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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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