The son of a blacklisted man during the McCarthy trials versus a former military enthusiast: two actors from very different sides of the spectrum. A profile of the liberal political activist Sean Penn against the conservative Bruce Willis.
In the fast-paced Hollywood-focused societies of the West, the voices of celebrities oftentimes hold a great deal of power in the influence of public opinion. Throughout the War in Iraq, Hollywood has been divided into two very clear categories. Ironically enough, those categories are not “left versus right,” but rather, voice versus silence. During the course of this war, it seems that celebrities either speak openly about their political views, or they remain completely silent, not allowing their reputations to be affected by expressing anything on either side of the spectrum. Still, others have used their celebrity to express their views, generating much media coverage and great public response. Two of Hollywood’s most outspoken actors on current politics have been Bruce Willis and Sean Penn.
In response to current events, Die Hard actor and recent recording artist Willis has been one of the few actors in Hollywood to be an outspoken supporter of the Republican Party and the War in Iraq. In the aftermath of 9/11, Willis offered a one million dollar reward to any civilian who turned in accused terrorists Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri or Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Given the reality of the positions and locations of these three accused terrorists, it is highly doubtful that a civilian uninvolved in the attacks would have access to these three most wanted men, it could be argued that the offering of this award was more a showman-like display of patriotism than a practical attempt to capture the so-called terrorists. Willis’ support of the war, however, certainly does not appear to be an act of showmanship. Following reports from military officials, it was rumored that Willis had attempted to enlist in the military to fight overseas, but was rejected due to his age. He has also made many public statements on the current situation in Iraq. After a recent visit to Iraq, Willis criticized the decline in public support for the war, stating that it would be wrong for America to give up on Iraq just as progress is being made. He furthermore stated: “The Iraqi people want to live in a world where they can move from their homes to the market and not have to fear being killed. I mean, doesn’t everybody want that?” After making this great sweeping indictment about the fears and desires of the Iraqi people, Willis later admitted that, since he had been traveling the country by helicopter, he had not actually met many Iraqis. Yet this confession did not stop him from publicly criticizing the already right-wing media’s coverage of the war. He stated: “I am baffled to understand why the things that I saw happening in Iraq, really good things happening in Iraq, are not being reported on.” Due to his unhappiness with the media’s reporting, Willis has announced plans to “make a pro-war film in which American soldiers will be depicted as brave fighters for freedom and democracy.” The film will trace the lives and stories of Deuce Four (first battalion, twenty-fourth infantry), who spent considerable time in Mosul and were heavily decorated for their efforts there, and will be based on written documents on Deuce Four by former special forces green beret, Michael Yon.
I am Sam actor Sean Penn has been equally outspoken about the War in Iraq, but his views fall on the complete opposite side of the fence. Since the beginning of the insurgency, Penn has publicly expressed his opposition to the war. Like Willis, Penn paid a visit to Iraq in the wake of 9/11, but returned with a completely different reaction than his fellow Hollywood star. On October 18, 2002, Penn purchased a $56,000 advertisement slot in The Washington Post and used the space to publish an open letter to George W. Bush, calling for a non-violent solution to problems in Iraq and openly criticizing the Bush Administration for its “deconstruction of civil liberties” and its “simplistic and inflammatory view of good and evil.” Penn was widely criticized for publishing this letter. He later stated that he “was hit by a tidal wave of media misrepresentation, and even accusations of treason." But these accusations did not deter Penn from continuing with his anti-war efforts. On May 30, 2003, Penn published another, larger ad, this time in the New York Times, again criticizing the policies of the Bush Administration. The price of such an ad was later estimated at $135,000 by a Times spokeswoman. In the ad, Penn openly called Saddam Hussein a “beast of a man,” but still questioned the Bush Administration’s true motives for the war, raising a widely-held speculation as to who the war truly benefits: the people of Iraq or the corporations of the US. Penn furthermore called the allegations about Weapons of Mass Destruction false, stating: “Our flag has been waving, it seems, in servicing a regime change significantly benefiting U.S. corporations. … We found that our secretary of state presented plagiarized and fictitious evidence of WMDs in Iraq to the American people and the world. Any responsible person must ask, in whose hands our flag now waves and what perception the world may have of it in those hands.” Despite the charges of treason he previously faced for criticizing US foreign policy, Penn continued to fearlessly launch an avalanche of criticism, stating: “We see Bechtel. We see Halliburton. We see Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld. We see dead Iraqi civilians. We see no WMDs. We see chaos in the Baghdad streets. But no WMDs. We see the disappearance of a murderous Iraqi dictator, who relented his struggle and ran without the use of WMDs.” Penn has also continued to travel the controversial epicenters of the world of late, including Iran and New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Willis was highly critical of the government’s lack of response to the natural disaster, and himself went to New Orleans to assist in the rescue efforts.
Despite their drastically opposing views, both Willis and Penn consider themselves patriots. It is the methods by which they express their patriotism which sets them apart from one another; it seems that Willis stands by his country and its decisions without faltering, while Penn stated that his sense of patriotism was the driving force which led him to publicly question the underlying purposes of US foreign policy. Given the actors’ similarities in career paths, ages, economic status, and public popularity, one might find it odd that their political views differ so drastically. But a brief look at the lives of these two men will quickly reveal the reasons behind their differing stances.
Walter Bruce Willis was born on March 19, 1955 on a US military base in Ider-Oberstein, West Germany. His father was an American military man and his mother was a German Lutheran. He was the eldest child of four. He did not live on the base for long, for when his father retired from the military in 1957, the family moved to New Jersey where Willis grew up. The views he has publicly expressed of late fit the exact stereotype of a right-wing Christian military-based family.
Sean Penn was born on August 17, 1960, the son of an actress and an actor/director. During the McCarthy era, his father, Leo Penn, was placed on the Hollywood Blacklist after attending a pro-union meeting with several other actors. In the late 1940’s, he was summoned to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee, but refused to testify. The Actors Equity Association refused to comply with the ban, so Penn relocated to New York and took to the stage on Broadway, where he later won the Theatre World Award for his performance in The Girl on the Via Flamina.
Willis grew up in the home of a military man, a tradition which, stereotypically, raises children on the principles of obedience, discipline, and an unfaltering love of country. Penn was raised by a defiant member of Hollywood’s Blacklist during a period of American history which rocked America’s political structure to its core with suspicion. Given his father’s defiance to the accusations of being “un-American,” it is not surprising that Penn did not falter in his public opposition to the War in Iraq, even when facing accusations of treason.
These two famous men are products of their environment, and their political views openly expose that reality. Whatever the reason for their beliefs, or whatever their beliefs may be, it is comforting to know that some celebrities have moved beyond the superficiality of the typical Hollywood lifestyle to take a stand in the name of what they believe to be social justice.