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The American cinema of terrorism, although coming to prominence primarily in the 1970s amidst high-profile Palestinian terrorist activity, actually dates back to the beginnings of the Cold War. But this early terrorist cinema, centered largely around the Bomb—who had it, who would use it, and when—differs greatly from the terrorist cinema that would follow. Changing world events soon broadened the cinema of terrorism to address emerging international conflicts, including Black September, pre-9/11 Middle Eastern ...
The American cinema of terrorism, although coming to prominence primarily in the 1970s amidst high-profile Palestinian terrorist activity, actually dates back to the beginnings of the Cold War. But this early terrorist cinema, centered largely around the Bomb—who had it, who would use it, and when—differs greatly from the terrorist cinema that would follow. Changing world events soon broadened the cinema of terrorism to address emerging international conflicts, including Black September, pre-9/11 Middle Eastern conflicts, and the post-9/11 "War on Terror." This analytical filmography of American terrorist films establishes terrorist cinema as a unique subgenre with distinct thematic narrative and stylistic trends. It covers all major American films dealing with terrorism, from Otto Preminger's Exodus (1960) to Ridley Scott's Body of Lies (2008).
Posted April 9, 2010
What is terrorism? Is it the use of violence, particularly against civilians, to effectuate political change? If that's the case, why should we limit our definition to lethal aggression practiced by relatively small groups like Al Qaeda and the IRA? Governments constantly unleash deadly force upon innocents: just ask the citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or former inmates of Auschwitz and Dachau.
Australian film-reviewer Robert Cettl raises this and other vital points in the introduction to his "Terrorism in American Cinema: An Analytical Filmography, 1960-2008." It never occurred to me there was a terrorism genre, but Cettl with tremendous care limns its development. It has roots in the spy genre, although the form came to maturity in the 1970s with the rise of the PLO hijackings and such films as "Black Sunday."
Like magicians and filmmakers, terrorists conjure spectacles that both fascinate us. More than Hitchcock or James Bond villains, they parallel movie monsters: as with Dracula, Freddy Kruger, and Jason, they impregnate our minds with inexorable nightmares. As Cettl writes of terrorism beginning the 1970s,
Unlike the war movie, which by its nature allows audiences to divorce themselves from the carnage, the terrorist film depicts an assault upon civilians. The audience can't help but empathize with the victims, and as with the horror movie, experience their pain.
And like the horror movies, terrorist films make morally curious bargains with audiences. Whether they admit it or not, viewers attend terrorist films not just for the depiction of right avenging evil, but also to witness evil wielding bloody violence. The catharsis is amoral. Just as a zombie movie must include the undead masticating on the flesh of the living, a terrorist film must depict the death of innocents.
As with the war and horror genres, the terrorist film until recently was often marked by painfully stark delineations of good and evil.
Despite their often knuckleheaded, jingoistic worldviews, terrorist movies "could almost be considered miniature morality plays. They explored what happens when such an essential human right as self-determination is violated." And yet the conversation is often not between the terrorists and the power they oppose, but between different elements of the West. "[I]f hostages are killed, it is solely the fault of the negotiating (or non-negotiating) party rather than the responsibility of the terrorists themselves."
Cettl points out that immediately following 9/11 there was a dearth of terrorist films. As with the Vietnam War, it was only after some time had passed that Hollywood's cameras were ready to focus on the subject. Unsurprisingly, the Bush administration embraced the Manichean mindset of earlier terrorist films: "Either you're with us or against us." In time, Cettl writes, this position in both politics and cinema gave way to more nuanced and sensitive perspectives. Starting in 2007 came a new breed of films that critiqued the War of Terror, such as "Rendition" and "Redacted," or emphasized religious tolerance like "Traitor." Only a year later came the election of Barack Obama.
"Terrorism" is an excellent contribution to film studies. It identifies, documents, and analyses a genre ignored by most, yet vitally important in understanding the American imagination.