Screens that flicker and fail to challenge
In Die Hard 4.0, a cyber-terrorist paralyses the eastern seaboard of the United States. The lights go out all over New York, roads are gridlocked and airports closed, and a panicking citizenry hears rumours of anthrax attacks.
If this sounds a touch familiar, the writers and director are careful to emphasise that resemblances to 9/11 only go so far. The criminal mastermind isn’t an Islamist, but Thomas Gabriel, a deranged computer genius. When the US government refuses to fund his research, he cries ‘one day you will be sorry you spurned me’, or words to that effect. Gabriel doesn’t have a political motive for throwing the nation into chaos. He wants to steal billions of dollars to satisfy his wounded pride, not destroy the Great Satan. Indeed, Gabriel insists to Bruce Willis that he’s a patriot of sorts who has ‘done America a favour’. If he hadn’t revealed the weaknesses in the computer defences to the authorities, ‘some religious nut job’ trying to bring an apocalypse might have found them instead.
What specific types of ‘religious nut jobs’ want to bring apocalypse to the United States, the Die Hard team don’t say, and their silence is everywhere in Hollywood, and at first glance baffling.
The global mayhem since 9/11 has not affected film in America, nor television in Britain, to anything like the degree a reasonably well-informed media buff would have predicted on the day. Hollywood has produced documentaries, from Paul Greengrass’s poignant United 93, which recaptures the uprising by passengers against their hijackers, to Michael Moore’s seedy Fahrenheit 9/11, which portrays Saddam Hussein’s Iraq as a happy land of playful children and blushing lovers. But when we turn to Hollywood fiction we find that the ‘war on terror’, or whatever it is we’re meant to call it these days, has barely shown its face.
The absence is all the more perplexing because before 9/11, when there had been no serious Islamist assault on America, Middle Eastern villains were so common in films Hollywood faced plausible charges of anti-Arab racism. In Back to the Future, Executive Decision, True Lies and dozens of others, Arabs were off-the-peg bad guys. Yet after 9/11, the stereotypes weren’t fleshed out with an all-too-real psychopathic ideology, but abandoned.
Writing in the Los Angeles Times Andrew Klavan, a Hollywood screenwriter of a conservative bent, blamed liberal nervousness. ‘In order to honestly dramatise the simple truth about this existential struggle, you have to depict right-minded Americans – some of whom may be white and male and Christian – hunting down and killing dark-skinned villains of a false and wicked creed. That’s what’s happening, on a good day anyway, so that’s what you’d have to show. Movie-makers are reluctant to do that because, even though it’s the truth, on screen it might appear bigoted and jingoistic.’
Maybe, but Hollywood’s alleged political correctness was not in evidence before 9/11 and, in any case, Bruce Willis is a gung-ho American conservative, not a comrade of George Clooney. A hard-headed liberal might say that the real reason for the down-playing of the conflict is that Hollywood is a global business. American television can show Islamists in 24 and other thrillers because it sells primarily to the domestic market. Movies must sell everywhere and a world which is appalled by the second Iraq war and will not pay to see America venerated – and nor will many Americans for that matter.
I’m sure there’s truth in that argument too, but it misses how dislocating the war on terror seems when viewed from the comfort of the rich world’s democracies. From the 9/11 atrocities on, the dimmest citizens could be in no doubt that forces were swirling around the globe that would murder them without restraint. Yet after 9/11, they haven’t been murdered in significant numbers. I don’t mean any offence to the bereaved of the attacks on London and Madrid, but when set against the astonishing scale of the Iraqi massacres the casualties have been tiny. The rich world is coping with a relatively low level of violence, while all the time knowing that fantastic violence remains possible.
This leads to a frantic desire to appease and deny. To pretend we’re the ‘root cause’ of the threat or say that the it has been manipulated by cynical politicians would be natural responses in normal circumstances. After America and Britain launched the second Iraq war on the worst intelligence since the US military dismissed the possibility of a Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, a global outbreak of wishful thinking and conspiracy theory was inevitable.
You can see this better in BBC dramas than in Hollywood films. The 2006 series of Spooks, for example, showed Islamist suicide bombers taking over the Saudi Arabian embassy. Nothing too far-fetched in that; real MI5 agents are running themselves ragged as they try to close down terror cells. The BBC’s novel twist was that its fictional MI5 agents discovered that the Islamists weren’t Islamists at all, just Mossad agents in disguise engaged in the perennial Jewish conspiracy.
Meanwhile, the actor playing Guy of Gisborne in the BBC’s reworking of Robin Hood for the 21st century explained that the old story was now about ‘the perpetuation of terror’ by the powerful. ‘It’s almost in the bad guys’ interests to keep Robin alive – like the modern situation with terrorists. Guy and the Sheriff need him as a scapegoat, to keep fear in the hearts of the people’.
I’m not sure if he meant that Robin and his Merry Men were Osama and his Merry Islamists, but the BBC certainly wanted viewers to believe that the government was the real villain, hyping up the threat to justify placing the British under the iron heel of the national security state. See through that lie, and we could relax.
The BBC’s logic is absurd when I write it out on paper but it makes psychological sense on the screen. Given the state of unrealised fear we live in, it feels reasonable in London and Hollywood to avoid provoking enemies we rarely see. Better to ignore them instead or blame them on the government or Jewish conspiracies and then, with luck, they will leave us alone, and confine their bombs to the poor world.
It would be nice if that were true.