The Sibyls of Los Angeles

Television - Andrew Billen on Hollywood's claims that it foresaw 11 September

So here's how it was. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Hollywood, needing new plots for its action movies, replaced spy yarns with terrorist fantasies. Needing new baddies, it chose Arabs. But Hollywood forgot one thing: action thrillers, so thin on dialogue and so big on violence, were universal fare, and among the new breed of film's international audience were Islamic fundamentalists. Never exactly pro-the Great Satan, being demonised by America's culture factory in movies such as The Siege vexed them to the point of retaliation, whereupon they discovered that the very films they despised had a use after all, because each contained the blueprint for how to commit a terrorist outrage. And 11 September followed as night follows day. So blame Hollywood.

Actually, this wasn't the thesis of Panorama's Oscar-night edition (24 March, 10.15pm, BBC1), but its argument was scarcely less incredible. This was that Hollywood had in some way foreseen the events of 11 September and had put out a series of terrorist action flicks as a scarcely coded warning to America about terrorism, religious extremism and the availability of weapons of mass destruction, a warning that its presidents and generals ignored. Stricken by their previous dismissal of these plots as mere multiplex fodder, the Pentagon has set up the 9/11 group to tap the great Sibyls of Los Angeles for more tip-offs. Praise Hollywood.

That defence department officials had since gone to LA for a three-day "brainstorming" session with screenwriters was the only actual fact in an enjoyable, well-researched but slightly unhinged documentary, presented by Steve Bradshaw, which encouraged Hollywood to overstate its own importance. There was, for example, no denying that the World Trade Center attack did involve plane hijacking, as did a movie called Executive Decision (winner of a Golden Raspberry award). Die Harder also involved terrorists and planes, but not in the same way, and the bad guys were European, not Asian. The Siege had as its mad criminal a bearded Muslim but, on the other hand, The Peacemaker, which was also dragged into the argument, was about a renegade Russian colonel. The plot that most resembled the events of 11 September was that of Tom Clancy's novel Debt of Honour, in which a hijacked plane hits the Capitol building in Washington. But that was never made into a film (and won't be now).

In other words, the claims for Tinseltown's prophetic powers were exaggerated, particularly by Tinseltown itself. There was something nauseating about Lawrence Wright, who wrote The Siege, saying that when he watched the twin towers collapse, he thought "This looks like a movie - my movie" - or his rival Steven E de Souza, of Die Hard fame, boasting: "It looked like a movie poster, my movie poster." Ed Zwick, who also worked on The Siege, spoke even less winningly of feeling "validation".

Panorama said softly at the beginning that these films were there to make money, not predict the future, but went right on to suggest the opposite: that they did have a locus beyond the entertainment world. In fact, with the possible exception of The Siege, whose ultimate message was that terrorism's greatest threat was the curtailment of civil liberties, these were ghastly, exploitative, gratuitously violent and thoughtlessly xenophobic movies. They stretched the depths to which the American ostrich stuck its neck in the sand. Picking out Arabs as villains was an act not of perception, but laziness. As de Souza said: "They got a turban? We don't need to know what goes on under the turban, just proceed with the action."

The pomposity of Hollywood's finest, and the film clips, made the programme fun, but hid the real subject. What was terrifying - and what could still make a Panorama in its own right - was the light it threw on the unpreparedness of the Pentagon, cheerfully spending billions on Star Wars and teaching its spies Russian. Robert Baer, who used to be one of the CIA's top field officers in central Asia, said his requests for spies to infiltrate militant groups were turned down: "Afghanistan is a basket case. We're not coming here." Jessica Stern, who spent a year serving on Bill Clinton's National Security Council arguing that terrorists might easily acquire nuclear weapons, finally concluded that a movie on this theme would have more impact than writing a paper. Nicole Kidman duly became a version of Stern in The Peacemaker.

And now, the 9/11 group is in place. As de Souza said: "If they're asking me, perhaps we need to get out the white flags." Baer at last exploded: "It's idiotic. The Pentagon should be infiltrating these groups. You cannot have people from Hollywood do that." He was right.

In the absence, however, of credible predictions from a western intelligence network worthy of that name, if we ask Hollywood its best guess for our future, the answer is of nuclear, chemical and biological attacks on the American mainland and a drastic reduction in civil rights. Frightening, isn't it? On the other hand, Hollywood is also predicting the comeback of Arnie Schwarzenegger and cloned dinosaurs, and that a teenager will inherit the super powers of a spider. As they say in Tinseltown, no one knows anything.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the London Evening Standard

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 01 April 2002 issue of the New Statesman, Cutting Tony down to size