copyright 2006, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 48, winter 2006
Terrorism, melodrama, and
the action film on the eve of 9/11
by Russell Meeuf
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,
“because of its unintentional connection to real-life tragedy, one wants Collateral Damage to be more than it actually is — more offensive, more ridiculous, more imperialistically Hollywood” (Olsen 41).
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
“a peculiarly democratic and U.S. form that seeks dramatic revelation of moral and emotional truths through a dialectic of pathos and action” (42).
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:
“It is the best example of American culture’s (often hypocritical) notion of itself as the locus of innocence and virtue” (50).
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.
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,
“incidents defined as terrorism often provide the script for historical interpretations of national identity and political sovereignty” (6).
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,
“Without [mass] communication there can be no terrorism” (9).
This has led to a host of scholarship on the interconnectedness 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,
“Terrorists have been quick to understand that the camera has the power to frame a single atrocity and turn it into an image that sends shivers down the spine of an entire planet” (50).
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.
Collateral Damage, however, does not explicitly participate in the hegemonic “statespeak” regarding terrorism. The film tells the story of Gordy Brewer, a Los Angeles fireman whose wife and child are killed in a terrorist bombing at the Colombian consulate. Although the film follows a typical action film revenge plot — a man with nothing to lose hunts down the villain responsible for his suffering — the film complicates this basic storyline. Gordy does attempt to track down “El Lobo,” the terrorist responsible for the bombing, but once in Colombia Gordy’s quest for vengeance is put into the context of a morally ambiguous U.S. imperialism in South America and the general ethics of revenge. Gordy must navigate both the jungles of Colombia and the rocky political terrain carved out by insurgent guerillas and corrupt CIA officials. He also meets the wife and son of El Lobo (a.k.a. Claudio) and must confront the ethical consequences his own desire for revenge. Within this typical action plot is an interrogation of the logic and ideology of terrorism, upon which much action film melodrama is based.
For example, Collateral Damage, at least superficially, offers the terrorists a viable political position and a justified grievance against U.S. imperialism. In order to exercise the moral clarity offered by melodramatic discourses of terrorism, action films (and governments) usually deny that terrorists have any rational or realistic political projects. For example, Phillip Elliot, Graham Murdock, and Phillip Schlesinger have shown that British television reinforces the British demonology of “terrorists” by claiming,
“The terrorist is the polar example of the extremist, a fanatic and psychopath who lies beyond the pale of the comprehensible, rational politics of a liberal democracy” (157).
Refusing to acknowledge that “terrorist” groups lay claim to any ideology, they are portrayed as anarchic sadists intent on only violence and destruction.
In Collateral Damage, however, the film explicitly acknowledges the political project of Claudio and his militia as they attempt to expel an intrusive and often exploitive U.S. presence in Colombia (as characterized by the cynical and callous CIA agent Brandt). Gordy comes face to face with the realities of U.S.-backed oppression in this fictional Colombia as Selena, Claudio’s wife, relates the violent narrative that pushed her husband into terrorism. And later in the film Gordy, held prisoner by El Lobo, must evade the CIA’s violent assault on women and children at the terrorist compound. While we are still morally aligned with Gordy’s position as grieving father, the film offers El Lobo a defensible political position and depicts the atrocities of U.S. imperialism. So early on in the film, when Gordy hears the representative of a political group that supports El Lobo use the clichéd defense of terrorism that “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter,” the film is not simply disparaging the cliché’s moral relativism. While the film vilifies this supporter of violence and punishes him (Gordy destroys his office with a baseball bat), Collateral Damage is also wrestling with this statement and its implications. The film is uneasy with a simple good versus evil distinction when it comes to terrorism and U.S. anti-terrorism efforts.
In one instance, in fact, the film even seems to question the necessity and legitimacy of Gordy’s violence. Taken captive by Caludio and his militia, Gordy is bound and interrogated at their compound in the jungle. After Claudio eloquently attempts to compare Gordy’s quest for violence with his own, Gordy retorts, “The only difference is...I’m just going to kill you,” at which point he attempts to fight his captors and in the process graphically bites off one of the henchmen’s ears. Gordy’s quick-witted one liner coupled with his sudden burst into violent action reorients the viewer into the formula of the action genre, yet the bizarre brutality of tearing off an ear with one’s mouth makes what should be a celebration of violence and action uneasy. While certainly not brutal enough to be out of place in an action film, the bitten-off ear represents the kind of bizarre and hyper-visceral brutality usually reserved for the action film villain. In this display of violent spectacle, then, the film raises questions about the legitimate/ illegitimate, civilized/ barbaric, good/ evil dichotomies upon which the structure of the action genre and discourses of terrorism are based.
What I want to suggest, then, is that on some level Collateral Damage is concerned with questioning the demonology of terrorism and the necessity of violent U.S. imperialism. The film can even be read as a veiled allusion to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness or Coppola’s film based on Conrad’s novella, Apocalypse Now, with Gordy traveling upriver in Colombia in his attempt to reach not only the terrorist compound but his own dark fantasies of violent revenge. Once in Colombia, the narrative becomes episodic and somewhat absurd as Gordy crosses paths with a perverted Canadian mechanic who works for the terrorists and a mouthy American who dreams of hip-hop stardom but in the meantime packages cocaine for the terrorists (played by John Turturro and John Leguizamo, two actors often associated with art films and indie films, offering Collateral Damage artistic credibility). And, using a common narrative trope for crime films in which the pursuer/cop takes on the characteristics of the pursued/criminal, Gordy must also confront his desire to kill El Lobo and the morality of such a murder. Earlier in the film he sees a tape of El Lobo, masked in black and using a voice-distorting device. The mechanical voice of El Lobo, however, seems similar to Schwarzenegger’s thick Austrian accent. This audio parallel perhaps suggests that as Gordy gets closer and closer to his dream of retribution, it might as well be Gordy behind the dark mask planning and carrying out murders. Not simply glorifying the act of violent revenge through the vilification of terrorism, the film showcases some of the moral ambiguities inherent in most action films' logic.
Of course, these aspects of the film do not absolve Collateral Damage from a Eurocentric approach to imperialism (especially considering that Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now are not widely considered a fully anti-imperialist texts). Collateral Damage, after all, relies upon a common imperialist trope by using the exotic Third World jungle and wilderness as “the tangled sites of violent impulse and anarchic lust” (Shohat and Stam 141). The film also uses the wilderness of Colombia similarly to Conrad’s use of Africa (and Coppola’s use of Vietnam): as a
“metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognizable humanity, into which the wandering European [and American] enters as his peril” (Achebe 1790).
The Colombian jungle becomes merely the backdrop for an U.S. debate about terrorism and morality, the wilderness that is so obviously the “Other” to U.S. civilization. Furthermore, as Jim Kitses points out, the device of at least superficially dramatizing both sides of a conflict in an action film is a clichéd “old trick”:
“You know the drill — the villain suggests he and the hero are alike: America too practices terrorism. […] the terrorist is allowed to voice grievances, but ultimately the point of view remains decidedly with the home team” (29).
Nevertheless, Collateral Damage does more than the average action film (and certainly much more than other Schwarzenegger action films such as True Lies) in dramatizing these debates rather than occluding them through the moral clarity of the action film as melodrama.
Fatherhood and the action hero as imperial patriarch
That Collateral Damage raises these problems, however, is not particularly indicative of a progressive and oppositional perspective on terrorism. Rather, these problems are posed only so that they can be solved and moral legibility restored. Acknowledging the moral ambiguities of terrorism, however, does reveal a growing cultural concern pre-9/11 that overzealous U.S. imperialism is one of the major causes of international terrorism or that media depictions of terrorism are unfair. The common action film trope Kitses describes above — where the film superficially suggests that the violence of the action hero is perhaps as illegitimate as that of the villain — might very well represent an ideological hesitation, a hint at the fact that the culture needs to be convinced that the ultra-violence of the hero is absolutely needed.
Parts of U.S. culture pre-9/11, after all, seemed somewhat concerned about racist depictions of terrorism. Arab-American groups criticized Schwarzenegger’s 1994 film True Lies for its depiction of Arab terrorists, and the 1998 film The Siege attempted to depict the racial backlash against Arab-Americans in a time of terror-induced national crisis (Jenkins 159). Collateral Damage, in fact, was originally scripted to focus on Libyan terrorists, tapping into the 1980s anti-Libyan discourses that Chomsky discusses (IMDB). That the film later shifted its focus to Colombian terrorism rather than Middle-Eastern terrorism might very well be a reaction to this emerging cultural sensitivity. Yet the complex depictions of terrorism in the film appeal to these concerns only so that they can be alleviated and faith in the United States reinstated.
As suggested, this faith in the United States is articulated by means of the formulae of the action film genre and its participation in the melodramatic mode of cinematic narrative. The work of a melodramatic genre, after all, is the staging of cultural conflict and the resolution of this conflict through the interplay of pathos and action. And as Thomas Schatz has argued, the conventions of the genre film depict certain cultural conflicts and perceived threats to society and then provide “an array of ideological strategies for negotiating social conflicts” (29). Genres can essentially act as cultural problem-solving techniques, focusing on threats to social order then alleviating those threats through the demands of narrative closure. Genres are also dynamic; their “rules” change to accommodate new threats and challenges (16). Genres can thus allow the culture to both display and alleviate concerns about the social order.
The traditional U.S. action film, therefore, dramatizes a number of perceived cultural threats to the social order: for example, the threat of racial communities to white hegemony, or the threat of bureaucratization and male powerlessness. The action film also usually depicts a literal threat to social order and legality as they often center on crime, military actions, or terrorism. These conflicts and anxieties, however, are then resolved through genre conventions and an articulation of moral legibility.
In Collateral Damage, however, we see a new threat to the social order that typical action films often overlook: moral ambiguity. In the film, the primary threat to social order that is resolved through narrative closure is not necessarily terrorism but moral confusion, our willingness to become involved in the human suffering of terrorists.
One of the key tools for solving this problem in Collateral Damage is the expanding discourse of U.S. masculinity and fatherhood. As Mark Gallagher notes, the action film genre has increasingly dramatized a cultural crisis in masculinity by emphasizing domesticity more and more in what has usually been a genre reserved for male fantasies of omnipotence and violence:
“Moving away from the Rambo-era convention of the solitary male with no social or familial ties, more recent films reposition the male hero as the protector of the domestic space” (214).
Using Schwarzenegger’s True Lies as an example, Gallagher shows how contemporary action films negotiate a vision of male authority in the face of increasing male domesticity within the culture. Although Gallagher points out that True Lies “calls attention to the incompatibility of the action hero persona with the responsibilities of domestic life” (217), this burgeoning concern with domesticity and particularly with fatherhood in the action film also tends to incorporate paternalism into the hyper-masculine persona of the action hero. As True Lies so explicitly illustrates, the role of the good father and the role of the masculine warrior for the nation-state are one in the same: Schwarzenegger’s character becomes a better father and protects the state by killing the terrorists who kidnapped his daughter.
As Gallagher points out, this re-conception of fatherhood is described by Susan Jeffords as “individualism as fathering.” Faced with the loss of individual male autonomy in a world of corporate power, men instead focus on the family and their roles as fathers as the sites where they exercise authority. By transferring their masculine ideals away from political and economic independence, men
“can regain a sense of masculine power without having to confront or suggest alterations in the economic and social system that has led to their feelings of deprivation” (Jeffords, Hard Bodies 170).
By emphasizing their roles as fathers and protectors of the family, men can reassert the authority lost through bureaucratization and corporate capitalism.
These discourses of gender and family in the action film have received a great deal of attention in recent years. From Gallagher’s argument that the emphasis on family and fatherhood is a departure for the action genre, to Susan Jefford’s claims that the action film protagonist became more “soft” in the 1990s and learned to express and use their emotions (“The Big Switch”), to Yvonne Tasker’s claim in “The Family in Action” that the recent focus on family is an extension of the adventure film’s concern with intense relationships forged in spectacular action, much recent film criticism has been devoted to untangling the complicated gender and familial relations of the action film. However, while these debates are important, it seems clear that in many cases the complex negotiation of gender and parental roles in these films is resolved and contained by means of its juxtaposition with an evil, racialized threat. As M. Mehdi Semati argues, the “kinder, gentler” and family-oriented action films of the 1990s still rely upon the same racism and Orientalism of the past, perhaps even more deviously than their predecessors:
“The depiction of the Middle East in the 1990s is insidious in that these films promote the racism of the 1980s films in a kinder, gentler multicultural disguise” (235).
So while the films are getting more complicated in terms of gender relations and the importance of the family, these complications are almost always resolved (at least temporarily) through the imperative to kill the racialized villain who threatens the white family. This villain acts as a scapegoat through which the familial tensions of white USA can be if not solved then at least forgotten in the face of a more important threat to the family and nation.
Emphasizing family and fatherhood in the action film, then, does more than display contemporary cultural concerns with gender and parenting. It also provides the easy metaphor of the family as the nation and the father as imperialist patriarch, solidifying the symbolic power of melodrama in the action cinema. The U.S. family has often acted as the representative of the nation, and threats to the nation carry the most symbolic weight when dramatized as concomitant threats to the family (for example, The Birth of a Nation (1915)). By hinging the power of U.S. masculinity on an ability to protect the family, therefore, the melodrama of terrorism in the action cinema articulates multiple threats to dominant U.S. culture. Films like True Lies and Collateral Damage project the U.S. male’s ability to both assert his independence/ dominance over the domestic sphere and simultaneously protect the family and nation from the onslaught of a form of racialized evil, supporting Linda Williams’ argument that melodrama is also a primary means in the United States of addressing issues of race (in Playing the Race Card). Indeed, the melodrama of terrorism insists not only upon legitimate/ illegitimate, good/ evil binary oppositions but the construction of a white United States that must be defended from dark Others. At stake in the action cinema, therefore, is the very dominance of the white U.S. male.
The growing importance of fatherhood in the action cinema also underscores the significance of imperialism in these films as they insist upon the paternal nature of U.S. violence. As Gallagher points out, the action film protagonist we now commonly see is a suffering patriarch. The hero’s failures as a father tend to escalate into crises of national security. He must learn throughout the film to juggle his domestic and heroic responsibilities. This provides an apt metaphor for the post-Vietnam suffering U.S. imperialist. Beset by a culture increasingly concerned with the racist implications of imperialism and wary of the prospect of military quagmires, the U.S. imperialist must assert his ability to balance spectacular violence with paternal benevolence. In a contemporary version of the white man’s burden, the action hero’s display of paternal violence legitimates the idea of a morally just patriarch/ imperialist. The action cinema offers a conception of imperialism supposedly based not on economic expansion but the unquestionably necessary protection of the nuclear family/ nation state. Thus the melodrama of terrorism in the action cinema makes morally legible continuing U.S. military dominance abroad.
It should be no surprise, then, that the preferred protector of this neo-imperialist order is Arnold Schwarzenegger, who offers an alternate discourse of masculinity and nationalism to many of his action star rivals. Much has been made, for example, of Schwarzenegger’s main rival in the 1980s, Sylvester Stallone, and the connections between the Rambo trilogy and national identity. Many critics argue that the Rambo films (especially the second and third, in which Rambo leaves rural Oregon and goes to Vietnam and then Afghanistan) allowed the U.S. male to reassert his decimated sense of identity after the loss of the Vietnam war and projected the need for continuing U.S. military intervention overseas (see for example Tasker, Spectacular Bodies 91-108 and Jeffords, Hard Bodies 28-52). Yet as William Warner argues, the Rambo films equally depict the guilt of U.S. masculinity in the wake of Vietnam:
“Rambo’s unconscious guilt leads him to accept masochistic positions which bring pain and humiliation as punishment for failure” (677).
The fetishistic display of Stallone’s muscled body in the Rambo films often takes place in the context of torture and pain, subjecting an idealized hyper-masculinity to the psychic guilt of Vietnam and the decline of U.S. prestige. This masochistic display, of course, represents another cultural conflict that the action genre solves through its sadistic formulas and conventions. According to Warner,
“Rambo’s histrionic display of his own suffering […] may be a kind of masquerade of weakness designed to assert the new (and all too old) prerogatives of the white American male” (686).
His display of feminized suffering sutures the audience further into a melodramatic celebration of Rambo’s (and the United States’) triumphant reclamation of white U.S. dominance and moral clarity. Nevertheless, the trilogy and Stallone remain embroiled in this sadomasochistic discourse of U.S. failure and redemption.
Schwarzenegger, however, transcends the debates surrounding a fractured post-Vietnam, U.S. masculinity:
“Unlike the tormented Stallone, the nonchalant Schwarzenegger is not haunted by the failure of Vietnam. Rather than dramatize old grievances or wallow in self-pity, [Schwarzenegger’s] Predator (1987) coolly reduces the war to the level of a video game monster from outerspace” (Hoberman 24).
While Stallone as Rambo looks to the past and opens old cultural wounds, Schwarzenegger’s star text offers a politics of optimistic techno-futurism (as the analogy to video games suggests), albeit one with a fascist nostalgia. Early projects such as the Conan films (1982, 1984) and Red Sonia (1985) displace this nostalgia into the realm of fantasy, yet they nonetheless celebrate the authoritarian spectacle of Schwarzenegger’s chiseled and smooth body. As J. Hoberman explains in his discussion of Schwarzenegger’s star text, “Unlike any previous star, he embraces and embodies the covertly admired Teutonic virtues” (25). He epitomizes an Aryan fantasy of white perfection. However, rather than offer his sculpted body to the torture of Vietnam as the ethnic Stallone does, Schwarzenegger’s body projects an undisturbed vision of authoritarianism.
Integral to this vision is the invocation of mechanized imagery in the display of Schwarzenegger’s body. His 1984 film The Terminator, in which he plays a cyborg with a singular and all-consuming mission to kill Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), initiated this discourse of man-as-machine, relying upon his perfectly constructed muscles to connote mechanization. Yet as Hoberman notes, all Schwarzenegger’s films that display his body participate in this mechanization and project a thoroughly modern conception of the body:
"Mapped, quantified, evaluated, the Schwarzenegger torso is less a sex object than an object lesson, recapitulating the post-Renaissance transformation of the human body into something to be manipulated and rationalised, surveyed and regulated, subjected to the institutional discipline of prisons, schools, hospitals." (24)
Thus Schwarzenegger’s use of fetishized, high-tech weaponry in his action films represents an extension of his quantified and mechanical body. He personifies a futurist authoritarian model of the human machine.
Yet throughout the 90s, Schwarzenegger’s star text gradually embraced a softening of his hardened image, primarily through the construction of Schwarzenegger as the ideal loving-yet-authoritarian father. This process is explicitly dramatized in Kindergarten Cop (1990) where Schwarzenegger plays a hard-nosed cop who goes undercover as a kindergarten teacher, imposes discipline on the classroom, and learns to love his newfound fatherly role. In Junior (1994), furthermore, Schwarzenegger comedically carries a child to term in a gender-bending science experiment, highlighting both the feminization of the action hero and an emphasis on fatherhood in Schwarzenegger’s star text. Perhaps most pertinently, in Terminator 2 (1991), Schwarzenegger reprises his cyborg role from the first Terminator; but in the second film his mission is to protect Sarah Connor’s son John, the future leader of the human race in a war against machines, from a more postmodern liquid/ machine killer. The Schwarzenegger cyborg humanizes himself by learning human behavior from John, and in one scene Sarah notes to herself that the cyborg is a perfect, reliable father. He even sacrifices his existence for the good of the human race by lowering himself (and the technology that could destroy the world within him) into a vat of melted steel.
An example of Jeffords’ notion of “individualism as fathering” (discussed above), the Schwarzenegger star text in the last decade has frequently relocated its power and authority into the domestic realm of fathering, revealing that, as Jeffords explains it, the
“emotionally whole and physically healed man of the eighties wants nothing more than to be a father, not a warrior cop, after all” (“The Big Switch” 200).
(Incidentally, it is during this process that rumors began to spread of Schwarzenegger’s intent to enter U.S. politics, perhaps indicating that this authoritarian/paternal discourse helped solidify his successful bid to become the ultimate patriarch: a state leader).
Reinstating the moral occult
This paternal trajectory in Schwarzenegger’s star text continues in Collateral Damage as the film centers on the dual role of action hero and father. The early scenes in the film, after all, establish Schwarzenegger’s character Gordy as the perfect father. Not only is he a fireman who risks his life to save others (as depicted in the opening scene), but we also see Gordy helping his young son construct a sci-fi aircraft, emphasizing his loving attentiveness and alluding to the Schwarzenegger-as-action hero star text: the toy aircraft somewhat resembles the metallic endoskeleton of the android from the Terminator films. One of the few glimpses we get of Schwarzenegger’s aging yet still impressive naked torso, furthermore, comes in an early scene where he playfully showers with his son, juxtaposing his hyper-masculine physique with the everyday domesticity of fatherhood.
To complement this emphasis on the action hero and fatherhood, the pivotal early scene in Collateral Damage in which Gordy’s wife and son are killed depicts the threat of terrorism as a threat to both the family and the nation. The scene interweaves through parallel editing two storylines: Gordy meeting his wife and son at a crowded urban plaza and the terrorist (disguised as a policeman) placing and detonating his bomb as U.S. military and CIA officials enter the Colombian consulate in Los Angeles. The crowded plaza, of course is just on the other side of a thin glass wall from the consulate’s lobby, so as Gordy’s family waits in the plaza, we see the terrorist place his bomb (hidden in a police motorcycle) and the arriving motorcade of generals and government agents. We then cut back and forth between Gordy's arriving to meet his family and the government officials' arriving at the black marble consulate lobby. A scene of traditional nuclear family domesticity is structured into a scene of important governmental and military business, emphasizing the symbolic connection between familial security and national security. As the bomb detonates and tears through both the lobby and the crowded plaza on the other side of the glass wall, an attack on U.S. security literally destroys a typical U.S. family.
Ironically, Gordy’s wife and son are labeled as “collateral damage” because they are not the intended targets. Yet it is their deaths that bear the symbolic weight of the attack and their deaths that provide the narrative conflict for the film. Collateral Damage, then, does more than equate national security and familial security. It uses violence against the nuclear family as a melodramatic trope to enact the nation’s peril at the hands of terrorism.
This scene, therefore, depicts Gordy's failure as a patriarch: he fails to protect his wife and child from danger and, even worse, was perhaps partially responsible for their deaths. The film establishes that, as the mother and child wait for him, Gordy arrives late at the plaza. The mother repeatedly looks at her watch and says aloud, “Where is he?” And as Gordy notes melodramatically later in the film, if he had picked them up on time they would have lived and the tragedy would have been averted. Although this seems a small offense, it nonetheless affirms that
“threats to the domestic space occur [in contemporary action films] because of preoccupied or inattentive fathers” (Gallagher 214).
Gordy's tardiness and failure at a simple domestic task place his family (and, by implication, the nation) in grave danger.
Perhaps the more obvious failure in this scene, however, is Gordy’s failure as an action hero. In a crucial sequence, Gordy arrives at the consulate and parks illegally, prompting him to address the terrorist disguised as a policeman and note that he’ll only be there a few minutes. The cop/terrorist, of course, nods politely but pays closer attention to the arriving government motorcade. Gordy hesitates for a moment, looks back at the strangely quiet policeman, but turns away and waves to his family. In the world of the action film, the hero often evinces a preternatural instinct for danger, an uncanny ability to see what others do not. Yet here the audience must experience the dramatic irony of Schwarzenegger's coming face to face with his nemesis and not recognizing him or the threat he poses.
These failures are symbolically represented in the scene by the visual emasculation of Gordy. As the bomb detonates and Gordy sees that his family is in danger, the moment when the action-hero-as-father must step into action, a distracted taxi driver veers off the road and crashes into Gordy, sending him flying through the air and knocking him unconscious. At the moment he is most needed to fulfill his duties, Gordy is rendered impotent and inert in a genre that rewards only action and movement. And as the taxi literally comes between Gordy and his heroic obligation, we see in two different shots that his sunglasses are knocked off his face and sent flying through the air. The images of his glasses spinning helplessly against the blue sky backdrop points back to and emphasizes Gordy’s previous inability to “see” what was in front of him, his failure perceive the threat to his family and the nation.
This scene, therefore, establishes both the narrative and thematic imperative of the film: Gordy must be redeemed for his failures by seeking justice for both his family and the nation, whose representatives decide that the political situation in Colombia is too sensitive to authorize the CIA agent Brandt to seek out El Lobo. It is at this point in the narrative, however, that Gordy’s righteous claim to vengeance — the melodramatic imperative to vilify and brutalize the terrorists, thereby reinforcing the validity of the family/nation — is tempered by the moral ambiguity of U.S. intervention in a Colombian civil war, as discussed above. The action and violence are few and far between, perhaps reflecting the uneasiness of the film’s moral position in light of its attempt to discuss the terrorists’ ideologies. In fact, the only major extended action sequence before the film’s climax is directed at the cocaine processing plant the rebels use to financially support their war, an easy target for moral violence given the many vilifying discourses of Colombian drug trafficking in U.S. culture.
The moral complexities that engender this uneasy and infrequent violence in an action film, however, only solidify the action hero's fatherly instinct. This is seen as Gordy comes tantalizingly close to fulfilling his murderous mission. After terroristically placing a homemade bomb in the home of Claudio, Gordy walks away and sees a woman and her son walking down the street, the same woman and child that he paternally protected in a public market earlier in the film. Having to choose between warning the mother and child (and thus alerting Claudio to the threat) and letting them die in order to enact his revenge, Gordy chooses the former and no one is hurt in the explosion. The wife and child, furthermore, turn out to be Claudio’s wife and son; Gordy’s warning preserved the integrity of their nuclear family. Although a contrived and clichéd plot twist — the vengeful hero must consider the implications of his actions and make the moral decision that the villain did not — this scene locates the morality of the contemporary action hero in his role as father. It is Gordy’s paternalism and devotion to the family that give him the moral prerogative rather than a clear-cut vilification of terrorism.
The film constructs Gordy’s humanitarianism, however, as another obstacle to be overcome. Later in the film Gordy convinces Claudio’s wife, Selena, to run away to the United States with him and inform against her husband. Bringing her son along, Selena is taken to the State Department where she must identify which major Washington landmark Claudio is currently planning to attack. Staging this as the melodramatic and pathos-filled decision of a wife to choose the good of the society over her loyalty to her family, the film seems to be denying the possibility of an action film climax, focusing instead on the ability of an army of U.S. government agents to locate and stop Claudio, as Gordy passively and domestically tends to the needs of Selena and her son. The moral ambiguities seem to have trumped the vengeful and righteous imperative to ultra-violence. Instead of a merger of the action hero and father, we instead get a sensitive and feminized patriarch who lets the bureaucracy do the violent grunt work for him.
This potentially un-spectacular ending, however, is only a clever ruse. Noticing that Selena shares a unique gesticular tick with the masked El Lobo, Gordy redeems himself as an action hero by solving the puzzle posed by the narrative: it is Selena behind El Lobo’s mask. She is and always has been the terrorist mastermind, and Claudio’s potential bombing is only a diversion for Selena’s attack from deep within the State Department. She has used Gordy’s paternal sensitivity and his moral confusion against him.
If, however, in the opening scenes Gordy fails to see the danger right in front of him, he now recognizes his nemesis and redeems himself. With an emphasis on Gordy’s perception, the film displays in flashback the visual clues leading up to this twist. And, illustrating Gordy’s preternatural sense of memory, he sees what the audience themselves only got a split-second glimpse of: Selena was present at the attack that killed Gordy’s family, disguised (and sexualized) in a blonde wig and using a cell-phone to detonate the fatal blast. Gordy, aware now that a bomb is hidden in Selena’s son’s toy dinosaur, averts the attack as he couldn’t in the beginning. The film literally displays for both Gordy and the audience the solution to the puzzle and the resolution of the moral ambiguity. After resolving these anxieties and celebrating Gordy’s intuition, the narrative can then fully embrace the moral clarity of the action genre and melodrama. And we have no qualms with Gordy quite appropriately using a fireman’s axe to slay both Selena and Claudio.
This ending “solves” Gordy’s and the audience’s dilemma regarding terrorism on a number of levels. Most explicitly, it denies the previous implication of the film that even terrorists are part of traditional families that need to be protected. Just before Gordy recognizes Selena as El Lobo, Selena tries to get her son to join her on a trip to the restroom, a trip that we learn retrospectively is designed to aid her and her son’s escape from the explosion. Yet when Gordy offers to watch her son, and she realizes that the boy could not be taken with her without raising suspicion, Selena leaves him behind, an act which we learn later amounts to the sacrifice of one’s child for a radical ideology. Selena becomes, in other words, a politically monstrous mother, a woman whose commitment to terrorism violates some of the most serious feminine taboos. Rather than fulfilling her expected role as an apolitical woman, she instead reveals herself to be an uncaring mother. This is accentuated after Selena is discovered to be El Lobo, and her demure and feminine personality gives way to a display of hyper-masculine martial arts brutality and murder. Any pretensions to humanity and familial values on the part of terrorists, in other words, are merely acts intended to lure Gordy (and the nation) into a dangerous empathy. Terrorists, instead, unnaturally disregard even the lives of their own offspring.
By implication, Claudio and Selena’s rejection of “natural” parental roles, their masquerade as loving parents, calls into question their claims to a nationalist ideology. Just as Gordy’s duty to his family and duty to his nation are one in the same, Claudio’s and Selena’s disregard for their child casts them as unfit representatives of nationalism. They do not embody the traditional values that both families and nations are supposedly held together with and definitely could not act as a wholesome national parental unit the way, for example, Ronald and Nancy Reagan could. Just as Claudio’s appropriation of a symbol of state-sponsored authority in the opening scene — the policeman’s uniform — is an unnatural and dangerous masquerade, his donning of military uniforms throughout the film becomes a simulation of nationalism rather than an expression of true, paternal, nationalist leadership, as illustrated in an earlier, grotesque scene where Claudio forces a poisonous snake down the throat of an ineffective subordinate. This typical, evil, movie villain brutality underscores the “true” nature of terrorism: underneath a superficial nationalist rhetoric, no matter how justified the grievances, lies a sinister sadism.
In response to this assertion of terrorism as melodramatic evil, the film offers Gordy’s paternal, imperialist authority as the solution to the many dilemmas and ambiguities raised. Deploying a common trope of the action genre, Collateral Damage sets Gordy’s benevolent paternalism in opposition to the ineffective or inhumane efforts of governmental bureaucracy as represented by the CIA agent Brandt (who is unceremoniously executed by Selena in the final scenes). Dismissing the atrocities of U.S. imperialism in Colombia as the effects of Brandt’s overzealous and cynical actions, the film taps into Schwarzenegger’s star text; the narrative positions Gordy as a morally sensitive yet authoritarian (and violent when absolutely needed) model of U.S. participation in developing nations. Gordy’s reward for serving his nation and revenging his family, after all, is Claudio’s and Selena’s Colombian child, who happens to be the same age as Gordy’s son, and who welcomes Gordy’s embrace with open arms despite the fact that Gordy only minutes previously slaughtered the boy’s parents with an axe. Participating in one of cinema’s most pervasive tropes of imperialism and Western hegemony, Collateral Damage exemplifies Ella Shohat and Robert Stam’s observation,
“The in loco parentis ideology of paternalistic gradualism assumed the necessity of White trusteeship” (140).
Literally replacing the Colombian boy’s biological parents with a muscled white patriarch, Collateral Damage demonstrates how the action hero-as-father uses the vilification of terrorism to justify necessary but violent interventions overseas.
The film’s depictions of the moral ambiguities of terrorism and imperialism, therefore, dramatized small but significant cultural concerns pre-9/11 that the good/evil binary opposition represented by terrorism was inadequate in conceptualizing the problem. Gordy’s quest into the heart of the Colombian jungle allegorically presents not just his psychological investigation of the need for personal revenge but a national investigation of the brutalities of imperialism. Resolving these concerns for both Gordy and the audience, however, Collateral Damage vehemently reasserts the need for good/evil rhetoric and a paternalistic interest in foreign nations.
When Collateral Damage was finally released in February of 2002, several reviewers chastised the film for being “tired and outdated” (Major) or a “relic from an earlier (if not kindler and gentler) time” (Ebert). It was seen as a film that “founders on its pre-Sept. 11 assumptions” (Weiskind). One reviewer even notes that, while many other action film stars from the 1980s and 90s have distanced themselves from the genre,
“Only Schwarzenegger, unmovable as Atlas, struggles against the advancing years and changing times” (Berardinelli).
The consensus seemed to be that Collateral Damage represents an outmoded approach to terrorism, that the U.S. public in the wake of 9/11 wanted a more subtle and sensitive approach to the issue of violence and terrorism than can be offered by the spectacle and excess of the action film genre. As David Grove laments, “Will we ever be able to enjoy mindless action ever again?”
While it seems true that Collateral Damage is an outdated addition to the U.S. discourse on terrorism and violence, I don’t think that is it outdated in the way that many of the reviews described. I don’t think that it fails to address a now more politically sensitive and complex U.S. public, despite the numerous and unsubstantiated claims that the U.S. people are somehow more mature and knowledgeable about international terrorism post 9/11. Rather, I think that Collateral Damage simply fails to conform to the new “realities” of the United States’ hegemonic discourse of terrorism, realities that call for even more direct and violent military action and a more vehement articulation of the good/evil rhetoric. Reviewer Neil Smith seems to have acknowledged this when he observed that,
“there’s something slightly distasteful about Arnold [Schwarzenegger] taking matters into his own hands and winning the war against terrorism single-handedly. Such reactionary Reaganism may have made its name two decades ago, but now it just seems naïve, trite, and even a little dangerous.”
As the current administration focuses its rhetoric on garnering support for widespread military intervention and the toppling of states that allegedly support terror networks, the emphasis on individual action in Collateral Damage and the depiction of government bureaucracy as either ruthless (Brandt) or cowardly (Brandt’s politician bosses) doesn’t seem to fit in with the dominant perspective on terrorism. The film, in short, doesn’t go far enough in advocating a broad military deployment against terrorism.
Collateral Damage seems outdated post 9/11, moreover, because it fails to compete with the mass-mediated images of the September 11 attacks. The major cultural work of Collateral Damage is the staging of U.S. cultural anxieties surrounding international terrorism, and then resolving these anxieties by instituting a moral prerogative to excessive violence and to the nation's acting as patriarchal caretaker of infantialized developing countries. It is a melodramatic articulation of moral legibility. Yet what Collateral Damage does clumsily in two hours is accomplished succinctly and powerfully in 90 seconds of home video footage of two planes veering into the twin towers. These images and all the others of the attacks that have come to saturate U.S. culture have taken on such symbolic importance that, by comparison, Collateral Damage seems not too violent or too insensitive but too ignorant about the “true” and evil nature of international terrorism. The myriad images of the attacks have become synonymous with the pathetic suffering of the nation and our own virtuous vision of the United States as the suffering hero. Using the melodramatic mode more efficiently and powerfully than Collateral Damage, they can convince us far better that we Americans are essentially good and terrorists are unquestionably evil. In short, in the drama of nation building and violent imperialism, Collateral Damage took the stage just a few months too late.
1. This can be supported by recently discovered home video footage of the 9/11 attacks in which Czech immigrant Pavel Hlava focuses on and zooms in on a billboard for the film just before he turns his attention to the towers and captures the attacks on film (Glanz 34).
2. This definition of terrorism, of course, is not uniformly accepted. Gibbs, for example, only uses the distinction between legitimate conventional warfare and illegitimate terrorism as one of five determinants in his definition of terrorism, leaving open the possibility for state-sponsored violence to be labeled as terrorism (330). Others such as Perdue and Chomsky focus specifically on state-sponsored violence in their discussions of terrorism. Most attempts to establish an empirical definition of terrorism, however, tend not to discuss the ideological importance of using the term itself. They approach terrorism as an already existing phenomenon that needs definition without acknowledging that the act of definition itself is ideological.
3. To offer a much more recent example of this rhetoric and the melodrama of terrorism, note Tony Blair’s response to the London subway bombings in which the attackers were characterized as “barbaric” thugs waging war on “civilization” itself.
4. The idea that terrorists are irrational brutes is so essential to Western cultures, in fact, that the dominant ideologies cannot even bear minor dissent from this position. Susan Sontag, for example, while still decrying the violence of the attacks as “monstrous,” nonetheless asked in an editorial in The New Yorker, “Where is the acknowledgement that this was not a ‘cowardly’ attack on ‘civilization’ or ‘liberty’ or ‘humanity’ or ‘the free world’ but an attack on the world’s self-proclaimed super-power, undertaken as a consequence of specific U.S. alliances and actions?” (32). Such a position earned her the scorn of many and led Andrew Sullivan to start giving out the “Sontag Award” to critics of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq who he considers unpatriotic or even treasonous. In addition, Ward Churchill has faced similar scorn for applauding the 9/11 attacks and critiquing the United States. The University of Colorado (where Churchill was employed) even opened an investigation on his comments that threatened his tenured position.
5. The decision to move the action of the film from Libya to Colombia is an interesting one. It was mostly likely a decision made to distance the film from the culturally sensitive issue of Middle Eastern terrorism, but it involves the film in the issue of U.S. intervention in South America, which, as Barry Rubin points out, has been traditionally far more violent and oppressive than U.S. intervention in the Middle-East (98). As this fact is little known in the culture, and the film keeps a safe distance from historical specificity, however, it seems likely that the move to Colombia was intended to focus the story on a “generic” exotic nation to serve as the backdrop for a Western story about terrorism. We can also see this displacement of the issue of Middle Eastern terrorism onto a somehow more non-threatening (at least to Americans) form of terrorism in many other films throughout the 1990s: for example, Harrison Ford’s action films of the 1990s dealt with Irish terrorism — Patriot Games (1992) and The Devil’s Own (1997) — Colombian terrorism and drug dealers — Clear and Present Danger (1994) — and post-Soviet Russian terrorism — Air Force One (1997); the Die Hard films focused on German terrorists — Die Hard (1988) and Die Hard 3: Die Hard With a Vengeance (1995) — and South American terrorists — Die Hard 2: Die Harder (1990); the 1997 film The Peacemaker dealt with Balkan terrorists with a stolen nuclear weapon. Similarly, The Sum of All Fears (2002) changed the Middle Eastern terrorists in Tom Clancy’s novel to Austrian neo-fascist terrorists for the film version.
6. This is supported by the second season of the critically acclaimed television show 24. In this season the protagonist, Jack Bauer, must stop Middle Eastern terrorists from detonating a nuclear bomb in downtown Los Angeles while simultaneously saving and reconciling with his estranged daughter. The show focuses on Jack’s role as a failed father and dramatizes how the reconciliation of the white, U.S. family takes place at the expense of the vilification of racialized villains. (This holds true despite the fact that the main villain in the show was revealed to be a blonde, white, U.S. woman who was raised abroad for a time in the Middle East and is engaged to a Middle Eastern man. Unveiling her as the mastermind works less to make the evil of the threat somehow more white and less racial than to reveal the vulnerability of innocent, pure, blonde U.S. women to the evil ideologies of “other” cultures and Middle Eastern men).
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