The Changing Face of Heroism in Post 9/11 Films on War

In a recent New York Times article, Deepa Kumar reminds us how media and pop culture in the last thirty years have used scare tactics and racial profiling to condition Americans to think of terrorists as non-white. This cultural-political mindset is evidenced by the genre of political thriller films that traces back to Black Sunday (1977) and True Lies (1994). Kumar argues that such films have penetrated into our collective imagination to the extent that people automatically assumed that Arabs were responsible for the 1995 Oklahoma bombing. Fast forward to 2013, and the film Olympus Has Fallen features North Korean terrorists who infiltrate the White House, take the President and his Chief of Staff hostage, and threaten to blow up major cities in the U.S. Pitting North Koreans against the heroic all-American Mike Banning (played by Gerard Butler, who is Scottish), the film reinforces the hero-villain archetype along ethnic lines. While Olympus Has Fallen is one of the first to feature North Korean villains, what is remarkable about it is how much it resembles previous films in which America is besieged by terrorists. The cinematic vision of the enemy keeps shifting, but the role remains the same: the terrorist leader, Kang, could have been Iranian, Pakistanian, Russian, or Colombian, and the effect would be much the same. In fact, this division of hero/villain along ethnic lines has a long history associated with western colonialism.

Scenes from Olympus has Fallen
The Korean terrorist Kang played by Rick Yune

A narrative that pits a darker-skinned villain against a fair-skinned hero presents a familiar trope, which traces back to 18th-century operas by Jean-Philippe Rameau (Les Indes galantes, 1735) and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (The Abduction from the Seraglio, 1782) that evoke the imaginary Orient through exotic music and imaginary representations of Turkish, Peruvian, or American Indian subjects. Later, Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978) established a discourse on the Orient based on the colonial powers of European and American nations and their asymmetrical relations with the Middle Eastern and Asian nations since Napolean’s conquest of Egypt in 1798. Film historian Matthew Bernstein calls attention to how films like Arabian Nights (1942) grossed millions of dollars during World War II because the “structured opposition between East and West” in Orientalist films corroborated America’s sense of superiority over their enemies at war. The romantic Orientalist allure persists in fantasy adventure films like Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), in which the western hero battles mysterious and evil forces in the imagined East. Even in True Lies (1994), this narrative formula persists along with music that reinforces racial stereotypes: Arnold Schwarzenegger chases a Pakistani terrorist on horseback with trumpets blaring out patriotic tunes. After all, it was an era when Americans were still caught up in the zeitgeist of Reagan’s “Star Wars” defense initiative.

All-American heroes played by Harrison Ford and Arnold Schwarzenegger

While the narrative based on an all-American hero persists in the genres of political thriller and adventure films, we should take note of a pronounced ideological division that has emerged in the post-9/11 cultural landscape. Mary Duziak, in War Time: an Idea, Its History, Its Consequences, remarks that since 9/11, the United States has entered an ambiguous era where the traditional separation between war and peace no longer exists. Since 2001, George W. Bush’s slogan “war on terror” succeeded in rallying Americans around the idea that our nation is at war at all times. Conner Friedersdorf, in The Atlantic, further argues that our nation is deeply divided between those who exploit “patriotic themes and symbols as tools of manipulation” and those who react with ironic distance at overt displays of patriotism. Perhaps it explains why fantasy films that espouse blind patriotism remain popular. Films like Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down play into the populace’s collective desire for an all-American hero that magically saves the day. Could it be that these films that glorify American militarism have become the “opium for the masses” for those who champion blind patriotism? What about films that provide an alternative picture of war on terror?

The more memorable post 9/11 films on war and terrorism are not built on Orientalist fantasies, but on memoirs written by journalists and correspondents of war. 9/11 exerted a decisive influence on some filmmakers to tell stories that challenge traditional notion of heroism centered on United States’ invincibility. While researching in order to direct/write Syriana (2005), for example, Stephen Gaghan met with lobbyists, oil traders, arms dealers, Arab officials, and the spiritual leader of Hezbollah. Though many film studios have turned away from subjects that deal with the unpopular war in Iraq, Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boals succeeded in convincing Nicholas Chartier, the producer of Voltage Pictures, to mortgage his own home to finance The Hurt Locker (2008), for which Bigelow won the Academy Award for Best Director. In what follows, I discuss four films that put a different twist on heroism and accompanying film scores that break down the archetypal binary between hero and villain.

Syriana spins a complex narrative about CIA operatives, terrorism, oil, money and power. Bob Barnes, played by George Clooney, is not an ordinary Hollywood war hero; worn down by bureaucracy and estranged from his teenage son, his life spirals out of control as he becomes implicated in a plot to assassinate Prince Nasir. The film’s multiple storylines weave together characters whose lives become intertwined in mysterious ways. While the CIA manages to wipe out Bob and Prince Nasir at the end, Bob’s stolen anti-tank missile gets into the hands of an Islamic fundamentalist cleric, who orders Wasim, a Pakistanian migrant worker, to execute a suicide mission on the Connex-Killian oilfield at the end. The film brilliantly closes in medias res, leaving the viewer in suspense over what happens next. Alexandre Desplat’s minimalist scoring spins out a slow, meditative music—neither strictly western nor Persian—to comment on the loss of innocent lives at the interstices of global oil trade.

Bob Barnes played by George Clooney and Wasim played by Mazhar Munir

Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal also produced two stunning films that alter our perception on war and heroism. The Hurt Locker begins with a quote from Christ Hedges’s best-selling book: “The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug.” Sergeant James, played by Jeremy Renner, is the leader of the U. S. Army Explosive Ordnance Disposal in the Iraq War. The viewer is first impressed by James’s uncanny ability to take apart explosives, but soon find out that his obsession runs the risk of tearing his team apart. The friendship James develops with the Iraqi boy named Becker is more genuine than the relationships he has back home, with his ex-wife and son. Marco Beltrami’s soundtrack is suspenseful, especially in the scene where glissando and other extended techniques on strings, reminiscent of Krzysztof Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima, create an eerie backdrop for the scene where James uncovers a host of explosives strung together underground. War is a drug for this hero who knows no other way to live than to stare death straight in the face.

Sergeant James played by Jeremy Renner

Bigelow and Boal’s second film, Zero Dark Thirty (2012), is about the tenacious young female CIA officer who tracked down Osama bin Laden. The title refers to a military term for 30 minutes after midnight, but also to “the darkness and secrecy that cloaked the entire decade-long mission” according to Bigelow. The film traces Maya’s trauma as she witnesses the interrogation of detainees via torture, survives the 2008 Islamabad Marriott Hotel bombing, and loses her trusted coworker in the 2009 Camp Chapman attack. Owing to Maya’s persistence, the CIA eventually finds Bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan and orders the Navy Seal to conduct a raid. Of course, the mission succeeds, but the narrative focuses on the trauma of war and impact it has on those who survive. As Manohla Dargis comments in her The New York Times review, the film “shows the unspeakable and lets us decide if the death of Bin Laden was worth the price we paid.” Desplat’s soundtracks feature the elegiac sound of duduk to comment on the toll on human lives across geographic borders; as Maya gets on a plane heading home, the soulful sound of duduk merges with the piano as if to offer her consolation.

Maya played by Jessica Chastain and the U.S. Navy SEAL

Finally, Argo (2012) recaptures CIA agent Tony Mendez’s clever plan to rescue six American diplomats from Iran during the Iran hostage crisis in 1979-80. Mendez’s idea of having the CIA fund a fake film to bring the hostages back from Iran seems improbable. Ben Affleck, who directed and starred in the film, could have turned Mendez into an archetypal hero with self-aggrandizing gestures. But, surprisingly, on and off the camera, Affleck maintains a chillingly serious atmosphere of suspense. The film seamlessly blends actual news coverage from the period, making the violence on the streets that erupted in Tehran palpable. In the tense moment prior to the planned escape, Desplat’s haunting soundtrack of a female Iranian singer, appropriately titled “The Scent of Death,” reverberates on the screen as the diplomats wonder if they will make it through this ordeal.

Tony Mendez played by Ben Affleck and a scene of execution

These films have, nonetheless, come under scrutiny for combining facts and fiction to make the plot dramatically compelling. Not surprisingly, a number of journalists and public officials excoriated Zero Dark Thirty for overstating the role played by torture. Argo has also been criticized for its historical inaccuracies; Ken Taylor and the Canadians no doubt deserve more credit than Tony Mendez for bringing the hostages home. What’s important, though, is that these films make us question the United States’s political role by exposing corruption within government agencies and forcing us to examine the price each and every individual pays for his or her involvement in the “war on terror.” The effect on the viewer is at once disconcerting and paradoxical. Syriana interweaves five different human perspectives without privileging one over the others. Arguably the most heroic act occurs at the end, when Wasim is about to blow up the Connex-Killian oilfield using Barnes’s stolen nuclear missile. The moral of the story is that what goes around comes around. By exploring multiple subject positions, these films lend a more realistic picture of war on terror. They also make us question whether there is a clear demarcation between right and wrong.

To use Olympus as a code word for the White House in Olympus Has Fallen suggests America’s invincibility against all odds. Yet it promotes the kind of patriotism that is not in line with the reality of global war on terrorism. Let fantasy films be fantasy films, but let us welcome films that lead us to think critically about America’s relationship to other nations. In this ambivalent era, we need to be wary of invocations of blind patriotism, think critically about what it means to be a global citizen, and understand that heroism comes in different shades and forms.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

Posted on by
Yayoi Uno Everett is Associate Professor at Emory University, teaches courses on music theory, narrative, and multimedia, and is an Op Ed Project Public Voices Fellow.
Edited by Mary Awad, Misagh.

Want to write about Film or other art forms?

Create writer account


  1. There were so many impossibilities inside the script of Olympus has Fallen that I was getting more annoyed than entertained.

    • I wonder if maybe this movie was perhaps produced and financed by North Korea, as it is a masterful attack on the US. If I had been an American, I would have felt humiliated by this movie. Now I only feel humiliated as a homo sapiens.

  2. Thomas L.

    Great article. Syriana is an underrated masterpiece. While the film’s complexity is intentional, the same complexity makes it fascinating every time.

    • Hugh Wilkins

      Indeed. Syriana portraits middle easterners as real people. And it attempts, and mostly succeeds, in showing the religious/cultural/political complexities of the region. It provides a realistic account of the real reasons for terrorism.

  3. Mary Awad

    I absolutely love this article! I feel like it’s so relevant to everything right now! You really did a wonderful job on it!

  4. Jemarc Axinto

    I have not yet seen Zero Dark Thirty, The Hurt Locker, or Argo because I was worried it would all be very “pro-‘Murica” as opposed to “Yes love America, but know that we’re not perfect.” So it’s good to know that there are films that contradict the All-American hero.

    A good book to read in regards to he Iraq war and post-9/11 if you’re interested is “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” =]

    Wonderful article!

  5. Honestly The Hurt Locker is complete fantasy. It does incredible injustice to any veterans who have actually served in iraq and even more so to any EOD personnel. Jeremy Renner’s character was a complete pompous a**, who would’ve never been put in charge of kitchen patrol, much less a highly trained EOD team. This movie has all the markings of a Hollywood wet dream

    • Colbert

      Really? I loved it. This film is not trying to make a statement about war but the soldiers that go in and do the hard work. This film may in the future be regarded as a war classic due to its subjective approach and is well deserving of its accolades.

  6. I like war movies, but I have been very disappointed lately. I watched Argo and was bored through and through. Neither this or The Hurt Locker did it for me.

    Headstrong guy gets his own men killed by being a Jackbutt, and then can’t go home and be a good father. He cared more about the DVD Iraqi kid than his own son. Cinematically I didn’t see how it broke ground, the story wasn’t unique at all, and there really wasn’t much room for great acting to even matter. It was pretty bland for me.

    I didn’t hate this movie. It was only semi-entertaining for me. It is like Die Hard but without the suspense and over the top action.

    I am not concerned with the “realism” in the film. My view is that if a movie is going for realism, do it well. If the film is more “action” then go for broke. This film seemed to sit in the middle for me, it didn’t feel realistic nor did it feel fun.

  7. For the life of me, I will never understand why filmmakers continue to take true events and COMPLETELY change the facts in the name of “dramatic license” (i.e. making more money). If the story as it stands or at least close to as it stands is not good enough for the screen, leave the story alone and make up your own wonderfully entertaining and profitable story. Or is Hollywood not creative enough to come up with their own profitable, entertaining stories anymore.

    The facts that are manipulated in Argo not only do a disservice to many people and countries that played a role in helping the six, they do a disservice to humanity by spreading lies about basic facts of the situation that no reasonable person would believe they would lie about unless those people already knew the facts. I think the filmmakers should be pretty ashamed of themselves.

    • It is called propaganda and is the responsibility of our National Security Services and those in the movie-making business that willingly allow them to distort historical events to feed the fiction of what is called American History.

      Hollywood has become deeply infested by the National Security Apparatus which is not exactly conducive to creating art.

    • instrawbridge

      I agree somewhat, but I’d be careful making your statement. While I certainly agree that Hollywood can twist past events to suit its dramatic needs, historians also twist “true events” in the past to suit their biases, consciously or unconsciously. They aren’t necessarily lying as much as viewing certain events with a different degrees of importance.

      For instance, Caesar crossing Rubicon marks the beginning of the Roman civil war for many modern people, but in Caesar’s own history of the events, he doesn’t even make a passing remark about the Rubicon; maybe he thought the civil war began much earlier, or maybe he didn’t view that event as important at all in the larger scheme, but we can’t really know. All we know is that he eventually did, and Plutarch thought it was an important moment.

      History wasn’t necessarily a documentation of absolute truths as much a reflection of the historian’s own consciousness when it looked back to the past.

      That said, movies don’t rely on evidence as much, instead utilizing drama to elicit an emotional response that manipulates its audience into believing that the things happening on screen were true. History uses evidence to reasonably argue its case. Certainly the Canadians deserve praise because there is substantial evidence that says they do, but as Americans (or at least the writers of Argo), we have a consciousness that might pick out certain events as more important than others. I don’t think they were lying; I think their unconscious biases were simply valuing certain events differently to reflect their perception of reality. It’s why historians love looking at past entertainment: it’s filled with how people perceived their times, true or false (if there is even such a difference).

    • Don’t give a flying pigs right ear whether it is factually correct – it’s film entertainment not a documentary.

    • Wynona Burkhart

      Argo is entertainment. Like all those old westerns, just about every romantic comedy and every fantasy film, it is just to entertain. The historical context is just to give it some grounding: Iran, 1979, rather than, say, Iran 2007. The hostage incident is just the backdrop to a very human story of fear and courage.

  8. Daniel Moss

    I thought the article was an interesting one, and well written, whether you were interested in the topic or not, I could do with more articles like it. It’s certainly a vast improvement on some of the celeb and trivia drivel we get regularly from other publications.

  9. Christopher Sycamore

    I don’t understand the criticism of Olympus has fallen. It wasn’t an Oscar winner, it was sheer dumb fun, and sometimes that’s all you want.

    I don’t think anyone went in with expectations of a deep thought provoking movie, so it makes sense to me to just have clear cut ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’ without worrying too much about what constitutes a hero or not.

  10. Something which is worth noting about the post-9/11 American war film is how the American public at the box office started to ‘vote’ (by buying tickets) for a certain type of war film, at the same time as (many of them) voted for the change from Bush to Obama.

    By the end of the Bush-era, the 9/11-themed anti-war films waned in popularity (e.g. Redacted, Stop-Loss, The Kingdom, Lions for Lambs, A Mighty Heart, Rendition, etc.) until Bigelow and Boal released The Hurt Locker, which changed that landscape.

    I find it interesting that the post-9/11 American war film often didn’t reflect the country’s zeitgeist: the years of the Bush administration yielded many (seemingly) anti-war texts, whilst under Obama, Zero Dark Thirty, which appeared to condone extraordinary rendition in the name of getting results, enjoyed commercial and critical successes.

  11. I am so in love with this article, especially with its absolute vision of the structure of the hero since Greek-Roman traditions. Thank you and I am definitely exploring this option.

Leave a Reply