A model of the Transformers character Optimus Prime at the world premiere of the film "Transformers: Age of Extinction" in Hong Kong, June 2014
Tyrone Siu / Reuters

What sets the United States apart from the rest of the world is and has always been its soft power. The Soviets may have equaled the Americans in nuclear capability, but they could never rival the appeal of the “American way of life.” And even as China tries to spread its culture across the globe, its rise tends to inspire more trepidation than admiration.

Many ingredients combine to give U.S. soft power its strength and reach, but entertainment and culture have always been central to the mix. Film and television have shaped how the world sees the United States—and how it perceives the country’s adversaries. Yet that unique advantage seems to be slipping away. When it comes to some of the great questions of global power politics today, Hollywood has become remarkably timid. On some issues, it has gone silent altogether.

The most glaring example is the growing wariness of U.S. studios to do anything that might imperil their standing with the Chinese government. China’s box office is as large as the American one, and entertainment is above all a business. So Hollywood sanitizes or censors topics that Beijing doesn’t like. But the phenomenon is not limited to China, nor is it all about revenue. Studios, writers, and producers increasingly fear they will be hacked or harmed if they portray any foreign autocrats in a negative light, be it Russian President Vladimir Putin or North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un.

It wasn’t always this way. In the 1930s, Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator took on Adolf Hitler. Later, Martin Scorsese’s Kundun shone a light on the fate of Tibet, and The Unbearable Lightness of Being and The Hunt for Red October made the Cold War come alive. Today, the market power of China—and the cyberpower of some rogue states—is making studios and creatives think twice about producing such daring, overtly political films. And as the retreat from the kind of films that once bolstered American soft power accelerates, Hollywood is running out of real-life antagonists.

THE GREAT LEAP BACKWARD

Nazi troops were marching into Poland when Chaplin began filming The Great Dictator. The film’s titular character, a buffoonish, mustachioed dictator named Adenoid Hynkel, was clearly meant to deflate Hitler’s magnetic appeal. The British government, seeking to appease Germany, initially suggested it might ban the film from British theaters. (It changed its mind once the war commenced.) Even among Chaplin’s collaborators in Hollywood, some feared a backlash. (Hollywood also had a financial interest in reaching the large German film market, although historians debate how much this led American studios to bend to Nazi preferences in the 1930s.) U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt is said to have personally encouraged Chaplin to continue production. When the film was released in 1940, it proved an artistic and political triumph and was among the highest-grossing films of the year. Soon, overt condemnations of fascism were the norm: between 1942 and 1945, over half of all Hollywood films touched on the war in some way or another, hundreds of them with an anti-Nazi message.

With the Cold War came a new adversary against which to deploy the promise and glamor of American consumerism. Hollywood was on the frontlines of this effort. American films from the early years of the Cold War often brimmed with anti-Soviet jingoism. (I Was a Communist for the FBI, released in 1951, is a classic of the genre.) Indeed, nearly half of all war-themed movies coming out of Hollywood in the 1950s were made with the Pentagon’s assistance and vetting to ensure they were sufficiently patriotic. (To this day, the Pentagon and the CIA have active entertainment liaisons.) Even foreign productions were enlisted in the culture war against the Soviets: in 1954, when British animators adapted Animal Farm, George Orwell’s famous allegorical indictment of Stalinism, they enjoyed secret CIA funding.

When it comes to some of the great questions of global power politics today, Hollywood has become remarkably timid. On some issues, it has gone silent altogether.

By the 1960s, Hollywood productions began to cast the United States and its role in the world in a far more critical light. But even if it was not their intended effect, these films projected American values and bolstered U.S. soft power in their own way: by demonstrating Americans’ openness and tolerance for dissent. Dr. Strangelove called out the absurdity of apocalyptic nuclear confrontation. Apocalypse Now, Platoon, and even the popular TV series M*A*S*H presented nuanced and sometimes harrowing perspectives on U.S. power abroad.

Today, audiences can take their pick: there is no shortage of jingoistic U.S. films or television series, nor of material that challenges pro-American foreign policy orthodoxies. When it comes to how other great powers are portrayed, however, some hot-button topics are now off limits. American films dealing with the history and people of Tibet, a popular theme in the 1990s, have become a rare sight. There has never been a Hollywood feature film about the dramatic—and horrific—massacre in Tiananmen Square in 1989. The 2012 remake of Red Dawn initially centered on a Chinese invasion in the United States but was later rewritten to make North Korea the aggressor instead of China. And Variety called the 2014 blockbuster Transformers: Age of Extinction “a splendidly patriotic film, if you happen to be Chinese.”

Across the board, film studios appear to take great care not to offend Chinese sensibilities. One scene in last year’s Abominable, coproduced by DreamWorks and the Shanghai-based Pearl Studio last year, featured a map showing the so-called nine-dash line, which represents China’s expansive—and highly contested—claims in the South China Sea. That same year, CBS censored its drama series The Good Fight, cutting a short scene that mentioned several topics that Beijing considers to be taboo, including the religious movement Falun Gong, Tiananmen, and Winnie the Pooh—a frequent and sly stand-in for Chinese President Xi Jinping on Chinese social media.

The most obvious reason for Hollywood’s timidity is the enormous size of China’s market. Unlike the Soviet Union during the Cold War, China is not only a geopolitical adversary but also a major economic partner. Its box office numbers will soon be the world’s largest. Hollywood never cared much about distributing its movies in the Soviet Union. The same isn’t true of China today.

The promise of Chinese funding is another potential reason for studios to toe the party line on sensitive political questions. The Shenzhen-based tech giant Tencent, for instance, is an investor in the highly anticipated remake of Top Gun. An early trailer for the movie shows Tom Cruise wearing his iconic flight jacket—but without the Taiwanese and Japanese flag patches that were sewn into the back in the original 1986 film. The world’s largest cinema chain, which includes the American subsidiary AMC Theatres, is now owned by the Wanda Group, a Chinese conglomerate. Foreign funders can be useful partners, but their presence, unsurprisingly, can also make producers wary of content that might displease their benefactors.

Hollywood never cared much about distributing its movies in the Soviet Union. The same isn’t true of China today.

Box office and funding are not the only reasons Hollywood is shying away from certain topics. It is likely that studios and theater chains also worry that some content might lead them to come under attack from foreign hackers. Hollywood itself was already hit in 2014, when Sony Pictures fell victim to a major cyberattack ahead of the premiere of The Interview, a satire of North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un. The North Korean government had previously warned Sony, branding the film’s depiction of Kim “an act of war” and promising “a resolute and merciless response.” Debate remains in the industry over whether the hack was in fact the work of North Korean hackers or rather that of disgruntled insiders—or perhaps even Russia. Regardless of the culprit, the attack was an inflection point. Since the days of The Great Dictator, studios have worried that controversial material might hurt their bottom line. But the Sony hack added fear that personal or professional harm might come to those who provoke certain foreign leaders or regimes.

Russia elicits particular fear. When the idea of adapting the book Red Notice, which details the corruption of Putin’s cronies, was discussed at a major studio a few years ago, executives balked, fearful of the potential repercussions of angering Putin, according to a person familiar with the discussions (The upcoming comedy with the same title, featuring Dwayne Johnson, is unrelated.) Red Sparrow, the 2017 film based on a novel by a former CIA operative, kept the book’s Russian setting but left out Putin, who had played a central role in the novel. As the Hollywood Reporter noted at the time, “by avoiding Putin, Fox also is steering clear of any Russian hackers who might protest.”

Fears of a cyberattack are not fiction. HBO, Netflix, and UTA, one of Hollywood’s largest talent agencies, have all suffered hacks in recent years; in the case of HBO, federal prosecutors eventually indicted a former Iranian military hacker. Devastating cyberattacks against other U.S. entities, such as the 2015 data breach at the federal Office of Personal Management, which U.S. officials linked to the Chinese government, have shown that no institution is immune from the threat. Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election further fueled the perception in liberal Hollywood that foreign hackers are skilled, ruthless, and essentially undeterrable.

A DYING GENRE

Hollywood’s self-censorship is no passing fad. The specter of retaliatory attacks—online or offline—is unlikely to fade, and barring a major economic meltdown, the appeal of China’s massive moviegoer market will remain. Chinese acquisitions of theater chains, investments in film studies, and cofinancing of movies make Beijing a critical player that can shape the content of American entertainment—and thereby blunt a key aspect of American soft power.

Indeed, the U.S. government increasingly views the entertainment industry as a potential national security liability. The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), the government body tasked with vetting foreign investments in critical industries, has traditionally not concerned itself with the entertainment sector. But the tide seems to be turning. In 2016, Chuck Schumer, the Democratic senator from New York, wrote a letter to then Treasury Secretary Jack Lew noting the Wanda Group’s acquisition of AMC Theatres, as well as its investments in American studios, urging the committee to pay closer attention to such deals.

As the line between technology and media continues to blur, CFIUS will probably heed Schumer’s call before long. (Indeed, CFIUS is currently engaged in a review of ByteDance, the Chinese parent firm of the massively popular video-based app TikTok.) But greater government scrutiny is unlikely to make studio executives more willing to run with content that might draw the ire of Beijing and threaten their profits. The result is an uneven competitive landscape that rewards those who play it safe. Tibet, Taiwan, and Tiananmen will remain taboo subjects in Hollywood. The same deference shown to Beijing may be extended to countries that lack major box offices but whose regimes have shown themselves willing to attack their perceived opponents abroad, such as North Korea and Russia.

Chaplin attacked Hitler and made money (and art) in the process. But it is hard to imagine a modern-day Chaplin tackling Vladimir Putin, let alone Xi Jinping. Villains in comic-book capes still exist—indeed they are proliferating. Yet the kind of ripped-from-the-headlines film that once bolstered American soft power vis-à-vis its rivals is increasingly rare.           

Not long ago, an Oscar-winning screenwriter was asked to rewrite one of the biggest video game franchises. The company began by saying that the war-based game had a problem: who was the enemy? It could not be China, of course. Nor Russia, North Korea, or Iran. As the company executives said, “We don’t know who we can make the villain anymore.”

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  • KAL RAUSTIALA is a Professor at UCLA Law School and Director of the UCLA Ronald W. Burkle Center for International Relations.
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