Act II: Hollywood waves the flag - and is redeemed

The war on terror may be bringing at least a temporary cease-fire to the longstanding combat between Hollywood and mainstream America.

A three-minute "Spirit of America" trailer - released in theaters this weekend - symbolizes a new, patriotic spirit in the industry.

Stars like George Clooney, Brad Pitt, and Julia Roberts have been signing autographs for US troops in Turkey or answering phones for Sept. 11 charities.

And after years of being held up in Washington as a den of iniquity, Hollywood is winning sympathy in some corners as a symbol of the cultural freedoms that terrorists want to fight.

"Thanks to the events and aftermath of 9/11, Hollywood can take an enormous sigh of relief that will likely go on for half a decade," says Robert Thompson, a cultural analyst at Syracuse University. "All of a sudden, the things that conservatives were attacking in Hollywood - promiscuity, amorality, conspicuous consumption - were the substance of outside attacks against America."

It's not that Americans no longer care about the moral issues of the "culture war." It's that those debates have paled somewhat as Americans rally together against terrorism.

"Attacking Hollywood is a leisure activity, akin to hitting a lobbed softball. But look at it now: Who cares? It is nearly meaningless in the face of the horrors of September," says Craig Kinsley, a social analyst at Richmond University in Virginia.

Tensions between Washington and Hollywood have also eased. A year ago, the US Senate, led by Joe Lieberman (D) of Connecticut, was castigating television and movie producers for marketing adult-themed products to children. At initial hearings, not a single studio chief attended, sparking more formal hearings in which eight studio heads were forced to answer pointed questions about their motives before national television audiences.

The debate was full of finger pointing and "you should" in both directions: "Stay out of our business," said Hollywood. "Clean up your act on violence," said Washington.

In the closing months of this year, by contrast, several meetings between White House and Defense Department personnel with creative leaders in Hollywood have been well-attended by some of the top studio heads in town. And while results have been called less than substantive by some critics, the tone and direction of dialogue has moved from backstabbing to backslapping.

"We don't want to be in the business of telling the Hollywood community what to do," Bush adviser Mark McKinnon said repeatedly to a packed audience at the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences (ATAS) Dec. 5 - the third of three meetings between Hollywood producers and White House officials.

"In fact, you are way out in front of us in getting patriotic messages out just like the Hollywood community was in World War II," added McKinnon. "We are much less interested in attacking you than in offering cooperation."

That cooperation was on view this fall when entertainers and a coalition of television networks moved quickly to raise substantial money for terror victims' families just two weeks after the attacks. Producers of such shows as "NYPD Blue" and "West Wing" placed patriotic themes into their serial programming and dropped negative references to government and Washington leaders.

A more widely seen initiative by Hollywood - a montage of clips to lift the spirit of Americans by Oscar-winning director winner Chuck Workman - was released in theaters this weekend. Entitled, "The Spirit of America," the three-minute montage includes movie clips from 110 classics from "Casablanca" to "High Noon."

The hugfest does not extend to all players in Hollywood, of course, some of whom remain suspicious of the political motivations of a Republican administration in a heavily Democratic-dominated industry.

Paris Barclay, a leading producer of mini-series and documentaries and serial shows, says he is confused by the Bush administration's open-arms policy. "They seem to keep saying we are not in the business of telling you what to do, but here are a few points to keep in mind if you have the opportunity," says Mr. Barclay. "It would be nice if they would go even further to say ... 'even if you disagree with us, you can put that on, too.' "

Others also warn against giving up liberal ground during these heady days of patriotism. "I do not agree that cultural conservatives have stopped criticizing what they call liberal culture," says Dr. Douglas Hicks, a professor of ethics at the University of Richmond's Jepson School of Leadership Studies. "The conservatives see this moment as a time to gain ground from, not make compromises with, moderates and liberals."

But conversations with those who have attended the three meetings with White House officials say something else has come out of the current dialogues: a better understanding that neither government nor Hollywood is a unified entity acting in complete agreement. Both, in fact, are diverse collections of individuals with diverse emotions and motivations that are being challenged and remolded in the current climate.

"It came up over and over again that there is no monolithic entertainment industry, just as there is no monolithic attempt by government to impose their will on us," said Bryce Zabel, CEO of ATAS, who attended each of the three meetings. "There are instead a lot of people trying to figure out what this new era of change will mean for both government and governed and trying to help in their own ways. And that's the way it's going to remain."

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