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What Have We Learned?



In a press statement issued September 13, Paramount Classics announced that the national release of Ed Burns's romantic comedy Sidewalks of New York would be postponed "due to recent events and sensitivity to current issues." The maddeningly vague language was typical of the industry's sudden timidity in the face of real-life disaster: apparently the studio felt the out-of-focus but still intact twin towers in the background would upstage the film's mildly neurotic lovers.

Of course, Hollywood's sensitivity has always begun and ended at the box office, and less than three months later, two big-budget international thrillers are making the multiplexes safe again for terrorism and genocide: in Spy Game the CIA instigates a suicide truck-bombing to eliminate a Muslim terrorist in Beirut, and in Behind Enemy Lines a navy jet pilot navigator complicates NATO negotiations after taking reconnaissance photos of mass graves containing Bosnian Muslims. Both films feature an old warrior breaking the rules to rescue his charge from evil foreigners. Yet the domestic market for U.S. films is balanced by the global market, and out of ideological confusion or cynical marketing, each film plays both sides against the middle, applauding American individualism, ingenuity, and technology for the home crowd even as it mocks American culture for overseas audiences.

Both screenwriting teams are working from the same formula, and the TV ads are so similar that one might have trouble telling them apart. In Spy Game CIA agent Nathan Muir (Robert Redford) is facing his last day of work at agency headquarters in Langley, Virginia, when he learns that Tom Bishop (Brad Pitt), an operative he took under his wing in Vietnam years earlier, has been captured by the Chinese while trying to free his lover from prison and will be executed in 24 hours. In Behind Enemy Lines navy admiral Leslie Reigart (Gene Hackman) clashes with a NATO commander after Lieutenant Chris Burnett (Owen Wilson)—a brash young navigator whom Reigart addresses as "son" and "my boy"—is shot down over a demilitarized zone in Bosnia.

The father-son dynamics are interchangeable. Both Redford and Hackman preach the virtues of sticking to the book. "You go off the reservation and I will not come after you," Redford warns his young protege, who begins to question the agency's "fucked-up barometer of success" when the older man sacrifices individual agents and assets for "the greater good." Wilson's flyboy is equally skeptical. "At least give me a fight I can understand," he whines. "I don't want to be a cop in a neighborhood nobody cares about." When their boys are in danger, however, both father figures throw the rulebook to the winds, trying to stage end runs around their superiors by leaking news to the media and ultimately sacrificing their careers by staging unauthorized helicopter raids that jeopardize international treaties and trade accords. "It feels good to break the rules now and again," Redford tells his secretary as he spies on his own colleagues.

Such robust expressions of personal loyalty may be especially attractive to us now, but overseas audiences may also find themselves suffering from America's all-for-one patriotism. Redford ruefully describes the CIA's current priorities as "free trade, microchips, and toaster ovens." In Beirut in 1985, after he notes that there are 17 different sects, Pitt cracks, "This place is like 31 flavors." Commander Piquet (Joaquim de Almeida), Hackman's haughty NATO antagonist, admits that after five years he can't tell the difference between Serb, Croat, and Bosnian uniforms. In both films American culture is an object of cynicism: When Redford arranges to bribe Chinese officials so they'll stage a power outage during his planned chopper raid, his middleman in Hong Kong hastens the deal by blocking the TV set while the Chinese are leering at Baywatch. "I'm on your side," Wilson tells some Bosnian kids who serve him Coca-Cola and take him to a Muslim faction holed up in a wrecked mall whose only surviving signage advertises United Colors of Benetton.

Since the twin towers came down, some commentators have complained about America's overdependence on high-altitude spy satellites and defunding of down-and-dirty intelligence gathering. The extraordinary technology of the navy, the CIA, and the National Security Agency dovetails easily with the mise-en-scene of these sleek techno-fetish actioners (in his press notes, director John Moore boasts that he studied all "164 mechanical operations that occur in 1.2 seconds" for the white-knuckle sequence in which Wilson ejects from his F/A-18 jet fighter). But in the end both films turn on Yankee ingenuity, as Redford uses the oldest tricks in the book to hoodwink his bosses and the wily Wilson manages to elude the bloodthirsty Serb snipers and troops pursuing him by playing dead and switching uniforms. "All you care about is your own damn pilots," says the glowering commander after Reigart breaks ranks with NATO. "You may have saved the life of one man today, but you've risked the lives of thousands tomorrow." Both Spy Game and Behind Enemy Lines are Hollywood fantasies in which a few bold individuals can trump the one-for-all calculus of global deals.

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