CHICAGO — TRUE TV and movie fans were not surprised by the visas issued to two of the Sept. 11 hijackers six months after their names were known. That's because a key assumption in any film or television adventure plot is that official channels can and will be breached.
Certainly Hollywood fiction is not reality, but it has to have enough real-world believability to work. Is it believable that bureaucrats shuffling endless paperwork can be outmaneuvered by someone devoted to circumventing the system?
Without a doubt. That happens constantly in our fictional adventures. In the première episode of ABC's espionage series "Alias," agent Sydney Bristow needed to leave the US undetected, even by her own people. So she "borrowed" the US passport and credit card of an acquaintance whom she vaguely resembled, dyed her hair, and headed to the airport.
At the ticket counter, she talked about make-up, seemed perfectly at ease, then strolled onto an international flight. Sydney was credible, and there was no reason for that (fictional) airline employee to pull her aside. All the security hoops in the world did not matter.
That's Hollywood fiction. Nonetheless, starting late last year, serious talk began coming from Washington about enlisting Hollywood in the war on terrorism. On the one hand, it makes sense, if only as acknowledgment that we can learn about the real by looking at the make-believe. After all, successful movies and TV series connect with our collective dreams, values, and preferences. Who could be a better ally in tapping emotions and exploring scenarios? On the other hand, if the White House pictured the start of a rah-rah drumbeat of supportive Hollywood propaganda under the banner of patriotism, that will be far more problematic.
Strangely, it is not that Hollywood is unable to get behind a war effort, it is just that this is trickier than in the past. World War II was filled with productions aimed at heightening support for efforts against a clearly understood enemy. Even the classic Sherlock Holmes character (as portrayed by Basil Rathbone) managed to leap from 19th-century London to become a fighter against the Nazis, delivering stirring speeches about England's finest hour.
Similarly, the Pentagon is reported to be working closely with a number of forthcoming "reality based" military TV series, no doubt helping with both authenticity and genuinely uplifting moments from the front lines.
But in this war on terrorism, exactly what Hollywood needs to inspire is elusive. We already have a population willing to "do something" to help, but what? Among other things, we're being urged to trade off "a little liberty" and get behind time-consuming security systems, national ID cards, and other more Draconian measures.
Looking to Hollywood to reinforce all that flies in the face of generations of entertainment assumptions. How many films and TV shows have had the audience cheering for the elaborate security plan set up by bureaucrats? Have we ever been on the edge of our seats hoping that the laser-beam alarm would be tripped, alerting authorities of an intrusion?
Of course not. Hollywood storytelling is all about breaking codes, breaching security, and clever mavericks. One of the most popular video rentals after 9/11 was the 1988 film "Die Hard," in which Bruce Willis played an off-duty policeman who caught and killed terrorists.
That may seem a perfect example of Hollywood showing how to win the war on terrorism. Yet it is hardly reassuring; the entire terrorist plan in this film was built on the fact that government officials automatically followed by-the-book procedures, which, in effect, helped the terrorists further their scheme. A free-wheeling independent was part of the solution. Officials were part of the problem.
Currently, all these concerns come to an uncomfortable convergence on the issue of airport security. Passengers are warned: Don't joke. Don't stand out. Trust us.
Yet decades of Hollywood stories lead to different expectations. The situation comedy "The Drew Carey Show" taps such concerns in this week's scheduled episode as its goofy characters land jobs as airport security personnel. While that might set off public relations alarm bells in the corridors of power in business and government, for passengers recently put through airport security, the comic possibilities are obvious.
Everybody longs for a sense of security, yet there are the nagging doubts that, just as in the movies, that sense is all an illusion. Everybody in the US wants to do his or her part against terrorism, but there is also an almost ingrained sense of individual impatience and skepticism.
Ironically, as a story-telling medium, Hollywood might be far better at capturing this dichotomy than in offering solutions. In doing so, it can show us what does not work. In turn, that might help us to articulate hard questions leading to possible strategies that could work on the real world stage. That would be a most impressive Hollywood collaboration.
Walter J. Podrazik is coauthor of nine books on popular culture. He is the media contributor for the Chicago Public Radio program 'Eight Forty-Eight' (also online at www.wbez.org).