled by a pompous politician making a windy, nonsensical speech.

Other past examples of Hollywood government-bashing aren't hard to find. Classics from different decades include:

*"Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," 1939. Frank Capra's hugely popular drama stars James Stewart as a freshly appointed senator whose innocence crumbles when he meets his cynical secretary, the grafter he's expected to enrich, and a senior politician who's sold out every principle he ever had. Virtue wins in the end, but Capra vividly conveys the fragility of democratic institutions. He did the same in "State of the Union" nine years later, pungently enough for the press to accuse him of Communist sympathies.

*"All the King's Men," 1949. Broderick Crawford plays a rough-and-ready politician who becomes steadily more powerful and steadily more corrupt until an assassin ends his career. Based on a brilliant Robert Penn Warren novel inspired by the life of Huey Long, the notorious Louisiana governor, this starkly critical movie earned multiple Oscars including the best-picture award.

*"North by Northwest," 1959. Alfred Hitchcock's movies are often critical of the police, but here it's a federal official who tosses businessman Cary Grant to the wolves after foreign spies mistake him for an agent they want to kill. And don't forget Hitchcock's "Notorious" from 1946, where a US official talks Ingrid Bergman's character into a sexual relationship with a man she despises so the feds can crack his espionage ring.

*"Dr. Strangelove, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb," 1964. Stanley Kubrick's satire is populated by cold-war paranoids, demented military leaders, and a president so wimpy he can barely hold his own in a phone conversation. There's no superficial problem-solving to send the audience out smiling: The end of the movie is the end of the world.

These bygone pictures make the 1996 batch seem pallid by comparison. A case could be made that Hollywood is actually becoming less critical of Washington. Richard Nixon, for instance, is treated far more sympathetically in the recent "Nixon" than in the 1976 docudrama "All the President's Men" or the 1984 psychodrama "Secret Honor." No current film equals the dark views of government purveyed by, say, "The Manchurian Candidate" and "Advise and Consent," both released in 1962.

This doesn't mean we should dismiss the latest government- unfriendly films, or overlook their important clues about contemporary attitudes. But one-track interpretations - we all hate incumbents, we all distrust institutions, we're all full of rage at Washington, business, one another - are often as simplistic as the movies they claim to explain.

While government officials have provided a handy Evil Empire for Hollywood to exploit over the years, today's moviegoers are happiest when an outside enemy takes over that role - reviving the cold-war scenario, as "Independence Day" does - and lets us unite with our leaders to score a resounding victory.

Audiences cheer when the White House goes kerfloofy. But they cheer even louder when their president helps squash the aliens in the final reel.

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