How Hollywood Portrayed Terrorism Before 9/11
“The Siege,” a 1998 thriller starring Denzel Washington and Annette Bening, was Hollywood’s attempt to imagine a realistic terrorist attack on New York City, but in the end, on the big issues, they got it backwards. They assumed the terrorists would think small (buses, schools) and our reaction would be loud (martial law, herding Arab-Americans into stadiums). Instead the terrorists thought big (four years ago this month), and our reaction, at least in rounding up suspects, has been relatively quiet and secretive. Put it this way: We’re not doing it in stadiums with the lights on.
No, the movies that got it right — the movies that made us feel we were just watching a movie on September 11, 2001, adding to the horrible unreality of that day — were the big-budget disaster flicks. In the five years prior to the destruction of the World Trade Center we thrilled at the destruction of the following landmarks: The White House, the U.S. Capitol, the Statue of Liberty, Madison Square Garden, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Flatiron Building, the Chrysler Building (twice), and, in “Deep Impact,” the twin towers themselves, which died not by fire but water. We last see them bobbing in the surf. This kind of thing used to be called “escapist entertainment” and was quite popular.
The most prescient film is actually one of the most cartoonish: Michael Bay’s “Armageddon,” another of those big-meteor-hurtling-towards-earth movies. In this case the big meteor is preceded by a lot of little meteors, which, of all places on our planet, just happen to land in midtown Manhattan during rush hour. After the destruction we get a chilling wide-angle shot of New York City, against a deep blue sky, with smoke billowing from the top of one of the World Trade towers. Earlier, while the meteors were pelting Manhattan, the coming decade was presaged by a black cabdriver:
Cabbie: Whoa! What’s that?
CUT TO: Shots of carnage
Cabbie: We at war!
CUT TO: More meteors strike
Cabbie: Saddam Hussein is bombing us!
So President Bush wasn’t the first to make this mistake.
Disaster films such as “Armageddon” were just one way Hollywood dealt with the end of the Cold War. The fall of the Soviet Union not only opened up long dormant ethnic rivalries around the world but it closed off the chief source of Hollywood’s action movie villains. The Russians had been good to Hollywood, and they had been preceded by Nazis, who had been preceded by Indians, who had been proceeded by handlebar-mustachioed landlords. Most of these wouldn’t do anymore.
Giant meteors, on the other hand, worked great. So did volcanoes and aliens and mutated lizards, particularly if they were accompanied by the aforementioned landmark destruction. Who could forget 1996’s “Independence Day” with the White House exploding? That so-called “money shot” premiered during the 1996 Super Bowl and had moviegoers buzzing for months. The buzz paid off. Domestically the film grossed $306 million, but that was nothing compared to how well it did overseas, where it grossed over $500 million. Apparently some people wanted to see the White House blow up more than others.
The movies where famous landmarks didn’t blow up were, of course, the terrorist movies, which had been around for a while (“Black Sunday” in the 1970s, “Die Hard” in the 1980s), but which gained steam after the fall of the Soviet Union. Despite the complaints of some Arab-American groups, Hollywood was an Equal Opportunity Employer with its terrorists. Sure, Arab terrorists wanted U.S. troops out of the Persian Gulf (“True Lies”), and one Arab extremist wanted to strike the sword of Allah deep into the heart of the infidel (“Executive Decision”), but our cinematic heroes were also threatened by terrorists from England (“Passenger 57”), Kazakhstan (“Air Force One”), Bosnia (“The Peacemaker”), Germany (“The Sum of All Fears”) and Colombia (“Collateral Damage”), each with their own set of demands, each with their own brand of crazy, each meeting their own horrible ends. Before it was Donald Trump’s idiotic trademark line, it was Arnold Schwarzenegger’s in “True Lies”: “You’re fired.” Boom.
A right-wing agenda
What are the lessons of the pre-9/11 terrorist movies? Here’s a few. If you capture the head of a terrorist organization it only leads to more terrorism (“Executive Decision,” “Air Force One,” and “The Siege”). When all else fails, resort to Morse code (“Independence Day” and “Executive Decision”). Also, anyone who tries to negotiate with terrorists is a sap and dies quickly. In “Executive Decision” it’s Sen. Mavros (J.T. Walsh). In “Air Force One,” it’s National Security Advisor Jack Doherty (Tom Everett). Both get shot in the forehead. Never negotiating with terrorists is obviously good policy but Hollywood stacks the deck by portraying negotiators as not only weak-willed but politically-motivated — and thus, in the filmmakers’ eyes, worthy of getting shot in the forehead.
Watching these movies, in fact, one wonders all over again about right-wing attacks on Hollywood. These movies encourage patriotism, faith in our leaders and an-eye-for-an-eye. They encourage a simple absolutist view of the world. There are good guys and bad guys and never the twain shall meet. The hero is always right, and the people who disagree with the hero are always wrong, and if the hero needs to — and he usually does — he can go it alone. Sometimes the hero is the President of the United States. Sometimes he wears a flight suit. Sometimes he says tough things like “Get off my plane!” I know: It’s all so anti-Republican.
The one film besides “The Siege” that presented a more nuanced approach to terrorism was, ironically, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “Collateral Damage.” In it, Schwarzenegger plays a Los Angeles firefighter who loses his wife and child to terrorists and travels to Colombia to get revenge. For a moment the film raises the possibility that in destroying our enemies we become like our enemies — and then the terrorist forces a live snake down the throat of a subordinate and that idea is forgotten. Although, oddly, not by Schwarzenegger. A few months ago, presidential advisor Karl Rove made headlines by implying that Republicans saw the savagery of 9/11 and wanted to fight the enemy while Democrats wanted to understand the enemy. But here’s the future Republican Governor of California in a special feature on the “Collateral Damage” DVD called “The Hero in a New Era”:
“Collateral Damage” was written in such an exciting way, and gave us a little insight into how it happens. Why do terrorists attack our country? What are the things that our country does to make those people do those things?
How infantile our national dialogue has become when even Arnold Schwarzenegger is too complex for it.
The wrong men
After 9/11 the movie industry famously removed every image of the World Trade Center from their upcoming films, and with good reason. Hollywood is a dream factory and those towers had become part of our sad reality. They sadden even throwaway shots in older films. “Pushing Tin” opens with a jet airliner banking toward the twin towers on yet another sky-blue day. You get shivers. “Fight Club” ends with the protagonist happily blowing up tall financial buildings. Ditto.
But you don’t need to see tall buildings crashing to the ground to be reminded of 9/11 and its aftermath. “The Ox-Bow Incident” was made and released during World War II. It concerns a western town’s reaction when a local rancher is murdered and his cattle rustled. One townsperson says, “Down in Texas where I come from, we just go out and get a man and string him up.” Which is what they do. They capture three men — innocent, it turns out — one of whom (Dana Andrews) says the following before being hanged:
Justice? What do you care about justice? You don't even care whether you've got the right men or not. All you know is you've lost something and somebody's got to be punished.
Four years ago this month we lost something.
—Erik Lundegaard was in Detroit, visiting his sister, on September 11, 2001. This piece was originally published 9/6/05 on MSNBC.com.