IN MARCH 2003, shortly after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, I was interviewed by a Fox TV news anchor whose first question was, "Don't you think that Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon are traitors for opposing the war?" When I suggested that the Constitution gives every citizen — be they a president or an actor — the right and obligation to voice his or her opinion about the future of the nation, the reporter looked at me in disbelief. In her mind, patriotism equaled whatever the leading Republican said it was. The idea that two movie stars could openly oppose the president was simply scandalous.
In Army of Phantoms: American Movies and the Making of the Cold War, J. Hoberman, the Village Voice's longtime movie critic, raises the question of what it meant during the Cold War years to be a patriotic American, and in particular what it meant for the movies. This is part of a three-volume study that will chronicle "American politics from 1945 though 1990, as filtered through the prism of Hollywood movies — their scenarios, back stories, and reception." What is chronologically the second volume in this trilogy, The Dream Life: Movies, Media, and the Mythology of the Sixties, was published earlier, in 2003. This book, in effect the prequel to that volume, covers the years from 1945 to 1956.
The Cold War was not the first time movie industry leaders courted or clashed with politicians. Studio leaders have always been afraid of Washington; afraid that politicians would one day heed the cries of cultural conservatives and establish tight federal censorship over the industry. Industry heads responded by gathering powerful political allies. As early as 1916, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association gave money to any politician — Republican, Democrat or Socialist — who openly opposed film censorship. Louis B. Mayer took the Hollywood-Washington connection a step further in the late 1920s by fashioning the first permanent relationship between a studio (MGM) and a party (Republican). In the 1930s, Warner Brothers curried favor with the Roosevelt administration by producing films sympathetic to FDR's agenda. During World War II, Hollywood showed its loyalty — and staved off a long-lingering federal antitrust suit —by making films that fueled domestic patriotism and planted the seeds of the myth of the "Good War."
The relationship between studios and the federal government grew more problematic during the ensuing Cold War, and here is where Hoberman's narrative begins, going well beyond the familiar story of Hollywood leaders capitulating to the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Instead, he recounts a more subtle and complex history of how individuals, studios, and film companies were sometimes complicit and sometimes resistant to the paranoia and political excesses of the times. Although producers bowed to the anti-Communist hysteria of the Cold War, HUAC, and McCarthyism, they also turned out films that offered visions of a more progressive and less repressive nation.
Hoberman starts his main narrative with two cataclysmic events: the dropping of atomic bombs on Japan and the onset of the Cold War when, in February 1946, Joseph Stalin declared that war between capitalism and Communism was inevitable, and a month later, Winston Churchill responded with his famous "Iron Curtain" speech in Fulton, Miss...