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THE MEDIA

Articles are already stirring passions over Gibson's movie

Peter Boyer is a reluctant cultural warrior. He became one after writing a 9,800-word story in the Sept. 15 New Yorker magazine on Mel Gibson's movie "The Passion," which depicts the final hours of Jesus Christ. The unreleased film has already sparked a firestorm between those who are concerned that it unfairly fans the flames of anti-Semitism by highlighting Jewish culpability in Christ's death and those who believe it is a powerful, honest, and moving portrayal of that momentous event.

In a memorable passage, Boyer quoted Gibson saying he wanted to kill one of his leading critics, The New York Times's Frank Rich, and put his "intestines on a stick." Perhaps more importantly, Boyer's piece -- debunking the idea of the film as "a medieval passion play depicting Jews in horns drinking Christian blood" -- read like a temperate but crucial endorsement of Gibson's venture from an influential media outlet.

Boyer quickly found himself an honored guest on Bill O'Reilly's Fox News Channel show, where the host saluted his New Yorker story but attacked "an elite media" effort to "destroy Mel Gibson." On Sept. 21, Rich -- one of the elites targeted by O'Reilly --wrote a column calling Gibson's threats against him a "tantrum" and criticizing Boyer's reporting.

Asked how he feels about finding himself in the middle of the philosophical furor over the movie, Boyer says, "I hate that. I'm a reporter and I work very hard to come down as straight as I can on something." While acknowledging that his story "may well" have given "The Passion" a credibility boost, he adds, "I can tell you that wasn't my intention. At the end of the day, it's just a movie, just a magazine story."

But "The Passion" isn't just another movie. It is a cultural, ideological, and religious wedge issue. And the film's virtues and sins are grist for an escalating media war being waged long before the film arrives in the local megaplex.

"I've never seen awareness so great [for] a film so early in the process," says Gibson spokesman Alan Nierob.

" `The Passion' is going to crystallize the culture war," says William Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights and a Gibson supporter. Myrna Shinbaum, a spokeswoman for the Anti-Defamation League -- whose national director has said that Gibson "entertains views that can only be described as anti-Semitic" -- complains that Gibson has pursued a strategy of screening the film only for friendly journalists who "he believes will say only good things."

A number of conservative pundits who attended special screenings -- including Matt Drudge, Michael Medved, and Cal Thomas -- have weighed in favorably on the film. "The discussion seems to be lopsided because the people who support the project have seen the film, but the people attacking the project haven't seen the film. They don't know what they're talking about," says Nierob. "You don't show it to the media until it's done and you have a release date and a distribution and marketing strategy for the film."

Asked then why some conservative members of the media have been able to preview the film, Nierob says, "they were evidently on a list."

A notable red flag about "The Passion" was raised by Paula Fredriksen, Aurelio Professor of Scripture at Boston University, who read a script of the movie. Writing in the July 28 New Republic, she said that Gibson was making a historically inaccurate film and warned of violent outbreaks of anti-Semitism in its wake.

In an e-mail interview describing the reaction to her piece, Fredriksen wrote that "readers occasionally confuse `criticizing Mel's movie' with `attacking Mel's movie,' and thence `attacking Christianity' -- a line of `thought' that recapitulates the Icon [Gibson's production company] spin."

Perhaps no journalist has been more closely associated with the anti-Gibson forces than Rich, who first weighed in with an Aug. 3 column accusing "Gibson and his minions" of trying to "bait Jews and sow religious conflict." After Boyer's piece, he responded by declaring that "the contentious rollout of `The Passion' has resembled a political, rather than a spiritual, campaign."

Rich, who says he received some anti-Semitic mail after his first column, told the Globe that "the clever thing that Gibson and his guys did [was] they very consciously showed it to people who do have access to columns. They were very conscious of press coverage and people who will review it favorably."

Even so, Rich thinks box-office realities may ultimately trump ideology. "The real issue for the movie as a show business [product] is Gibson is not in it himself," he says. "He is not releasing a sequel to `Star Wars' here. It may not be a mass movie."

Mark Jurkowitz can be reached at jurkowitz@globe.com.

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