Action Cinema After 9/11
The tenth anniversary of 9/11 is prompting much reflection in the media on both the events of that day and what has happened since. How Hollywood responded is also on people’s minds, as Peter Bradshaw’s overview piece in The Guardian today illustrates. It’s true to say, though, that Hollywood’s response has been the subject of media and academic attention for much of the intervening decade since 2001. In one of the earliest published books on the subject, Wheeler Winston Dixon offered a succinct summation of Hollywood’s immediate reaction:
In the days and weeks after 9/11, Hollywood momentarily abandoned the hyperviolent spectacles that dominated mainstream late 1990s cinema. Films were temporarily shelved, sequences featuring the World Trade Center were recut, and ‘family’ ﬁlms were rushed into release or production . . . Predictably, however, this reversal of fortune did not last long, and soon Hollywood was back to work on a series of highly successful ‘crash and burn’ movies. (Dixon 2004: 3)
But it is in the very ‘crash and burn’, explosion filled action movies Dixon characterizes as a return to the norm that one finds a more complicated picture than one might expect of what Hollywood did next.
Here, as elsewhere in Hollywood output, allegorical explorations of the post-9/11 world emerged, such as the puppet satire Team America: World Police (2004), and Spielberg’s War of the Worlds (2005). But the much more prevalent trend was what David Holloway calls ‘modish’ references to 9/11, Iraq or Afghanistan, or associated locales and themes (2008: 75). This reminds me of something Michael Wood said about the passing references to World War II in early post-war Hollywood: that ‘the world of death and war and menace and disaster is really there, gets a mention, but then is rendered irrelevant by the story or the star or the music’ (1975: 17–18). For example, why open Transformers (2007) on a military base in Qatar, if the action quickly returns to US soil? Similarly Iron Man (2008)’s choice to begin in Afghanistan works to add a modish pertinence to Tony Starck (Robert Downey Jnr)’s arms dealing and the manner in which he learns the error of his ways (incarceration by terrorists); once Starck escapes the terrorists the action is focused once more on US soil. In both cases noisy spectacle replaces any thought about the locations and political implications of the films’ respective opening settings. Equally, some films could be argued as somewhere between allegory and modish reference – where to place Cloverfield (2008), for example, or attack-on-home-soil films such as Law Abiding Citizen (2009)?
I think a more easily discernible trend in post-9/11 action cinema is a developing unease about the viability of notions that are normally at the heart of the action film: heroism and a ‘just war’. Heroism as a cultural idea gained renewed currency in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, stories abounding about people who had risked their lives or died trying to rescue others. Here were acts of human sacriﬁce and bravery that could be heralded unproblematically as heroic, and which were duly eulogised. But the discourse of patriotic heroism was problematised by what happened next. The military interventions by the US and its allies after 9/11 were initiated in the face of anti-war demonstrations and debates about their legal mandate. In the years that followed growing collateral damage statistics and revelations about prisoner mistreatment at Guantànamo Bay and Abu Ghraib and about the rendition of terror suspects put pressure on any notion of a ‘just war’ and called into question the heroism of implicated military personnel, while the reduction of civil liberties flowing from the 2001 Patriot Act and the rising US and Allied troop casualties further muddied public opinion.
In Shooter (2007), Vantage Point (2008), the Bourne films (2002, 2004, 2007) and Salt (2010), amongst others, the ‘just war’ of maintaining national security turns out to be a dirty and corrupt business, with the hero forced to attack the very government forces he thought he was fighting with. Uncertainty about the true nature of the central protagonist’s supposed heroism returns as a pronounced trope in this period: for example, Bourne’s amnesia and Salt’s narrative of double and re-doubled agents repeatedly defer confirmation of the true allegiances of the ‘hero’; in Inception (2010)’s dream levels the subconscious mind of hero Cobb (Leonardo di Caprio) unleashes dark forces that threaten the lives of the rest of his team; and [*spoiler alert*] Source Code (2011)’s Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) struggles to carve out a space for heroic action in a parallel worlds narrative that refuses to resolve its central conflict, revealing Colter at the end as both a physically impaired, comatose veteran and the bright-eyed, healthy hero that saves the day (interested readers might like to check out Dan North’s piece on the film).
Some action films harbored ambitions to engage with the post-9/11 world more explicitly, placing their protagonists in relatively naturalistic Middle East settings and at the apex of conﬂict (in one way or another) in order to explore more explicitly the intricacies, tensions and pressures of the situation, films like The Kingdom (2007), The Hurt Locker (2008) and Green Zone (2010). Each of these demonstrates in its own way the risks inherent in this noble endeavour, the way in which the action film’s generic framework – its focus on individual endeavour rather than social context, its tendency to polarize characters into heroes and villains, its wish-fulfilment resolutions achieved through physical violence – risk a failure to express the complexity of the post-9/11 world. I discuss both The Kingdom and The Hurt Locker in Contemporary Action Cinema, but would like to make some brief observations about The Kingdom in the space available here to demonstrate what I mean [once again, here be *spoilers*].
Having emphatically linked its fictional world with the real post-9/11 context via a remarkable contextualizing opening montage, The Kingdom follows the endeavours of a team of FBI investigators hunting the bombers of a US compound in Saudi Arabia. The film is at its best communicating small moments of conflict and tension in the interactions between the US team and the Saudi police forced to chaperone them: both parties draw our sympathies and understanding. But genre conventions are already in sway that gradually blunt the nuanced treatment the opening promised. The set-up immediately establishes that this is a revenge narrative, the US team keen to avenge the killing of ‘one of our own’. Early images of their grief and anger at the death of a FBI colleague killed in the compound attack prepare us to cheer them on in the revenge mission, a mission which will, incidentally, quickly push them to disregard national border controls and political and cultural sensitivities. The film initially pays a kind of lip service to Saudi sovereignty, but the Saudis are quickly co-opted into the cause, as foot soldiers for the FBI team.
The film draws heavily on the buddy action formula to bring together its primary protagonists, FBI team leader Fleury (Jamie Foxx) and his Saudi counterpart Al Ghazi (Ashraf Barhom). Antagonism shifts to awkwardness and then to respect in the course of their joint detective work, until a striking declaration by Al Ghazi affirms his allegiance to the US team’s cause, and works to reiterate the primacy of the revenge narrative:
I ﬁnd myself in a place where I no longer care about why we are attacked. I only care that one hundred people woke up a few mornings ago and had no idea it was their last. When we catch the man who murdered these people I don’t care to ask even one question. I want to kill him.
The phrases ‘I no longer care about why’ and ‘I don’t care to ask even one question’ betray a response to terrorism which is much more emphatically in line with the action film’s revenge trope than with the opening credit sequence’s evocation of complex causality. Thought and analysis have been rejected to be replaced by violent retribution as the only possible outcome. This moment is indicative of the way that generic conventions gradually upstage the film’s other ambitions. Al Ghazi’s words (echoing both the jingoistic language of the Bush administration’s ‘war on terror’ discourse and the desire to deliver some form of retribution that many have felt after 9/11 and other subsequent terrorist atrocities) prepare us for the action film’s conventional narrative resolution – a culminating violence – while pointing away from the real-world realities of anti-terrorist strategies, which must include intelligence gathering and analysis as well as more direct forms of action.
Thus aligned, Al Ghazi becomes Fleury’s action ‘buddy’ in a final extended shoot-out that gives all six of the investigators – the four Americans and the two Saudis – the opportunity to give vent to their desire for revenge, to express a violent heroism in place of more sedentary or reflective modes of investigative action. And in another long-standing convention in Hollywood action movies, the racial ‘Other’ – in this case (in a conflation of ethnic and national difference that Hollywood frequently falls into) the Saudi Al Ghazi – must be sacrificed for the US hero’s cause.
The Kingdom is in my view an underrated action movie, notable for its ambitions as much as for its failings (the terrorists are cyphers that draw on familiar racist stereotypes, while the Saudis and Americans can only bond over family ties and US popular culture, rather than on the basis of mutual cultural respect). The film’s tensions – genre and wish-fulfilment versus the realities of real-world geopolitics – are certainly indicative of the challenges action movies faced in the decade following 9/11. But given Hollywood’s reliance on wish-fulfilment and familiar genre reference points, these tensions may also tell us something about the negotiations Hollywood has generally had to make during the last ten years, as it shaped the relationship between its fictional universes and the real world beyond.