In a world in which a comedian's testicular cancer can be quickly repurposed as an hour-long MTV documentary with more laughs and better production values than a Metallica lawsuit, it sometimes seems as if any story can get a big- or small-screen version, just so long as the following magic words are sprinkled over the treatment: Based on a True Story.
In fact, to judge from the mega box office for the recent blockbuster Erin Brockovich, the story doesn't even have to be particularly true just so long as the hero talks like a sailor and looks good in tight clothes. (Alternatively, judging from the tsunami-esque b.o. of the even-more-recent blockbuster, The Perfect Storm, if the protagonists are actual sailors, they can even get away with wearing baggy clothes.)
But some stories ripped from the headlines are virtually guaranteed never to inspire any Hollywood movies, even — and perhaps especially — if they're tales jam-packed with suspense, drama, and hints of conspiracy at the highest levels of power.
Picture this one, for example: The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, & Firearms, hoping to do something more exciting than collaring kids buying smokes and desperate to recover its good standing with Congress after a sexual harassment scandal threatens its funding, decides to stage a highly publicized raid of the Kennedy-family-style "compound" of a crazy rock-and-roll religious cult (no, not the Church of Rome). The charge: The freaks inside are amassing an illegal weapons cache.
Although the agency knows that the cult has been tipped off about the impending action — and although it knows it can arrest the group's leader on his regular trips into a nearby town — the BATF elects to enter the compound by force. There's a shoot-out, during which both agents and cult members are killed, and a stand-off ensues.
The FBI is called in and dutifully plays bad pop music loudly for weeks on end in an effort to force a surrender. The feds eventually decide that enough Abba and Olivia Newton John is enough and decide to again attack the compound. During this second raid, 75 true believers, including two dozen kids, perish in a fire whose origins remain a matter of dispute. As the ashes cool over the carnage, the president calls it a "typical" mass suicide, dismissing as a coincidence the fact that the deaths corresponded closely both with the stand-off and the government's decision to send armored vehicles crashing into the walls of the cult's compound.
Some years after the incident, a universally well-respected expert in "thermal imaging" — in reading film and videotapes for funny business related to guns and fire — is hired by the U.S. Congress to look over footage of what everyone now concedes was a massive government fuck-up. The question at the heart of this real-life version of Blow Up: Whether federal agents, contrary to sworn testimony, shot into the building during the final raid, effectively trapping the believers in a hellish blaze. As he endlessly replays videotapes that the government at one point insisted didn't even exist, the expert becomes more and more convinced that he has stumbled onto a massive cover-up.
In various press stories, he suggests that the tapes he's examining show that feds are lying and that the FBI squeezed some triggers in the general direction of the compound: "The gunfire…is there, without a doubt." In a letter to the lead counsel in a wrongful death suit brought by the heirs of the dead freaks, he writes, "I still have a lot of shocking evidence to show you."
Then, just as the expert is readying his final report to Congress, he goes missing for several weeks, eventually turning up as a decomposing corpse in his own Maryland office. After a brief inquiry, the police determine that the 42-year-old expert had died of a massive heart attack. According to a Washington Post reporter who attended Ghigliotti's funeral, there were just nine mourners, until a "knot of dark-suited men arrived…They sat off to the side, by themselves, five of them. They exited hastily after the ceremony, not pausing to greet [the expert's sister] or anyone else."
This is the sad, strange story of Carlos Ghigliotti, the thermal-imaging analyst hired by Congress to pore over tapes of the final moments of the 1993 seige of the Branch Davidian compound outside Waco, Texas. There is, to be sure, no reason to suspect foul play in his death earlier this year. (Indeed, there is some reason to believe he was driven over the edge by his Waco work: "He told his sister it was depressing him. He told me he didn't want to endlessly relive a tragedy that most Americans had long forgotten," wrote Post reporter Richard Leiby in a May 28 piece on Ghigliotti's death.)
But there's also no reason to expect that a Hollywood which once used such haunting, suggestive episodes as source material for all manner of political thrillers and meditations on power (think of The Parallax View or Silkwood) will ever figuratively touch Ghigliotti's rotted body with a 10-foot boom. As the warm embrace of Tom Green's cancerous nut suggests, that's not because Hollywood isn't willing to wrestle with unseemly flesh per se. It's because such reckless speculation about Washington villainy would contravene what has emerged as one of Tinseltown's defining characteristics over the past decade: An abject willingness to treat Bill Clinton as if he's a Renaissance king and to flatter him with sycophantic dramatic versions of himself. Forget about Bill Clinton's contributions to balancing the federal budget or his role in creating an America in which people are free — at last ! — to talk incessantly about oral sex. In the end — and especially if he signs on with Dreamworks SKG after he leaves office — Clinton's ultimate legacy may come to be seen as the ushering in of a new age of court culture, in which movie stars and studio heads shamelessly flatter and favor their rulers in return for a pat on the head and the chance to tan themselves, however briefly, in the reflected glow of power.
"These guys get into it for the buzz," a Hollywood star's "political-issues" adviser told The Nation's Marc Cooper last year. "Their interest isn't ideological," explained "legendary left-liberal rainmaker" Stanley K. Sheinbaum. "They just want to be invited to Camp David. They want to sleep in the White House." Which helps explain the tales of Geffens, Spielbergs, and Hankses dropping in at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue on a regular basis.
And, perhaps more interestingly, why a self-styled rebel type such as director David O. Russell gushes about the special White House screening of his "very large subversive film" Three Kings last fall. (Clinton reportedly "thought the movie brilliant," which is not surprising given that it harshly critiques one of the supposed high points of his predecessor; no word yet on whether Russell is planning a Kosovo war pic anytime soon, perhaps to show to the next president.)
The rise of the new court culture is perhaps most visible in actual depictions of the president. As Time noted a few years back, until the Clinton became chief executive, "the President of the U.S. couldn't get arrested, at least not in the show-business sense of the phrase….[W]e had seen relatively few presidential characters on the big screen since the era of Dr. Strangelove and Seven Days in May back in the '60s." During the Reagan years, in fact, audiences looking for executive drama had to content themselves with President E.G. Marshall's unconditional surrender to General Zod in Superman II.
That's all changed over the past eight years of so.Forget about the psycho Vietnam vet and the hooker with a heart of gold. Bill Clinton has midwifed an entertainment era in which the stock character is as likely as not to be the President of the United States. These characters have ranged from well-intentioned, kind-hearted impostor (Dave) to sympathetic, romantic widower (The American President) to reluctant, hardened-under-pressure hero (Independence Day) to pompous, delusional incompetent (Mars Attacks! ) to Alan Alda (Candian Bacon) to distracted, workaholic dad (First Kid) to horny, murderous hypocrite (Absolute Power) to horny to genial good ol' boy (Primary Colors) to hunky, ass-kicking defender of God, family, and country (Air Force One) to Nobel-Prize winning, moral crusader (The West Wing).
There is a general progression here, a dispiriting one that moves from dueling, hotly contested visions of the president as good or evil to a more uniform conception that often shades into a flat-out apologetics for power. This latter point is particularly true if one reads films such as American Beauty for their implicit political content: A middle-aged man beset with a job crisis, a frigid, career-obsessed wife, and impure feelings for a girl his daughter's age is made sympathetic when shot to death by a right-wing crypto-Nazi. Nor is it confined only to dramatic forms: Bill Maher, the relentlessly conformist m.c. of Politically Incorrect, recently hosted an L.A. fundraiser for Clinton. Only five years ago, the rubber-faced host got into hot water for saying "fuck" in front of the Clintons at a Radio and Television Correspondents Association dinner and doing blue humor at their expense.
Regardless of Clinton's politics, such a progression is as regrettable as it is ironic (An uncritical advocate of mandatory V-chip technology and tighter content restrictions, the prez has been quick to wag his finger at the entertainment industry as a locus of evil and to threaten executive action whenever it serves him politically). Any development that leads to an impoverished range of fictional possibilities is always to society's detriment. As is anything that gives Martin Sheen a regular acting gig, thereby taking him away from the far more socially beneficial task of closely supervising his sons.
Nick Gillespie is editor-in-chief of reason. This story originally appeared in Suck, and can be viewed in that format here.