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Character assassination: Hollywood tries to overcome the one-dimensional portrayal of terrorist villains by going inside their hearts and minds.

TERRORISTS HAVE BEEN A HOLLYWOOD STAPLE SINCE Hitchcock introduced the mad bomber in Sabotage (1936) and unleashed foreign sleeper agents on American landmarks in Saboteur (1942). When the Cold War ended and nobody wanted to see thrillers about Russian spies or KGB agents, international terrorists and drug dealers became our two favorite movie villains, and after 9/11 both Washington and Hollywood decided to make terrorists public enemy No. 1.

Truth and subtlety being early casualties of the war on terror, our politicians and filmmakers have drawn these enemies of the state as two-dimensional demons, casting those who would attack us as murderous madmen who despise our freedom. We do not need to understand such villains, only defeat and destroy them.

And yet, more than five years into the war on terror, a number of recent films have dared to look beyond the demonic cutouts fashioned by our politicians and screenwriters and instead inquire about the humanity and motivation of those willing to plant or carry bombs onto buses, planes, and schoolyards. Suddenly Western civilization's blood-thirsty archenemy is being given a human face, as well as a backstory that might explain why he (or she) would turn upon us with such rage.

First the small documentary The President Versus David Hicks (SBS Television, 2004) tells the story of an Australian father following the trail of a son who had joined the Taliban and been imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay. Without any protests of innocence, the film seeks to take a long hard look at someone who became one of Gitmo's "unlawful combatants," and the picture that emerges is not that of a monster.

There is a similar shortage of monsters in Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad's prize-winning Paradise Now (Warner Independent Pictures, 2005), which tracks the final days of a pair of garage mechanics preparing for their mission as suicide bombers. There is no praise for such madness in Abu-Assad's meticulous account of these fictional bombers, nor any denial of the horror of their crime. But there is also no avoiding their humanity.

There are, unfortunately, monsters aplenty in Michael Winterbottom's docudrama The Road to Guantanamo (Roadside Attractions, 2006), but they are Gitmo's keepers, not its inmates. Based on the account of three British Muslims wrongly captured in Afghanistan and held for more than two years in America's Cuban gulag, Winterbottom's tale of cruel abuse and blinding bias takes a hard look at the monstrous and self-destructive ways democracies can overreact to the threat of terror.

In Joseph Castelo's decidedly less nuanced The War Within (Magnolia Pictures, 2005), Pakistani bomber Hassan (Ayad Akhtar) has become a man possessed by monstrous hate. But his simmering rage is not born of religious zeal or radical ideology. It is the fruit of his kidnap and torture by antiterrorist forces. An innocent student who had only wanted to sample the West's modern bounty, the brutalized Hassan now wishes to terrorize those who terrorized him.

THAT TERROR BEGETS TERROR IS THE LESSON other movies as well, movies that also remind us that those carefully taught to hate are often seen as heroes and martyrs.

In Ken Loach's The Wind That Shakes the Barley (IFC First Take, 2006), a young Irish physician (Cillian Murphy) joins the IRA and initiates a ruthless and unending campaign against British occupation after seeing a gang of "Black and Tans" (soldiers) beat a boy to death. And in Phillip Noyce's Catch a Fire (Focus Features, 2006), real-life South African guerrilla fighter Patrick Chamusso (Derek Luke) had been a peace-loving father and husband trying to survive under apartheid until he was falsely arrested and tortured by security chief Col. Nic Vos (Tim Robbins). Then a humiliated and enraged Chamusso joins the African National Congress and sets out to blow up a major refinery.

In much the same way, the protagonist of V for Vendetta (Warner Bros., 2005) is transformed into a mad bomber by the cruel abuse he suffers at the hands of a paranoid regime. In the Wachowski brothers' translation of Alan Moore's graphic novel about a Big Brother Britain in 2020, the masked anarchist known as V (Hugo Weaving) wages a one-man bombing campaign because "People should not be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people." The terrorist, created by his own nation's reign of terror, is transformed into a freedom fighter.

Five and a half years after 9/11, this recent crop of terrorist films could mean Americans are growing weary of the simplistic politics and cookie-cutter formulas of the war on terror. Monstrous images of terrorists may be useful to filmmakers and politicians who want to thrill or frighten us, but they do little to help us restrain the temptation to use terror as a tactic against terror.

In the mind of a terrorist the world is split into two irreconcilable camps, and there is no way for those of us among the righteous to negotiate with those in the camp of the fiends. When our politicians and producers serve up a menu of terrorist tales mirroring this mindset by dividing the world into a battle between freedom-loving people and mad villains, they are training us to think like terrorists, to spurn reflection and dialogue, and to deny our opponents' humanity and rights. As a result, our speech begins to sound like the rantings of madmen.

JESUS, WHO HAD A ZEALOT REBEL AMONG HIS disciples, offers a different path. Instead of demonizing our enemies, he encourages us to love them. At the very least this means we must try to see and understand them, recognizing their humanity and rights, and hearing their complaints. And when we are tempted to draw a line in the sand dividing the world into freedom-loving people and diabolical monsters, we should remember to look at the plank (or bomb or secret prison) in our own eye and recall that many of the terrorists we fear and hate were begotten by antiterrorist policies that undermine our democratic freedoms.

The first step in the war on terror is the choice not to make more terrorists.

By PATRICK MCCORMICK, professor of Christian ethics at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington.
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Title Annotation:culture in context
Author:McCormick, Patrick
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Date:Feb 1, 2007
Words:1025
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