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Disclosure's plot reads like a headline. It is about a woman who molests a man. In case you miss the point, its poster has Demi Moore's aggressive New Corporate Woman straddling Michael Douglas in a pose of panting obscenity. The scene is even more explicit in the film: the entire story is built around it. As in the Michael Crichton novel on which Disclosure is based, this is because it's not simply a sex scene in a thriller, but the enactment of an issue. It is a scene to take sides on.

This is true of the whole film, as the makers readily admit. Barry Levinson, the director, has said that it "allows us to see the idea of sexual harassment with fresh eyes", while Crichton has railed against the "neo-Fascist" nature of the politically correct workplace. Demi Moore simply appeared naked on another magazine cover, leaving Paul Attanasio, the screenwriter, to sum up the whole enterprise by saying that he hopes it will provide "something to talk about afterwards". Disclosure gives up any pretensions it may have had to art in favour of "talk". It is a film consumed by controversy.

Disclosure's players are used to this. Douglas was a minor, uninteresting film star before his role as the husband victimised by an abandoned one- night stand (Glenn Close) in Fatal Attraction. It was the attention from protesting feminists outraged at the content of this film that made Fatal Attraction a hit and Douglas the man he is today. Almost all his films since, from Black Rain and Basic Instinct to Falling Down, have caused a similar box-office-boosting storm. Nor has Crichton's career been much different, as the "Japan-bashing" Rising Sun proves.

This obsession with controversy no longer stops with Disclosure's star and writer. In recent years, films as diverse as Cape Fear, Silence of the Lambs, JFK, Thelma and Louise and, of course, Natural Born Killers have also been subject to a frenzy of debate, protest and praise on the basis of the "issues" they are thought to promote. To this list can be added the outlandish fuss being made over Forrest Gump and records like Ice-T's "Cop-Killer".

Disclosure is therefore part of a wider phenomenon in America than the "battle of the sexes" it quaintly promotes. It is, in fact, adding to a situation in which film after film is ritually dissected for what it says about the country today. This extraordinary situation has its roots not in cinema but deeper: in the recent history of America itself.

Since 1979, a succession of events, from the failed rescue of hostages in Iran to the economy's teeter on the brink of collapse, has conspired to leave America reeling at the edge of crisis. As Bill Clinton's inertia proved, no leader or party seemed capable of change. Democracy itself seemed spent. The Eighties also saw a decline in the American press, cowed into ineffectiveness by a bullying White House. Real news coverage declined just as America despaired at the content of that news. It was in this climate that the seeds of movie controversy began to grow.

Given momentum in the Eighties, first by Ronald Reagan, who named a fictitious space programme after Star Wars, then by the "political" films of Oliver Stone and Spike Lee, which affected public opinion on Vietnam and race, this fascination with controversy has now spread throughout art and politics, from attempts to ban rap music to the President's love life. A sort of virtual politics, the effect on America has been almost wholly negative.

The decline in journalism is one aspect of the problem. As the coverage of the Iran-Contra scandal proved, the committed reportage that broke Watergate is just a memory now. In its place has grown a media only too happy to base reports on whatever agenda Hollywood cares to set. The fuss over Thelma and Louise is a good example. A minor hit in real terms, it gained huge coverage because of the excuse it provided for a debate on feminism, letting showbiz journalists flex their muscles on a story with "meat". The insistence of Callie Khouri, the screenwriter, that her film was a story, "not the feminist manifesto for the Nineties", cut no ice.

Like Disclosure, whose "debate" on sex politics was planned with such calculation that the publishers of its book version included harassment statistics, so that lazy hacks could imagine they were writing about news, the "controversy" was all that counted. For many journalists, the difference between public relations and the public interest is now moot.

The case of Basic Instinct shows how this has in turn damaged politics itself. It was attacked as soon as its story of bisexual psychos was known, because gay activists like Queer Nation assumed that this would be their best chance of being heard. Protesters duly tried to disrupt Basic Instinct's filming, and on opening night pickets added the tactic of revealing the ending to ticket-buyers. There were even "threats" to release moths in cinemas, to obscure the projection.

It was all like a parody of genuine protest. Of course, it achieved no substantive change for homosexuals in America (witness the military's shrugging off of Clinton's attempted reforms). Instead, committed political activism did no more than generate another layer of attention for a film intending controversy all along.

American television's recent obsessions complete the picture of a body politic rotted by media. Issues are no longer decided by rational debate, or the force of public opinion, as happened when television brought brutality against blacks in Alabama into people's homes in the Sixties. Now, when a genuine "issue" like date-rape reaches television at all, it is decided not on its own, complex merits, but in a one-off show trial.

OJ Simpson is the prime current example. Lauded without irony as the ultimate example of democratic principle, as the whole country stands in judgment on a single man, the disproportion it is causing in American justice is staggering. In a country whose jails are bursting while its streets run with blood, OJ's trial is controversy as panacea.

The coverage of Disclosure sat happily next to it in papers for a couple of weeks, its fantasies of female corporate power of as much relevance to the reality of unequal pay for harassed working women as the verdict on OJ will have to the crime-rate. In both cases gossip has displaced reality.

Forrest Gump is the reductio ad absurdum of this process. An almost ephemerally slight film about a nice man, it was argued over with a fervour that made Gump's idiot musings of more importance to national character than the President. Its star Tom Hanks called the fuss "baloney", but no one listened. The weight of belief had now shifted so far away from politics and on to the screen that an inane film has, without even trying to, changed America's memories of three decades of conflict, and made everything okay. Gump is America's virtual happy ending.

n Disclosure opens on 10 Mar