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Amused to Death

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MGM was planning to start pre-production on Nose Bleed, a Jackie Chan comedy-thriller involving terrorists and a fight on top of the Empire State Building. But that movie, and many more like it--including The Sum of All Fears, based on Tom Clancy's novel about a terrorist attack on the Super Bowl, due for release next year--are on hold. Studios say they have little interest in using panic to sell popcorn, just as audiences likely will have little interest in seeing the frighteningly familiar projected on the big screen. They've had plenty on the small screen.

"This is real life, not a make-believe story that we've been filming," says Robert Wise, the Oscar-winning director of such films as The Sound of Music and West Side Story. "It's a terrible thing, and I think it does have an impact on how we think about movies. It's wise of the film companies and producers to hold off or delay the release of those films while this is so current...What happened in New York and Washington is certainly going to change our way of looking at movies."

Networks also have been forced to re-evaluate some of their fall-season programming. The premiere of Fox's much-ballyhooed 24, due to air at the end of October, contains footage of a terrorist parachuting out of an exploding airplane. Brian Grazer, the series' executive producer, has said no changes will be made to the show, which is not surprising: The series, about a plot to assassinate a presidential candidate, airs in real time (each episode takes place over one hour), and to manipulate the first episode would likely have a domino effect on others already in the can.

Zabel says CBS executives are also "taking a new look" at The Agency, the network's set-in-the-CIA procedural thriller. NBC also has its problems: It currently has on its schedule a five-hour miniseries spread across its three Law & Order series, including the forthcoming Criminal Intent, which deals with a terrorist incident in the United States. The shows' creator, Dick Wolf, could not be reached for comment.

But, insists Zabel, "Wolf's five-part a valid cautionary tale, and it is powerfully important information for Americans to know. Whether they need to know it right now, in the aftermath of this terrible tragedy, is probably a good question. But I think Americans will enjoy quality television programming that makes them think. I always think we do a great disservice when we underestimate the intellect and capacity of the American public, because they do like to learn and to be challenged and to see things through different eyes...Writers pay very close attention to the news. I would imagine other writers, like myself, are watching these images and thinking about what it all means to our society in the future, and I would imagine you will see some of that reflected in projects in the future."

But how soon in the future? The threat of impending war lingers like smoke over a wounded Manhattan, and the notion of resuming regularly scheduled programming is, at the moment, almost unfathomable. Life has leapt in front of art and blotted it out. We've been reminded of this almost daily, as talking heads sit in front of news cameras and blithely compare the attacks to Tom Clancy novels and Jerry Bruckheimer movies. It's almost as though the so-called Attack on America (the title given the tragedy by the networks just minutes after the first plane smashed into the World Trade Center) is but one of the new fall-season shows.

Few in the entertainment industry have been more mindful of this than New Yorker staff writer Lawrence Wright, who penned the story and screenplay for the 1998 film The Siege. That film, directed by Ed Zwick, looks now like a prophecy: After the capture of a suspected Arab terrorist, Ahmed Bin Talal, New York is subjected to multiple bombings, which the Army uses as an excuse to put the city under martial law and inter Arab-Americans. As Wright sat in his Austin home on September 11, watching events transpire on his television that looked as though they had been lifted from his film, he was stunned and saddened.

"When I was working on the movie, I was interviewing a lot of people in the CIA and FBI's counterterrorism task force," says a subdued Wright, "and I don't want to say they expected something like this, but they were all very convinced something like this could happen and that only a series of fortunate accidents had prevented it from happening so far. The movie was, I think, reflective of some of their anxiety. It was meant to be kind of a cautionary tale: What would happen if we experienced in this country the kind of terrorism that happens almost routinely in some other countries, and what kind of country would we become? That was the intention of the movie, and then to see scenes that looked so much like what the movie portrayed was spooky and unsettling and depressing."

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky

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