General Devereaux (Bruce Willis) delivers lines in 1998 in The Siege echoed on September 11, 2001 by President George W. Bush.

A special U.S. military task force captures a fundamentalist Islamic cleric, a terrorist leader, in a covert operation. This sets the film’s events, terrorist attacks on New York City, in motion.

To release their leader and show vengeance towards the U.S., small fundamentalist Islamic terrorist cells target New York with bombs.

The first attack with casualties is the bombing of a bus.

Anthony “Hub” Hubbard (Denzel Washington) leads a joint FBI/NYPD antiterrorist task force.

The FBI/NYPD task force is baffled by the terrorist demand to “release him.” Imitating real life problems in cooperation between some fifty counterterrorism agencies, as discussed by The 9/11 Commission Report, the film’s hero soon learns the difficulty of sharing information and getting cooperation between different government agencies in counterterrorism.

Elise Kraft (Annette Bening) is a CIA operative who has close ties to the suspected terrorists.

Terrorists attack a Broadway theater, killing and injuring dozens of people.

The Siege reminds viewers of the reality of terrorism: attacks have a human toll.

Also the film’s hero, FBI agent Hubbard, is slightly hurt in an attack.

James Bond films in the 1960s introduced spectacular nonstop action, with a touch of humor, and foreign villains who often were at least somewhat insane. These ideas have been repeated in action-adventure films. The first actor to play James Bond on the big screen was Sean Connery.

Action-adventure films have predictable characters. An evil, often foreign, villain threatens the white male hero and his society. In True Lies Arab terrorist Salim Abu Aziz (Art Malik), a mad and angry man, threatens the U.S. ...

… while it is the hero who performs the film’s justified killings. Agent Tasker (Arnold Schwarzenegger) brutally kills dozens of Arabs, for example, by breaking their necks, torching them to death, and by shooting them dead with a rocket launcher and automatic rifle.

In Die Hard, Bruce Willis’s character John McLane rejuvenated the one-man war machine hero of the 1980s. His physique and weapons did not quite match those of Rambo and he was a man whose marriage was in trouble. He fought for his family and country. John McLane also relied on one-liners, a familiar method from the James Bond films.


Civil society under siege —
terrorism and government response to terrorism in
The Siege

by Helena Vanhala

“Make no mistake, we will hunt down the enemy, we will
find the enemy and we will kill the enemy."
— Actor Bruce Willis as General William Devereaux
The Siege (1998), 20th Century Fox

"Make no mistake, the United States will hunt down and
punish those responsible for these cowardly attacks."
— President of the United States George W. Bush, September 11, 2001

When 20th Century Fox released The Siege in movie theaters in November 1998, protesters challenged the film’s plot device of Middle Eastern villains motivated by their Islamic faith.[1][open endnotes in new window] Even when the film was in production, Arab-American organizations criticized it for reinforcing U.S. stereotypes of Muslims and of Islam as a religion of terrorism. As a result of this criticism and a meeting with representatives of Arab-American organizations, the movie producers made some changes to the movie, but they did not change the script to replace the Muslim terrorists with domestic terrorists, as had been suggested (CNN, Bay, 1998, November 10). The film’s director, Edward Zwick, defended the film by stating that art should be provocative. 20th Century Fox further defended the film by releasing a statement declaring:

“This movie is not an anti-Muslim but an anti-prejudice film, and shows the tragic consequences of racism" (Mail & Guardian online, Worsdale, 1998).

The view of the film as an anti-prejudice film was further promoted in the words of the film’s hero, FBI agent Anthony Hubbard (played by Denzel Washington) talking about Arab-Americans:

“They love this country as much as we do.”

In this essay I analyze to what extent the portrayal of international terrorism, in particular fundamentalist Islamic terrorism, in The Siege compares to the political and social construction of modern international terrorism of the late 1990s as well as to the official U.S. interpretation of international terrorism, as published in the annual Patterns of Global Terrorism reports by the U.S. Department of State, and to the events that led to the September 11, 2001 attack against the U.S.

Not your average Hollywood film

The Siege opens with footage of a bombed Marine base in Saudi Arabia, similar to the 1983 Beirut attack on Marine barracks and the later 1996 fuel truck bombing outside a U.S. housing facility in Saudi Arabia. The plot is introduced immediately when the film moves to show how, in a covert operation, a special U.S. military task force captures an Iraqi cleric. In retaliation, his Middle Eastern followers start setting off bombs in Manhattan in their efforts to free their radical fundamentalist Muslim leader. Small terror cells, from one to three members, act independently of each other in New York City, each cell launching attacks after the success or failure of another cell of the main group. The terrorists bomb a bus, a Broadway theater and the headquarters of the FBI counterterrorism task force, killing hundreds of citizens. But they fail in the bombing of a school and in their final attack, the bombing of a citizens’ march protesting martial law and the detainment of Arabs.

The FBI, CIA, NYPD and U.S. Army all become involved. The plot portrays conflicts and distrust among these agencies' representatives, reflecting real life trouble among the country’s some fifty counterterrorist agencies. The film’s protagonist, Anthony “Hub” Hubbard (played by Denzel Washington) leads a joint FBI/NYPD antiterrorist force. He works in partial co-operation with a CIA operative, Elise Kraft/ Sharon Bridger (played by Annette Bening), who first introduces herself as Elise Kraft, hiding her real name as well as her own close connections to the suspected Arab terrorists. General Devereaux (played by Bruce Willis) further complicates Hubbard’s efforts when the General implements martial law. The narrative emphasizes the unsavory aspects of Devereaux' character, especially showing that he has no respect for the U.S. Constitution, that he is over-zealous in trying to resolve the matter his own way, and that he had been the brains behind the Muslim religious leader’s capture, which he has kept a secret from the President.

The Siege clearly takes a much darker approach to terrorism than any other film with terrorist themes that was in the annual top fifty domestic box-office in the two decades prior to the September 11, 2001 attack.[2] It largely relies on creating a mood and fear of terrorism. Its focus is on the aftermath and social consequences of terrorist attacks rather than on reveling in portraying explosive fireworks, bloody massacres or detailed killings of villains. The film does portray one bus explosion as it happens and some minor counterterrorism attacks in New York City, but it also addresses the emotional impact of terrorist attacks by showing the after-attack destruction of the film’s terrorist attacks. This includes showing the attacks’ human toll and how that impacts society and some of the film’s main characters.

But The Siege still relies on the use of film villains familiar from other films on terrorism, that is, terrorists who are on a crusade against the United States. However, the script then revolves around the threats that come from government responses to terrorism, that is, responses that damage civil liberties and civil society. The plot's conclusion deals with what happens to citizens and society when the U.S. government sees the country as a target of terrorists attacks and takes action to protect the country, but does it using such extreme actions that U.S. citizens themselves become targets. In other words, the main threat in the film is not actually international terrorism per se. Rather, the plot explores how shifts in the country’s foreign policy can work against its own security, in this particular film bringing old U.S. allies to the U.S. to attack the country on its own soil.

In contradiction to a more traditional Hollywood portrayal of terrorist villains, the film’s foreign villains are not insane individuals but people who have a clear terror campaign as well as clear plans of how to carry it out. They present a threat to U.S. society that is uncomfortable to viewers in the sense that the threat the film describes is believable. In fact this true U.S. nightmare was realized in a similar but even more horrifying form on September 11, 2001, when nearly 3,000 lives were lost. Real life imitated this 1998 film when in the aftermath of the 9/11 attack, many civil liberties were lost as a result of government responses to a terrorist attack against the U.S. on its own soil.

Action-adventure films and terrorist villainy

The Siege was not the first, nor the last, Hollywood film to portray Arab terrorism as a threat to the United States. Arabs as well as other foreigners and ethnic minorities are familiar villains from action adventure films, which have been Hollywood’s main domestic and foreign products since the 1980s (Maltby, 1998). As Neale (2000: p. 52) points out, the term “action-adventure” primarily refers to the action films of the 1980s and 1990s, and they all have common ingredients:

“a propensity for spectacular physical action, a narrative structure involving fights, chases and explosions, and in addition to the deployment of state-of-the-art special effects, an emphasis in performance on athletic feats and stunts.”

Although the action-adventure classification as a film genre did not become part of the popular culture until the 1980s, the 1960s had already introduced spectacular non-stop action with the screen arrival of James Bond. The Bond films, which at very first were considered to be B-films in the U.S., set the standard for big-event action-adventure films which have repeated ingredients, including a simplified characterization of villains, usually foreign and to some degree insane. At the end of each film the white hero returns the balance of power, the last shot showing Bond’s departure from the screen with his latest female conquest.

Action-adventure films typically follow the classical Hollywood cinema format, having predictable characters and storylines, and a predictable final clash between the hero and the villain, that is, after a one-on-one confrontation the hero kills the villain. Audiences of James Bond, Die Hard, True Lies and other action-adventure films know the traditional formula thoroughly and expect to have, as Welsh (2000: p. 169) puts is,

"wild but predictable characters, laconic heroes sometime supported by prop partners, male or female, and designing, inhuman villains motivated by evil intent and a lust for power, always posing a threat to civilization or order."

In his (or seldom her) attempt to save the day, the hero, who is often muscular and over-sized, is faced with

"wicked villains, terrorists, mad bombers, anarchists, power-hungry despots, or crime lords" (Welsh, 2000, p. 170).

Parenti (1992) points out that according to the genre traditions, the hero is traditionally a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant male who is saving the Western civilization from threats to its structures and way of life. The antagonist is usually a foreigner, and often his skin color is darker than the skin color of the white protagonist. Parenti (1992) lists Native Americans, black Africans, African-Americans, Russians, Arabs, alien monsters and evil cosmic powers as familiar Hollywood villains. As a character the villain is typically depicted as devil, subhuman, sadistic, anti-American, anti-freedom, anti-capitalist, and of an anti-Judeo-Christian religion (Welsh, 2000; Parenti, 1992; Schatz, 1994).

As Wasko (1994) points out, Hollywood films are foremost commodities and have been recognized as such for a long time. In today’s extremely competitive market economy, media conglomerates, whose subsidiaries film studios are, fight against losses by investing in products and formulas that have brought profits in the past, such as films of the action-adventure genre. Film genres regularly follow the traditional classical Hollywood cinema narrative structure but also respond to the prevailing political environment, as well as to changes in public opinion and audience interests. This is also the case with the action-adventure film genre.

When the Cold War started to crumble, patriarchal and hyper-masculinized one-man killing machines played by Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Chuck Norris (Belton, 1994; Jeffords, 1994) gave way to a new type of a hero of a new world order. The new hero’s physique and weapons did not match that of the previous heroes. Furthermore, he was accompanied with an important adult relationship and even children, and he entertained audiences with one-liners, imitating the lighter touch of James Bond films. The first to enter the screen with box-office success and to set the format for future action-adventure heroes was Die Hard (1988) by 20th Century Fox, Gordon Company and Silver Pictures, which introduced Bruce Willis as New York City police lieutenant John McClane. Also the villain received a new wrapping: Hans Gruber (played by Alan Rickman) was a smart, well educated European who knew exactly what he was doing when he tried to rob a Japanese company in the United States, effectively and creatively concealing the robbery as an international terrorist attack. The new hero was vulnerable because of his family. Furthermore, he bled as any of us do, but was still capable of taking his opponents out of the game one by one. This new type of hero was introduced on the big screen in a variety of roles from a government agent, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger in True Lies in 1994, to a U.S. President, played by Harrison Ford in Air Force One in 1997. While the new hero relied as much, if not more, on his intellectual powers than on his muscle power, unfortunately the intellectual villain of Die Hard rather stayed as an exception within the Die Hard-series than a prototype for future action-adventure film villains.

While foreign villains have been attacking the U.S. on the big screen for decades, foreign terrorists do not usually appear in the most commercially successful action-adventure or thriller films. From the Iran Hostage Crisis (1979-1981), which introduced the phenomenon of international terrorism to the big U.S. public in news headlines, to 9/11, foreign terrorism was a central theme in the top fifty films of the annual domestic box-office less than twenty times.[3] Arab terrorism was the most popular with five films, its greatest competition coming from four films that drew their theme from the conflict in Northern Ireland.[4] Commercial films introduced Arab terrorist villains in two films in the 1980s: Iron Eagle (1986; the year’s #39 in the domestic box-office) and Delta Force (1986: #49), both international co-productions; and three films, each by a Hollywood major, in the 1990s: True Lies (1994: #3), Executive Decision (1996: #24) and The Siege (1998: #48).

While The Siege did poorly in the domestic box-office when it was released in 1998, audiences found it at rental stores in the aftermath of the 9/11 attack. The VHS version of The Siege finished in the top 200 the week following the attack and was still in the top 250 a week later. The movie's DVD version also attracted renters (Video Software Dealers Association, 2001, September press release, no longer available online). Though the film’s events are reminiscent of the events of 9/11, the film still offers a typical action-adventure film ending which is more utopian than what occurred in the post-9/11 social reality. As genre traditions require, the film’s conclusion reproduces and maintains the prevailing order that has been attacked. The film’s ending even restores racial justice, rejecting the film’s overzealous General’s attack on civil liberties, including the civil liberties of ethnic minorities. In addition, the film offers a true Hollywood ending: the hero kills the foreign terrorist villain.

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