Bob Dole, Hollywood and False Truths
A friend and I used to take great pleasure in counting the number of bad guys Crockett and Tubbs snuffed out on Miami Vice (total for the special two-hour episode shot here in New York, if I remember correctly: 37, or roughly one every 2.37 minutes). Of course, they were undercover cops, so they had license, but the show was quite precise in its politics: They never killed street-level dealers, but always the cartel-types and their henchmen--the people who, you know, deserved it. Occasionally, they'd misfire and catch a kid or an innocent moll, or they'd get carried away and make it personal. Many shows were built around Don Johnson's version of angst after a bullet went thusly astray, but usually, they hunted where the ducks were, and usually, like most TV cops, they didn't miss. But that was then. Lately--and this is just a matter of personal taste--I've grown awfully tired of shoot-'em-ups. So while I think politicians ought to have better things to do than monitor the entertainment business, I don't have any overwhelming beef with Bob Dole's speech last week in which he wagged his potentially presidential finger at Hollywood and especially Time Warner for promoting "mindless violence and loveless sex" (although I do think the latter has its place). That he's pandering to the Christian Coalition barely needs stating; likewise, that he's trying to box Phil "Frontal Nudity" Gramm into a corner. But one question looms, Bob: In precisely what way is True Lies "friendly to the family"? This was curious. If you managed to avoid the movie, here's a brief synopsis. Man (Arnold) is Bondian counterintelligence type. Wife (Jamie Lee) thinks he's traveling salesman. In opening scene, at fancy party in Geneva or somewhere, Arnold infiltrates premises, kills what must be 50 or 60 guys. Meanwhile, Jamie Lee flirts with Car Salesman, who pretends to be spy. Arnold collars Car Guy, scares him to point where he pees his pants. Arnold has Wife dragged into interrogation room. Hiding behind two-way mirror and disguising voice, subjects Wife to grotesque psychological torture. Few scenes later, sits there, in shadows, as Wife, now signed up by CIA as Call Girl (naturally!), performs highly erotic striptease for him (she doesn't know his identity; he, of course, knows hers). Meanwhile, stereotypically dirty Arabs set about business of blowing up Miami. Arnold kills about another 200 or 500 of them, saves daughter, "safely" detonates atomic bomb down in Keys somewhere (nuclear family, indeed). Happy ending, as Wife joins Company. The family that kills together... Of course, Arnold is doing his killing in the name of God and country, so I understand that that makes it okay as far as the right is concerned. And I doubt conservatives get too worked up about spousal abuse, although I note that in the same speech, Dole scorns "music" (his presumably ironic quotation marks) that extols "the pleasures of raping, torturing, and mutilating women." Third, conservatives don't tend to jump to the defense of Arabs, although, again, Dole is caught in a squeeze, because over the years he has been one of few legislators in Washington willing to listen seriously to the Arab American lobbies. Even putting all that aside, we're left with a truckload of violence that you'd be hard-pressed to call mindful--countless murders, completely superfluous destruction of millions of dollars worth of property, and of course the aforementioned detonation of a nuke, right here on American soil! The movie glosses over this last matter as cavalierly as if it had been Schwarzenegger misfiring a rubber band at a colleague. I was confused. So last Friday, I called Gary Bauer, former domestic policy adviser in the Reagan White House, current head of the Family Research Council, Mr. Family Values himself. Bauer vetted the Dole speech. He was asked to do so by the Dole campaign, he says, no doubt because his imprimatur here was of vital importance to the Dole people, the surly Kansan not having enough of a credential on these concerns from the right's point of view. Have you seen True Lies, I asked? "I've neither seen it nor read any reviews of it," he said, nicely covering bases. I went on to summarize it for him, more or less as above; I wish I'd been sitting with him, because his face audibly turned to ash as I described the film (I paraphrase myself; his comments are verbatim): "And so she starts to perform this erotic dance and it's really suggestive--" "Oh...." "And he's sitting in the shadows, and she doesn't know it's her husband, you see--" "Ooohhhhhhhhhh...." And so on. "One of the real occupational hazards of being a politician who wants to talk about Hollywood is if you haven't seen the films yourself and are relying on reviews, you're liable to make an error," Bauer said. "On many of the things he's been critical of, he freely admits he hasn't watched them himself." On matters like this, Bauer said, "I'm willing to give politicians leeway here. They might rely on the Michael Medveds of the world," he being the New York Post's chief critic, for their conclusions. Next stop, Dole's campaign press office, where a fellow who identified himself as Matt picked up the phone. No, he didn't know whether the senator had seen True Lies (it emerges from the Sunday Times that he has not). No, he didn't really know on what basis it was included (for the record, the speech puts True Lies on a list with The Lion King, Forrest Gump, The Santa Clause, and The Flintstones--last year's five top-grossing films--as proof that movies can be family-friendly and profitable at the same time). He helpfully faxed along the speech, and acknowledged that he himself had seen True Lies, at which point I asked if he saw the problem. "Uh...yeah," he said. I asked him to ascertain from the senator exactly what about True Lies made it family-friendly. Needless to say, no return call came. So was the True Lies inclusion a glitch? Maybe. Then again, Arnold is a big GOP star, a man Dole undoubtedly wants stumping for him in the fall should he win the nomination. This is one of those issues on which ideological consistency is utterly impossible. In the old days, some on the left, especially the Communists, tolerated artistic expression only when it was deemed good for the masses; the Constructivists didn't flee the Soviet Union because of a housing crunch. Today, our side, for the most part, properly says let a hundred flowers bloom. But doesn't that put us in the position of defending one of the world's piggiest corporations? Shouldn't the conservatives be the ones doing this? Hollywood's productions, after all, are just like post-NAFTA, Mexican-made washing machines: They're the result of the glorious free market, which, at other times, the right honors above everything else. So by all means, let us be prepared to make hay of this conservative admission that the market is rife with excesses and ill-equipped to meet the people's needs. And anyway, there's nothing approaching ideological unanimity on matters pop cultural. John Simon, reviewing True Lies in The National Review, thought it a repulsive package of offal for many of the same reasons I and other left-leaning friends did: boundless misogyny, absurd violence, the "dehumanization of Them to the benefit of an invulnerable Us," and the fact that it just wasn't entertaining. "It's silly," Simon told me Friday. "Schwarzenegger must be helping (Dole) politically." Simon's is one review methinks Bauer should have read. Dole may find, to his peril, that people who go to these movies--and plenty of folks vote Republican and like violent films--take offense. Politicians should know that once you start telling people what's best for them, they start telling you that retirement, possibly, is best for you. Ask George Bush. Who today would argue that the Houston GOP convention of 1992, which idealized a "moral life" that practically no one, the convention's organizers included, really leads, helped the party? God may be a creative genius, but she's not such a good political candidate.