We have so lost the habit in this country of reading history and teaching it to our children that we simply have no context in which to place the"realistic" epics of Gibson or Spielberg. They are dangerous not because they dramatize or alter historical events -- something great novelists have been doing for centuries -- but because there isn't anything else. In this sense, Gibson's film is actually less worrisome than others. Most of the people who go to see"The Passion of the Christ" will at least have a pretty good idea of the plot. Most of the people who saw"Saving Private Ryan," by contrast, knew very little about D-Day, aside from what they saw on the screen.
Which is hardly surprising: There are many states that don't require children to study American history, let alone European history, before graduating from high school. Fundamental though it is to any real understanding of Western culture, the subject of New Testament history would utterly terrify most public schools, which long ago sacrificed history to"social studies." Unless and until that changes, Mel Gibson's interpretation will indeed matter, and will indeed require public debate. Hollywood's power does not lie merely in its ability to distort. Hollywood's power lies in the fact that it distorts in a vacuum.