The Deep State Rises: American Cinema and the War on Terror

Jan. 19, 2013, 5:23 p.m.

“You know that day you once told me about, when Gotham would no longer need Batman?” asks Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne in 2008’s The Dark Knight.

“Bruce, you can’t ask me to wait for that,” replies love interest Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal).

“It’s happening now,” insists Mr. Wayne; “Gotham needs a hero with a face.”

Truly great films, like great novels, reflect the anxieties of the time in which they are produced.  Like the residents of Gotham, menaced by enemies they cannot see and do not understand, the American people long for public heroes, for White Knights.  But as in Gotham, the nature of our enemies has proven itself more conducive to clandestine warfare in the shadows and alleyways, violence hidden from view and tucked away in the darkly inaccessible corners of a wilderness of mirrors.

We aren’t ready for Harvey Dent.  Our heroes don’t have faces.

Since September 11th, the realities of asymmetric warfare – wars fought by nation-states against non-state actors – have radically redefined the nature of armed combat.  Advances in weapons technology, particularly explosives and chemical weapons, have enabled small networks of well-equipped terrorists to inflict damage immensely disproportional to their numbers.  One man armed with a canister of sarin gas, unsecured Soviet nuclear material, or (perhaps most frighteningly) an engineered supervirus now has the potential to kill thousands, if not millions, of his fellow human beings.  There are no longer any clear lines of accountability and redress: no red telephone to Moscow over which we can voice our complaints and expect complaints in return.

This is no longer a war led by soldiers in clean-cut uniforms, advancing neatly in formation against a clearly defined enemy.  (We saw how well that strategy worked in 2012‘s The Dark Knight Rises, when Gotham PD’s entire police force marched off to fight Bane’s terrorist network and got trapped for months in an underground prison as inescapable as the mountains of Afghanistan). It’s a war in which Iranian nuclear scientists get assassinated by motorcycle bomb, nuclear centrifuges are disabled by computer virus, and undercover intelligence operatives entrench themselves in terrorist cells before thwarting their deadly machinations.  And most of all, it’s a war of unidentified men in black masks fighting by night, keeping the rest of us safe while the visible authorities disclaim responsibility – and even promise to hunt them down when they go too far.

Sound familiar?

Conservative pundit and film critic Ross Douthat complained in 2008 that American film studios had, in the aftermath of 9/11, succumbed to a paralyzing paranoia reminiscent of the “cynical, end-of-empire 70s.”  Instead of dutifully assembling a line of patriotic propaganda-fests replete with good old-fashioned foreigner-bashing, lamented Douthat, Hollywood had consistently churned out 70s-style anti-government, anti-corporate conspiracy flicks that blamed secretive cabals within America for the rise of terrorism.  “The film industry’s typical take on geopolitics,” contended Douthat, “traces all the world’s evils to the machinations of a White Male enemy at home.” The Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor had been resurrected as Shooter and Syriana; The Manchurian Candidate made a Denzel-driven comeback recentered in the Middle East, but an international weapons conglomerate replaced the Communist Party as the film’s chief villain.  “We expected John Wayne,” bemoans Douthat; “we got Jason Bourne instead.”

To be fair to Mr. Douthat, Act of Valor hadn’t come out yet.  But even absent that particular piece of pro-America agitprop, the auteurs of Beverly Hills have shown themselves perfectly comfortable recreating – and yes, endorsing – the new and unprecedented type of total war necessitated by 9/11.  Much as the anti-establishment message of Apocalypse Now and Dog Day Afternoon eventually gave way to the unabashed patriotism of Top Gun and Red Dawn, so too has the anti-society nihilism of Fight Club given way to Captain America and, well, a reconstituted Red Dawn, featuring North Koreans instead of Soviets this time around and starring Chris Hemsworth rather than Patrick Swayze.  In Captain America and 2012’s The Avengers, the foreboding guys in black camo turn out to be not subversive agents of a corporate conspiracy, but well-intentioned representatives of S.H.I.E.L.D., the protective organization dedicated to saving the world from existential foreign threats.

If it’s unfettered stars-and-stripes heroics Douthat and his fellow conservatives are missing, they need look no further than Liam Neeson. In Taken (2008), former CIA agent Bryan Mills (Neeson) responds to the kidnapping of his daughter – a wholesome ingénue abducted by ugly Eastern European sex traffickers – by rampaging solo across the continent of Europe, wreaking bloody revenge upon everyone from effeminate French politicians to the film’s ultimate villain, a fantastically wealthy Arabian sheikh.  In the course of his revenge tour – a cathartic release of tension for an audience tired of whiny European complaints about our human rights record and hungry for an enthusiastic endorsement of unilateral American interventionism – Neeson tortures a baddie by tying him to an electrified chair and leaving him to fry in a windowless room that looks freshly imported from a CIA black site.

In a half-hearted gesture to the possibility that torture might produce more enemies than it kills, 2012’s imaginatively titled Taken 2 brings back the vengeful families of the Albanian Muslim gangsters Neeson brutally offed in the franchise’s first installment.  “You killed our men… our brothers… our sons,” threatens bearded mob boss Murad, suggesting for a brief metaphorical moment that continued American violence overseas might spike a never-ending downward spiral of retribution and punishment.   “I killed your sons because they kidnapped my daughter,” explodes an unapologetic Neeson – who then proceeds to annihilate everyone a second time before happily reuniting with his family and going home.  One wonders what might happen in Taken 3.

Occasionally the endorsement is less direct, reflected in themes and motifs rather than in-your-face montages of exploding terrorists in turbans.  In this month’s Gangster Squad, LAPD sergeants John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) and Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling) go outside the restrictive confines of the law to take down diabolical mob boss Mickey Cohen.  Reviving a long tradition in American cinema (see The Star Chamber and, well, any superhero movie ever made) of well-meaning figures who subvert established lines of authority and accountability in their pursuit of justice, Brolin and Gosling lead an elite assassination team through the crime-ridden streets of L.A.

“Leave these,” commands Brolin with a gesture at his LAPD badge, “at home. Nobody will ever know what we’ve done.”  Secrecy is paramount, and public recognition unimportant, to these cloak-and-dagger upholders of the law.  As Gosling prepares to shotgun a prostrate criminal, the gangster mumbles in shock, “you can’t shoot me – you’re a cop.”

“Not anymore,” grins a steely-eyed Gosling.  BLAM.  Problem solved.  The movie’s tagline: “To save the law, break it.”

Gangster Squad’s unaccountable cops could just as well be Zero Dark Thirty’s Seal Team Six: righteous executors of justice in a messy, overly complicated world that needs cleaning up by hard men with big guns and no sympathy.  What directors like ZDT’s Kathryn Bigelow and Gangster Squad’s Ruben Fleischer have done is show us what the good guys can really do when their guns are liberated from the cumbersome technicalities of the law and the moralistic eye of public scrutiny.

Yet just as the film industry has proven itself less explicitly anti-American than conservatives fear, its more nuanced representatives have shown themselves capable of societal self-reflection – and guarded self-criticism –  to an extent liberals can appreciate.  Hollywood has adeptly restructured an age-old literary leitmotif – the hero who goes so dangerously far in fighting evil that he eventually becomes the evil himself – to fit a contemporary cultural moment anxious about the corrosive influence of the deep state on American life.

The Lord of the Rings has its Boromir and Star Wars has its Anakin Skywalker as surely as America has its Abu Ghraibs and Guantanamos.  “What would I do without you?” hisses Heath Ledger’s Joker to Batman during a violent interrogation in which our favorite masked vigilante smashes the Joker’s head into a steel table and crushes his hand under a gloved fist; “you… you complete me.”  The Joker is Batman’s creation as much as Batman is his; the morally compromised hero and the anarchic purveyor of chaos each serve as the other’s raison d’être.  Director Christopher Nolan, no acolyte of the liberal orthodoxy, nonetheless pays homage to the old Greenwaldian argument that violent counterterrorism, like any other force, tends to produce an equal and opposite reaction.

Peter Berg draws similar conclusions in his harrowing 2007 drama The Kingdom, a chronicle of the cultural clash between Saudi and American investigators in the aftermath of a horrific Khobar Towers-style bombing at an American expat housing compound in Saudi Arabia. The film opens rather as one might expect it to: Lots of innocent American bodies get strewn about into bloody fragments, a respected FBI agent dies, and as American investigator Janet Mayes (Jennifer Garner) begins to cry, Special Agent Ronald Fleury (Jamie Foxx) leans in to whisper reassuringly in her ear: “we will kill them all.”

Fleury and his team, of course, skillfully proceed to track down terrorist mastermind Abu Hamza in his heavily armed redoubt, machine-gunning countless jihadists along the way.  In the film’s bloody denouement, Hamza and his grandson are both killed, leaving his daughter and granddaughter sobbing in the charred remains of what had once been their home.  “Don’t fear them,” murmurs the mother to her child as Foxx and team depart; “we will kill them all.”  Thus does Berg bookend the film’s heartening shoot-’em-up climax with a chilling coda, adumbrating the shadowy outlines of a future filled with mutual vengeance and marked above all by the everlasting absence of a meaningful peace.

2012’s Argo is similarly subtle, embodying neither the unblinkered jingoism of the classic Middle Eastern hostage flick nor the self-flagellating internal doubt so often attributed to the weak-kneed liberal media.  Conservatives who left the theater in disgust after Argo’s opening exordium, which contextualizes the Islamic Revolution against Operation Ajax and the CIA-orchestrated installation of the brutally autocratic Mohammad Rezā Shāh Pahlavī, would have missed out on just under two hours of American ingenuity triumphing over Iranian fundamentalism, capped by the inspiring image of returning CIA hero Tony Mendez (director Ben Affleck) walking past a white picket fence into a suburban home proudly bedecked with fluttering American flag.

Argo takes the time to understand the origins of anti-Americanism but doesn’t cave when faced with it.  In the course of his quest to rescue six innocent U.S. Embassy employees trapped in revolutionary Tehran, Affleck’s conflicted yet persistent Mendez confronts State Department idiocy (“Or you could just send in training wheels and meet them at the border with Gatorade,” he responds to a particularly harebrained scheme involving bicycles and the Turkish border) with the same understated tenacity with which he faces down the bearded zealots of the Revolutionary Guard.  Confronted by a fanatical pro-censorship bureaucrat in Iran’s totalitarian Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, Mendez doesn’t deliver a full-throated disquisition on American rights and values; he listens patiently, nods, and calmly takes the next step in getting his fellow citizens home.

Affleck’s pragmatic, ideology-less direction of Argo reflects a new set of cinematic values and strategies shaped by the tide of cultural evolution since 2001.  Certain themes resonate throughout the spectrum of post-9/11 action filmography: The amorality of warfare in an age of uncertainty; the need to keep the American public uninformed of the actions that keep them safe, lest they balk at those actions’ necessary dangers; the importance of secrecy, shadows, and unaccountability in fighting a new kind of terrorist; the essential rightness of the good guys, even when they act beyond the restrictions of law and social convention and even when they feel morally conflicted.  Justice is quick, swift, and clean: it’s telling that the most we see of national archenemy Osama bin Laden in Zero Dark Thirty is a hooked nose protruding from the depths of a body bag.

These new values are, of course, both external influences on and manifestations of our own extant beliefs.  Hollywood tells us what we should think as often as it reinforces what we already think, leads as often as it follows, guides as often as it reflects.  It is American society’s lodestar as surely as it is our vanity mirror.

The disjuncture here, of course, is that, as the timeless Alfredo reminds us in Cinema Paradiso, “life isn’t like in the movies. Life is much harder.”  In real life, there’s collateral damage.  In real life, there isn’t always a happy ending.  In real life, there are no credits to roll at the perfect plot-driven moment.

The challenge today’s audiences face, then, is recognizing and grappling with the moral dilemmas our best films interrogate while simultaneously acknowledging those films’ idealization of a more complex reality.

So to dismissive law-and-order conservatives weaned on skepticism and suspicious of the silver screen, take a second look at the popular culture you thought you hated.  And to aspiring Hollywood liberals, curb your enthusiasm: the films you love and the politics you hold dear may not mesh as smoothly as you once hoped they might.

“Some men,” observes Alfred (Michael Caine) in The Dark Knight, “aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.”

Whether that enemy is the Joker or Al Qaeda, mob bosses from the East Coast or terrorists from the Eastern Hemisphere, it’s faceless heroes who are still fighting society’s battles today.  What Hollywood’s better directors are asking us is this: are we ready for Harvey Dent?  Do we still need our Dark Knights?  And if so, are we morally okay with that?

At the conclusion of The Dark Knight, Commissioner Gordon explains to his young son that Batman is “the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now.”

He had it backwards.  The Dark Knight may be the hero Gotham needs right now – but this city deserves better.

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