Cinema is a doorway into another world, but sometimes that world may as well be our own. For many people, it is the first way that they will encounter other cultures, countries, occupations, accents, technologies, ideas, and concepts. It so actively shapes our perceptions of the world that it is hard when that utter killjoy, reality, rears its ugly head and says, ‘Well, guys, actually…’ and explains that time travel is impossible, a cop’s job is mostly administrative, and the best view of the pyramids is from the second floor of the Cairo Burger King.
It is also a way for us to try to present and understand the things that affect, embarrass, or scare us. A lot of people have a movie that they’ve watched and it has helped them get through tough times. When Steve McQueen’s Shame was released, I read a lot of articles thanking the movie for finally presenting sex addiction as something destructive rather than something funny or frivolous.
At the moment the thing that scares a lot of us is terrorism. So what did cinema teach us about that subject? Mostly that no matter how vast the terrorist organisation, it can usually be brought down by the actions of a single hero who, against the odds, will fight his way to the top of a clearly defined hierarchy until he can duke it out, mano-a-mano, with the leader a la Air Force One, Die Hard, Broken Arrow, Executive Decision, The Rock, True Lies, etc. Simply put, we learned that the bad guys always lost and the good guys always won. To look at what cinema taught us about terrorism you need to split it into two distinct eras: Pre- and post-9/11. Pre-9/11, the most famous terrorism movie was Die Hard. If you asked someone on the street to describe a terrorist to you they would not describe someone who looks like yuppie Snape. They would probably have a very particular ethnicity in mind for their terrorist, but that’s a subject for a future article.
The terrorists in Die Hard are Eastern Europeans; classy, cordial and false. They present themselves as freedom fighters trying to make a point when in reality they are simply thieves, a trend that runs throughout the Die Hard series. Cinema taught us that terror isn’t aimless. There is a purpose, even if that purpose is common theft rather than something for a grand ideal.
Jump ahead to post 9/11 and our understanding of terrorism has changed. It’s not the same to make a bang bang shoot-em up movie about a lone hero taking on a group of armed men because we’ve seen it isn’t that anymore. Our old nemesis, reality, showed up and said, ‘Yeah, sorry, the bad guys aren’t English character actors and they’re not thieves who are clouding their true intentions with violence. They’re also not stealing nuclear weapons or kidnapping presidents. They’re killing normal people in movie theaters, restaurants, magazine offices, Planned Parenthood clinics, homes, streets, bars, schools, and so on and so on until the list gets so long that it becomes meaningless.’
In a weird way, terrorism movies used to be fun. The whole Die Hard trope of the lone hero, cut off from resources and back-up, forced to fight their way to victory was always entertaining. On November 13 I watched the trailer for London Has Fallen and saw the city blowing up and people running in panic. I thought that it looked like some awesome, old school fun. And then I turned on the news and Paris was under attack. Cinema lied to us. It couldn’t help us understand terrorism. It couldn’t teach us anything. Television tried with 24 and Homeland but they ended up teaching us that torture is good, Arabs are bad, and sometimes a TV show only has one good season in it. In the end we have to turn to that old sourpuss, reality, and say, ‘Okay, you miserable bastard, lay it on me,’ and wait for cinema to get the right lesson together.