NEW YORK – A Navy aviator dodges bullets and bombs after his plane is shot down over hostile territory and his pilot is executed before his eyes.
That's the premise of Behind Enemy Lines, one of the few graphically violent, action-packed feature films to be released since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. It opens Friday.
TV has recently aired similarly violent movies. TBS earlier this month broadcast Escape From New York, in which Air Force One is hijacked and crashes into downtown Manhattan. Four days later, ABC premiered Saving Private Ryan, the story of a World War II captain who leads a bloody rescue mission.
American audiences once watched such edge-of-your-seat films with minimal emotional impact. But in the wake of the terror attacks and the deployment of U.S. forces overseas, some wonder if the nation is ready for entertainment that hinges on realistic war scenes, graphic violence and manipulated fear.
"It could re-traumatize a population," said Nancy Snow, a pop culture expert at the University of Southern California. "We're still in a state of trying to come to terms with it."
But Bryce Zabel, CEO of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, disagreed. "Are we ready for it? Sure, we're ready for it, but there are good ways to express it and bad ways to express it," he said. "If violence is literally what the story is about, then it's appropriate. I think Behind Enemy Lines will be No. 1 at the movies."
A scholar who specializes in violence and the media said watching graphic films can intensify "mean-world syndrome" — the belief that we are victims in a violent society.
"In someone who is already sensitive to violence, it reinforces the fear that the person will be a victim in the same way they're seeing other people be victims," said Tina Pieraccini, a broadcasting professor at the State University of New York, Oswego. "They are going to become more fearful — fearful out of proportion."
But everyone reacts differently. Some moviegoers actually seek onscreen violence during tense times as a method of escape, according to Snow.
"They're the ones who are embracing the thrill of not knowing what's going to happen next," she said. "They'll want to go on a roller-coaster ride through the movies."
And heroic military storylines like those in Behind Enemy Lines and Saving Private Ryan often draw large audiences in wartime because of their patriotic flavor and relevance to reality.
The network premiere of Ryan, known for its realistic but brutal opening scenes, aired uncut and drew nearly 18 million viewers. Behind Enemy Lines, which features Owen Wilson as a hotshot navigator who wants out of the military until he realizes its importance, is getting heavy advertising play.
"There's a unifying message [in these types of films]," said Snow. "You'll have audiences that just want to feel good, and patriotic themes will go over well."
But is the decision to show such movies akin to propaganda? Maybe, say some experts.
After all, Hollywood producers have met with White House officials to discuss everything from possible future terrorist schemes to appropriate film plots. And while the Bush administration doesn't have a hand in what movie execs produce, the studios have traditionally lined up behind the American cause with pro-war movies — particularly during World War II.
"[These films are] certainly geared toward making people feel good about the country and feel good about a nation at war," Snow said. "There's a whole history of Hollywood working with the administration once they go to war."
While Hollywood is aware that some content just won't fly with audiences, experts say the public's taste hasn't changed dramatically.
"The deck has been shuffled by Sept. 11," said Zabel. "But audiences still seem to be supporting, with dollars and with channel selections, the fare they were supporting before."
Although audiences remain interested in war movies, Snow said it's important for filmmakers to gauge the public's comfort level with violence.
"We're in such an age of uncertainty and anxiety that people just want a sense of security," she said. "People in programming should be sensitive to that. They should build a dialogue with their audience and find out what they want."
She pointed to the current box office champ as evidence of what filmgoers are in the mood for these days.
"That's the reason why Harry Potter is very popular right now," Snow said. "It's truly fantasy. It's not going to traumatize people."