Schwarzenegger as Gordy Brewer, heroic U.S. fireman. The national post-9/11 focus on firemen as suffering national heroes and the film’s focus on Gordy’s grief after his wife and child are killed in a terrorist bombing held up Collateral Damage's release until early 2002.
One of our only glimpses of Schwarzenegger’s naked torso comes in a scene of paternal domesticity, signifying both his action hero physique and fatherly benevolence.
The film’s villain, “El Lobo” (also known as Claudio) poses as a policeman as part of his attack on the Colombian consulate in Los Angeles.
Gordy/Schwarzenegger comes face to face with his soon-to-be nemesis.
Gordy hesitates before walking away, but ultimately fails to live up to his duty as action hero by not seeing the mock policeman for who he really is.
“Where is he?” Gordy is late, leaving his wife and child in harm’s way. Small failures as a parent result in tragedy here. Gordy’s mission in the film then is not only to fulfill his role as action hero but to make up for his failures as a father.
CIA officials, generals, and other important government officials arrive at the Colombian consulate.
This scene of official, national business occurs just on the other side of a thin glass wall from this scene of everyday, familial bonding. The nation and the family are literally two sides of the same wall in this scene.
“El Lobo” strikes.
The violent spectacle of the action film.
The government officials as the explosion hits.
Even though CIA agents and generals were the “official” target, the attack's harm to innocent bystanders in the nearby courtyard carries the bombing's emotional weight.
It is the death of Gordy’s wife and child, the destruction of the nuclear family, that makes this attack symbolically stand for an attack on the entire nation and its values.
Gordy reacts to the bombing...
... but at the moment he's supposed to step into action he's hit by a passing car, rendering him passive in a genre that rewards only action and movement.
Twice we are shown Gordy’s sunglasses flying from his head after the car hits him, perhaps highlighting that he didn’t “see” what he should have as an action hero and a father: that the policeman was the villain.
Gordy as the emasculated father, made impotent to save his family.
The grief-stricken Gordy.
Early in the film we wallow in Gordy’s suffering and its over-wrought emotion, but this pathos is necessary for the genre. The family tragedy serves as the melodramatic imperative to violent action.
As two Boeing 767 jetliners careened into the twin towers on September 11, 2001, billboards were scattered throughout Manhattan advertising the latest Arnold Schwarzenegger action film, Collateral Damage. In an appropriate (or highly inappropriate) overlap of life and art, the film centers on an U.S. fireman’s grief and quest for revenge after his wife and son are killed in a terrorist bombing. Due to open in early October, the film quickly became “the highest profile motion picture casualty of the September 11 attack” (Bererdinelli). The release of Collateral Damage was delayed until the following February of 2002 as Hollywood studios attempted to gauge the U.S. public’s openness to images of terrorism in a time of national crisis.
Collateral Damage, then, occupies an important space in U.S. film history: it is one of the last major popular culture films addressing terrorism in a pre-9/11 world. It is certainly the last action film — one of the most popular genres of the 1980s and 90s and most expressive of the United States’ fascination with violence — to do so. On top of this, Collateral Damage is a star vehicle for Schwarzenegger, a key cinematic figure in late twentieth century U.S. violence and masculinity. Schwarzenegger’s rise to political prominence in the years after 9/11 as the Republican governor of California, furthermore, had been prophesized since the early 90s, and the use of his cinematically constructed masculinity in politics is often compared to that of Ronald Reagan. Within Collateral Damage, therefore, we can see the complex discourses of U.S. masculinity, violence, and conservatism as they existed just before a major shift in Americans’ conception of the terrorist threat to the nation.
Because of this significant historical and cultural situation, it is easy to get carried away when characterizing the film itself. As one reviewer notes,
I want to emphasize, however, that I see nothing exceptional in the film. As Neil Smith puts it, Collateral Damage is simply “deeply, painfully average.” Yet, despite the warning that the film “is unable to withstand the additional weight one wants to attach to it due to external circumstances” (Olsen 41), the fact that Collateral Damage is such a quotidian example of the action film makes it all the more useful to understanding the popular discourses of violence and terrorism in pre-9/11 United States. I would say, in fact, that the film is tantalizingly average considering its historical situation. On the brink of such a major historical event and the culture’s massive subsequent concern with international terrorism, Collateral Damage offers a glimpse of the recent yet distant past, a typical expression of the place of terrorism in the U.S. imagination before 9/11.
Primarily, Collateral Damage reveals that U.S. discourses of terrorism are informed by a melodramatic logic. By melodrama, however, I do not mean its common usage in film studies as a term used to signify a particular genre of “women’s films” or “weepies.” Rather, I want to use Linda Williams’ concept of the term put forth in “Melodrama Revised” as
Williams argues that melodrama is not a particular genre, nor a form that uses emotional and visual excess only to disrupt a classically continuous narrative (as some film scholars have argued). Instead, melodrama can be seen as an important means through which U.S. cinema has structured its narratives and the primary way the culture has addressed challenges to its own conception of itself as morally righteous. Williams expands upon Peter Brooks’ argument that melodrama historically brought to a post-sacred, post-Enlightenment world a sense of the “moral occult,” an affirmation of a hidden “moral legibility” in a world where traditional truth and moralities were being questioned (50-51). Williams, in turn, argues that melodrama accomplishes a similar goal in the twentieth century. The melodramatic mode has been adopted so thoroughly in U.S. cinema because it offers the same moral legibility Brooks describes but also emphasizes an essential U.S. sense of its own goodness:
The melodramatic mode — commonly associated with femininity and women’s films — is therefore also at work in typically masculine film genres such as the action film. This should not be surprising considering the many characteristics shared by both traditional melodrama and the action cinema:
Williams emphasizes throughout her article, furthermore, that the pathos we usually associate with melodrama is dynamically linked to spectacles of action. According to Williams, “pathos and action are the two most important means to the achievement of moral legibility” (59). The feminized pathos of the melodramatic mode, the suffering of virtuous women and children, provides the necessary impetus for masculine action and typically melodramatic temporal tension: will the hero make it in time? Thus in Collateral Damage the pathos associated with the murder of Gordy Brewer’s (Arnold Schwarzenegger) wife and son serve as a moral imperative for the spectacular violence that follows as he hunts down the terrorist murderers.
There is, however, something exceptional about Collateral Damage: the extent to which the idea of moral legibility is questioned throughout the narrative. Deviating in certain instances from the good/evil moral polarity that characterizes most action films and melodrama, Collateral Damage attempts to display the ideological complexity of terrorism and the ethical flaws of U.S. anti-terrorism efforts. I argue here, however, that the film does so only to resolve these dilemmas through the triumph of the action hero and U.S. patriarch/imperialist. The deviations from the action film protocol in Collateral Damage are present only to showcase how the ambiguities they raise can be solved by the wholesale return to the genre’s structure in the film’s conclusion. What seems like a deviation from and interrogation of the formula of the action film turns out to be, in the end, merely the inner workings of the melodramatic mode, the process through which moral legibility is created. Collateral Damage, in other words, displays ambivalence about terrorism only to show us the necessity of moral polarity and the paternal nature of U.S. imperialism.
Terrorism and the action film
A critical examination of terrorism and its role in U.S. society will always be difficult because of the intense emotions involved, especially after 9/11 when one act of mass-murder has been so internalized as the archetypal manifestation of terror. It is hard to discuss and think about terrorism without the images of the collapsing towers or the smoldering Pentagon lingering in the back of one’s mind. It is important to emphasize, then, that I am not using the term terrorism here to refer to specific acts of violence. Rather, I want to discuss the concept and rhetoric of terrorism and how that concept operates in U.S. cinema and ideology. I want to talk about terrorism as an idea rather than as an historical event. I realize that we should always be wary of arguments that attempt to separate abstract ideas from their historical consequences, but this separation is important in the case of terrorism because the definition, not the act, is ideological.
It is the definition and construction of 9/11 as terrorism (rather than murder or an act of war, for example) that carries the ideological weight, not the actual the violence perpetrated, no matter how horrific. For example, Roland Barthes in his analysis of a photograph of a young, sub-Saharan African in a French uniform saluting the French flag distinguished between the “meaning” of the photograph — a young, black soldier saluting the flag — and what the photograph “signifies” — that France is a great and benevolent Empire (116-17). In this paper I will not be dealing with the meaning of violence that has come to be defined as terrorism — the death and destruction caused by historical violence — but what the images of such violence have come to signify: terrorism, barbarism, and evil.
Discourses of terrorism, therefore, are highly concerned with the definition and categorization of violence, a concern shared with the action film genre. The action film, after all, defines the hero’s ultra-violence as legitimate through its juxtaposition against illegitimate violence used for obviously immoral ends. The typical action film offers the middle-class male, who is confined and made passive by bureaucratization and corporate capitalism, a fantasy of excessive violent action in a world of moral polarity, a world where the ethical and monetary consequences of violence and destruction are inconsequential. Action film logic is predicated on the idea that the hero’s violent behavior is the only means to combat the violence wielded by the evil villains who disrupt society. Thus the action film offers a suspension of social decorum and legal regulations.
The hero is basically given a free pass to brutalize, murder, and generally destroy the public spaces of capitalist and Third World societies in order to restore a social order threatened by an even worse form of violence. Although this free pass is temporary, actions films usually begin with the moment the hero is offered the moral imperative to violent behavior — the evil first act of violence or the articulation of the evil threat — and finish with the end of the hero’s social transgression and the restoration of order, emphasizing in the mean time two hours of violent fantasy and spectacle. The threat of evil violence justifies and rationalizes this celebration of brutality and ruin.
The concept of terrorism often operates with a similar logic. As much scholarship attests, one of the primary sites of contention in examining terrorism is definition: what constitutes an act of terrorism and when is a specific act labeled terrorism? (See, for example, Laquer, Perdue, Slater and Stohl, or Gibbs.) Some scholars have suggested that the definition rests upon the notion of legitimacy: terrorism represents illegitimate political violence as opposed to the legitimate force used by the state (Lodge 1). Under this definition, regardless of the specific situation, state-sponsored violence remains legitimate while other forms of political violence are labeled terrorist. This distinction echoes the legitimate violence of the action film hero and the illegitimate, evil violence of the action film villain, suggesting that the very idea of terrorism acts as a justification for a supposedly heroic but equally brutal state-sponsored violence. Labeling an act as terrorist and establishing an illegitimate and evil “other” allows states the same free pass to violence as the action film hero.
This is the argument made by Noam Chomsky as he analyzes the Orwellian “newspeak” used in the rhetoric of terrorism by Western governments, particularly the U.S. government. Within such rhetoric terrorism is always defined as necessarily the violence of our enemies while U.S. violence is always termed as “retaliation,” regardless of the historical and political circumstances of U.S. violence. As one of many examples, Chomsky describes the circumstances of the U.S. bombings of Libya in the 1980s. Chomsky argues that while regimes supported by U.S. funds and arms in El Salvador and Guatemala were executing over 50,000 of their own citizens, the U.S. singled out the easy target of Libya as a rogue terrorist state and conducted a propaganda war against Middle Eastern terrorism. Despite the fact that through 1985 only 14 deaths worldwide could be plausibly attributable to Libyan-sponsored violence, the country was demonized in the U.S.. Its leader, Qaddafi, was characterized as a “mad dog,” and unsubstantiated rumors were spread concerning the wild schemes of Libyan terrorists. The U.S. government also made every effort to connect Libya with an April 1985 bombing of a Berlin discotheque — despite the fact that no incriminating evidence existed — in order to characterize any subsequent U.S. action as “retaliation” rather than an act of aggression. Establishing this evil terrorist threat, the U.S. could then justify bombing raids that killed hundreds of Libyan citizens.
The very idea of terrorism, then, allows state violence to don the cloak of legitimacy. Labeling violence as terrorism is an ideological act whereby one’s own violence becomes necessary. State violence becomes an act of war and national security rather than a “terrorist” act of gratuitous brutality. Thus in the current invasion and occupation of Iraq, even the unsubstantiated suggestion that Iraq and Saddam Hussein were linked to terrorism is enough to legitimate and garner popular support for the toppling of a sovereign regime.
The construction of terrorism, therefore, is based on a number of binary oppositions: legitimate force/ illegitimate violence, civilization/ barbarism, order/ chaos, and good/ evil, making terrorism the binary opposite of violence by the nation state. Indeed, as Annamarie Oliverio has argued in The State of Terror,
As the process of globalization threatens the stability of national borders (coupled with the end of the Cold War and the loss of a major superpower competitor to vilify), Western nations have increasingly turned to the discourse of terrorism to stabilize the construction of national identity (37). Terrorism, Oliverio argues, has provided the new villain in the melodrama of nationalist discourse, a discourse that sustains the viability of national identity and the need for violence both at home and abroad. Replacing the communist “Evil Empire” of the Cold War, the terrorist “Axis of Evil” provides the essential dramatic conflict that stabilizes U.S. identity and the vital need for U.S. imperialism.
Melodrama, then, can be seen as more than a mode of cinematic expression. It is equally an essential cultural mode of expressing and reifying national myths and identity. Applying Williams’ discussion of film melodrama beyond the scope of the cinema, it becomes clear that melodrama is also the central means through which the rhetoric of nationalism and national security is articulated. The Manichean distinction between good and evil, the inherent structuring of the hero’s virtue, the imperative to spectacular military action, and the ability to assuage cultural guilt over wrongdoing (see Williams’ discussion of Schindler’s List and the Rambo films on 60-62) all are the structural elements of a nationalist project. If we can read the social construction of societies into discrete nations and national identities as a fiction, then it seems clear that this nationalist narrative is a melodrama. And as the current administration’s heavy use of good/evil rhetoric attests, sustaining these fictions utilizes the melodramatic mode as well.
The maintenance of this national melodrama, of course, goes well beyond the official rhetoric of governments. The media are equally implicated in the perpetuation of the melodrama of terrorism. As Alex P. Schmid and Janny de Graf have pointed out in their aptly titled study Violence as Communication, the emergence of modern terrorism coincided with the emergence of the mass media in the late nineteenth century, leading the authors to claim,
This has led to a host of scholarship on the inter-connectedness of terrorism and the media and the symbolic weight of images of terror (see, for example, Debatin or Gerbner). And as Jean Baudrillard has argued, terrorism can be seen an act of symbolic warfare, an attempt to manufacture a symbolic event that competes the with hyperreal symbols of global capital (5-6), making the mass media the primary ideological battlefield on which terrorism takes place. One of the main goals of the political violence we label as terrorism, after all, is publicity. The violence itself is often secondary in importance to the media images of such violence, which are rapidly transmitted to the populous and made legible as terrorism.
So perhaps, as Michael Ignatieff argues, we can see terrorists as the new cinematic auteurs. Discussing the use of home video technologies to document and transmit images of violence, Ignatieff notes,
Its power located in the extent to which it can be made legible to a mass audience, terrorism in many ways only exists as a mass-mediated text. The melodrama of action films and other media depictions of terror are not, then, merely sites where preexisting cultural anxieties are expressed and reaffirmed. They are the sites where the cultural anxieties regarding terrorism are actively created.
Despite the use of the mass media by perpetrators of political violence, however, mass media nonetheless remain a battlefield “structurally aligned with the state in the legitimation of a particular view of terrorism” (Perdue 49). Dramatizing violence into the language of terrorism, the mass media transform it into powerful images of terror and cast the state-sponsored retaliation as a heroic and necessary act. For example, Chomsky points out that the U.S. bombings of Libya in the 1980s were timed to coincide with network TV’s evening news broadcasts, ensuring that the government's supposedly valiant response to terror would be appropriately timed, breaking news (127). While terrorists rely upon mass-mediation for their political goals, the mass media is an institution that routinely supports the dominant perspective of terrorism.
Thus we can read mass-mediated images of 9/11 as being less about human suffering and more about U.S. identity, threats to the nation, and the heroism of those who combat such threats. The action film and other means of presenting terrorism can be seen, then, as some of the most important sites where the meaning and ideological implications of terrorism are constructed.