Essay: Ground Zero
February 17, 1997
Does Hollywood only see the Midwest as a place to stage disasters? Jim Fisher of the Kansas City Star looks at the string of disaster movies that have condemned Kansas City and other cities in the Heartland to apocalyptic ends.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Finally tonight our essayist, Jim Fisher of the Kansas City Star, has some thoughts on this week's TV mini-series about asteroids and the heartland.
ACTOR: What can you tell us doctor?
ACTRESS: Haley's appears to be headed toward the Midwest. If it's a land hit, no one within a 20-mile radius will survive.
JIM FISHER: Okay. As a promo for a TV disaster movie, this sort of caught the eye, but did you hear those words?
ACTRESS: Our latest numbers show an impact area somewhere in the neighborhood of Kansas City, Missouri.
JIM FISHER: Kansas City, the bull's eye, the target, ground zero. This town, bucolic, friendly, and for some terminally boring, has been doomed on a TV screen. It's history. What is it about Hollywood? Two years ago nuclear missiles incinerated us--(scene from movie)--in the "Day After." Last year it was "Twister," the tornado epic and guilt by association since the first thing newcomers here learn is to watch the Southwest sky and head for the basement when it turns black in the afternoon.
ACTRESS: Walter, don't you think we might be better off downstairs in the basement?
ACTOR: India, now look here. For 20 years I've been telling you when something will happen and when it will not happen. Now, have I ever on any significant occasion been proved wrong?
JIM FISHER: There have been other films: "Mr. & Mrs Bridge," two neurotic, repressed Kansas Citians. "Truman": Harry makes good in spite of Kansas City corruption. "Kansas City Massacre": Five shot dead at the old Union Station. "Kansas City Bomber": A paean to Roller Derby, for heaven's sakes. "Kansas City Confidence," another gangster epic.
ACTOR: I'm going to take care if a guy gets a little too smart.
JIM FISHER: And Robert Altman's recent film, "Kansas City," as big a box office bomb as the asteroid promises to be if it stays on course.
ACTOR: I was just taking her hand to help her out of a car, and I knew it. It was like magic.
JIM FISHER: Something screwy. Nobody ever does small gentle films out here like "Sleepless in Seattle" or "Diner." The Midwest gets "Bonnie and Clyde."
ACTOR: Welcome back to Kansas, buddy, the heart of America, the land of wheat, corn, bibles, and natural gas.
JIM FISHER: And in "Cold Blood." What is it? Are screenwriters transplanted Midwesterners, still angry about being made to buck hay bales as kids and trying to impress their New York and L.A. colleagues, so they destroy sundry parts of the old home place. Or is it that marketing geniuses figure that most consumers live on either coast and shouldn't be made to feel bad? So they blow up that boring part of the country they occasionally have to fly over to get to places where things are really happening, you know, simple demographics.
Maybe, though, it's something more. Maybe Kansas City is getting a little, well, tacky, common enough here in February, winter, bare trees, gray skies, grime from snow and salt, chuck holes, and recently these. Drive into town these days, and Kansas City is starting to look a little like Las Vegas, and come dusk, along the Missouri River, the new Riverboat casinos--actually structures built in muddy moats--light up the evening sky. Jobs, tax revenues, packed parking lots. Of course, we all know who will be the winners ultimately--the tables, the slot machines, the house. It ain't Las Vegas, not quite yet. But say this for the casinos: Kansas City's stodgy, cow town image, that easy mark for Hollywood, is changing.
The 90's have come to the heartland. But, hey, it's no big deal. There will always be another television movie to take our minds off it. Why, you could make one about the river boats, say a Missouri hayseed figuring out a system, breaking the casino bank, saving the farm, getting the girl, losing the girl, become homeless, contracting some awful disease. Nah, that plot's probably way too complicated for Hollywood. Better a two-part movie on successive nights, suspense, a modicum of science, looming devastation, romance, better an asteroid. I'm Jim Fisher.