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Sticking to the script: John Pilger on how film follows politics

During the Cold War, Hollywood's anti-Soviet message was loud and clear. Today, the film industry is still covering for the White House.

When I returned from the war in Vietnam, I wrote a film script as an antidote to the myth that the war had been an ill-fated noble cause. The producer David Puttnam took the draft to Hollywood and offered it to the major studios, whose responses were favourable - well, almost. Each issued a report card in which the final category, "politics", included comments such as: "This is real, but are the American people ready for it? Maybe they'll never be."

By the late 1970s, Hollywood judged Americans ready for a different kind of Vietnam movie. The first was The Deer Hunter, which, according to Time, "articulates the new patriotism". The film celebrated immigrant America, with Robert De Niro as a working-class hero ("liberal by instinct") and the Vietnamese as subhuman oriental barbarians and idiots, or "gooks". The dramatic peak was reached during recurring orgiastic scenes in which GIs were forced to play Russian roulette by their Vietnamese captors. This was made up by the director, Michael Cimino, who also made up a story that he had seen military service in Vietnam. "I have this insane feeling that I was there," he said. "Somehow . . . the line between reality and fiction has become blurred."

Ecstatic critics treated The Deer Hunter as virtually a documentary. "The film that could purge a nation's guilt!" said the Daily Mail. President Carter was moved by its "genuine American message". Catharsis was at hand. Vietnam movies became a revisionist popular history of the great crime in Indochina. That more than four million people had died terribly and unnecessarily, and that their homeland had been poisoned to a wasteland, was not the concern of these films. Rather, Vietnam was an "American tragedy", in which the invader was to be pitied in a blend of false bravado and angst: sometimes crude (the Rambo films) and sometimes subtle (Oliver Stone's Platoon). What mattered was the strength of the purgative.

None of this, of course, was new: it was how Hollywood created the myth of the Wild West, which was harmless enough unless you happened to be a Native American; and how the Second World War has been relentlessly glorified, which may be harmless enough unless you happen to be one of countless innocent human beings, from Serbia to Iraq, whose deaths or dispossession are justified by moralising references to 1939-45. Hollywood's gooks, its Untermenschen, are essential to this crusade - the despatched Somalis in Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Down and the sinister Arabs in movies such as Rendition, in which the torturing CIA is absolved by Jake Gyllenhaal's good egg.



Emitting safe snipes and sneers, film critics promote a deeply political system that dominates what we pay to see



As Robbie Graham and Matthew Alford pointed out in the New Statesman (2 February), in 167 minutes of Steven Spielberg's Munich, the Palestinian cause is restricted to just two and a half minutes. "Far from being an 'even-handed cry for peace', as one critic claimed," they wrote, "Munich is more easily interpreted as a corporate-backed endorsement of Israeli policy."

With honourable exceptions, film critics rarely question this, or identify the true power behind the screen. Obsessed with celebrity actors and vacuous narratives, they are the cinema's lobby correspondents. Emitting safe snipes and sneers, they promote a deeply political system that dominates most of what we pay to see, knowing not what we are denied. Brian De Palma's 2007 film Redacted shows an Iraq the media do not report. He depicts the homicides and gang rapes that are never prosecuted and are the essence of any colonial conquest. In the New York Village Voice, the critic Anthony Kaufman, in abusing the "divisive" De Palma for his "perverse tales of voyeurism and violence", did his best to taint the film as a kind of heresy and to bury it.

In this way, the "war on terror" - the conquest and subversion of resource-rich regions of the world, whose ramifications and oppressions touch all our lives - is virtually excluded from the popular cinema. Michael Moore's outstanding Fahrenheit 9/11 was a freak; the notoriety of its distribution ban by the Walt Disney Company helped it to force its way into cinemas. My own 2007 film The War on Democracy, which inverted the "war on terror" in Latin America, was distributed in Britain, Australia and other countries but not in the United States. "You will need to make structural and political changes," said a major New York distributor. "Maybe get a star like Sean Penn to host it - he likes liberal causes - and tame those anti-Bush sequences."

During the Cold War, Hollywood's state propaganda was unabashed. The classic 1957 dance movie Silk Stockings was an anti-Soviet diatribe interrupted by the fabulous footwork of Cyd Charisse and Fred Astaire. These days, there are two types of censorship. The first is censorship by introspective dross. Betraying its long tradition of producing gems, escapist Hollywood is consumed by the corporate formula: just make 'em long and asinine and hope the hype will pay off. Real talent is absorbed. Ricky Gervais is his clever comic self in Ghost Town, while around him stale, formulaic characters sentimentalise the humour to death.

These are extraordinary times. Vicious colonial wars and political, economic and environmental corruption cry out for a place on the big screen. Yet try to name one recent film that has dealt with these, honestly and powerfully, let alone satirically. Censorship by omission is virulent. We need another Wall Street, another Last Hurrah, another Dr Strangelove. The partisans who tunnel out of their prison in Gaza, bringing in food, clothes and medicines, and weapons with which to defend themselves, are no less heroic than the celluloid-honoured POWs and partisans of the 1940s. They and the rest of us deserve the respect of the greatest popular medium.

John Pilger, renowned investigative journalist and documentary film-maker, is one of only two to have twice won British journalism's top award; his documentaries have won academy awards in both the UK and the US. In a New Statesman survey of the 50 heroes of our time, Pilger came fourth behind Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela. "John Pilger," wrote Harold Pinter, "unearths, with steely attention facts, the filthy truth. I salute him."

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Boris Johnson shows why he remains a contender with his best speech

The London mayor delivered plenty of gags - but passion and purpose too. 

After losing his status as the Conservative leadership frontrunner to George Osborne, Boris Johnson needed a special speech to revive his fortunes - and he delivered. For an address pre-briefed as "serious" there were plenty of (good) gags. Labour's "Ed Stone" was derided as the "heaviest suicide note in history", Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters were described as having "vested interests" and "indeed interesting vests". But this was also, by some distance, the most thoughtful and prime ministerial speech that the London mayor has given. 

Framing himself as a "one nation Tory", he declared that while he was "the only politician to speak out in favour of bankers", the party could not "ignore the gulf in pay packets that yawns wider year by year". Rather than mocking such rhetoric, Labour should welcome this ideological conversion and hold Johnson to his commitment. 

In a coded warning to George Osborne to soften the coming cuts to tax credits, he called for the party to "protect the hardest working and lowest paid. The retail staff, the cleaners, who get up in the small hours or work through the night because they have dreams for what their families can achieve. The people without whom the London economy would simply collapse. The aspiring, striving, working people that Labour is leaving behind." After Osborne poached "the living wage", one of his signature causes, Johnson has put a new dividing line between himself and the Chancellor on social justice. And he couldn't resist having some fun at his chief rival's expense. "We will extend the northern line to Battersea – or the Wandsworth powerhouse, as it is probably now called in the Treasury," he quipped. While his speech paid fulsome tribute to David Cameron (hailing his "extraordinary prime ministerial qualities"), the man he had positioned himself to succeed, there were no such plaudits for the Chancellor.

Addressing an irrevocably anti-EU audience (Tory activists back withdrawal by 2:1), Johson, like Theresa May before him, made immigration his red line. It was, he said, "up to this parliament and this country – not to Jean-Claude Juncker – to decide if too many people are coming here". Should Cameron, as seems likely, fail to achieve an opt-out from free movement, the logical conclusion would be for Johnson to support Brexit. 

Johnson's humour, wit and passion were rewarded with the best reception of any speaker. Five months after the Tories' election victory, it is continuity, represented by Osborne, that looks most attractive to activists. But today's speech showed why, should the party enter troubled waters, the cry will surely go up to "send for Boris". 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.