Flight 93 (2006)

On Entertaining Terror: Film v Television

While United 93 was released "too soon" for viewers' comfort, a mix of critically derided films and critically acclaimed series continue to depict the age of terror.

As Paul Greengrass’s United 93 bowed in theaters in April 2006, a common oppositional response was “too soon”. For some people, the timing of the film was ill considered in relationship to the events of September 11, 2001. The phrase “too soon” echoed across the media, perhaps becoming more widespread in mediated forms than it was in reality.

Media figures varied the phrase to give it new life. In the New York Times, Frank Rich asked (and answered), “Too Soon? It’s Too Late for ‘United 93’”, arguing, “the original war on terrorism has been diluted in its execution and robbed of its support from the American public.” In Slate’s “Hijacking the Hijacking: The problem with the United 93 films,” Ron Rosenbaum speculated that the question of “too soon” for films about United 93 and its heroic passengers, should be replaced with the question “Are there too many?” films about United 93.

Batman v Superman and London Has Fallen are action films premised on the age of terror and stirring in their depictions of the choices made by heroes in circumstances of war and retribution. By contrast, Billions and House of Cards merely use terror to boost their protagonists’ antiheroism.

For Greengrass, making the film United 93 was a way “to find meaning in the events of 9/11” ahead of its “fifth anniversary”. That stated intention, which includes an awareness of time and timing, appears in his original treatment/pitch for the film, which Mike Fleming of Deadline reprinted in full with the filmmaker’s permission in October 2013. Greengrass writes, “Well I make films and I believe they have a small part to play, too. And I also believe that sometimes, if you look clearly and unflinchingly at a single event, you can find in its shape something precious, something much larger than the event itself… the DNA of our times.”

The United 93 treatment/pitch is noteworthy for its multifariousness and tonal variety. Greengrass sets the scene of an immediate aftermath of tragedy and the questions therein, then introduces his intentions as an artist (quoted above) and establishes the metaphorical possibilities of the plane and its position in the sky. Next he asks the reader to identify with the passengers, then to “imagine the hijackers”, before throwing us into the “terrible dilemma” the passengers faced when the hijackers’ aims became known. From there, the treatment states his objective to cause viewers to “think very carefully about where we are right now”, acknowledges the ethical dimensions of making this sort of film, and outlines the circumstances necessary for production.

The completed film is the visible result of the filmmaker’s consideration of all of these aspects. Released to critical acclaim, the film is an expertly directed and edited blend of recreation, speculation, and observation, filtered through awareness that the audience will almost certainly know the outcome in advance. Thus Greengrass’s observational shooting style is one of the film’s energizing ironies: the events stoke the viewer’s hope that someone could intervene to save the day while these observed passengers realize it is they who must save the day.

Five years, and another five years, have passed since Greengrass marked that increment of time past a life-changing terror attack. In April 2016, we could look back on a seemingly unquantifiably large body of 9/11 media that has proliferated within film, television, theater, and music, and especially in online forms. In some corners of the Internet, the official history of 9/11 has long since been covered over by questions of intention and deception not present in works like United 93. A free media allows the freedom to ask questions, however circular those questions might be in their reasoning / arguments. It could be said that many who speculate on the events of 9/11 are also looking for “something much larger than the event itself”, but in a very different way than Greengrass intended when he wrote those words of purpose.

Further, the age of terror continues to expand as terrorists too look for something larger than the last event. Enter “worse than 9/11” in a search engine and you see threats and fears tuned to a scale only imaginable because of the lingering memory of an inconceivable attack become reality. In time, terror redefines place. Boston, Jerusalem, Beirut, Paris, Yola, Bamako, Kandahar, San Bernardino, Homs, Brussels, Lahore — these places and their people suffer the devastation of recent acts of terror.

The capacity or tendency for fictional entertainment to involve and/or respond to the onslaught of global terrorism has also seemed to grow. Perhaps terror is so common that “too soon” has lost its meaning. So what comes after “too soon” as an evaluative standard for the appropriateness of terrorism reimagined in media? I would argue that Greengrass offers a model in his treatment/pitch, because he starts with 9/11 as a large and life-changing event and then examines it closely, microscopically, in order to find a large (perhaps larger than the event itself) resulting meaning. Picture this creative process as an hourglass, with the fine, discriminative examination as the intermediary check between the two wide ends of inspiration (real-life terror) and execution (its presence in entertainment).

Any work of entertainment intended to reimagine or depict the age of terror should also to some degree be evaluated in the context of informed definitions of terror. In Wilhelm Heitmeyer and John Hagan’s International Handbook of Violence Research, Volume 1, Fernando Reinares synthesizes existing information about terror from Raymond Aron, Ronald Crelinsten, J.B.S Hardman, Joseph S. Roucek, Thomas Thornton, and Eugene V. Walter in order to outline “three basic traits” that “allow us to distinguish terrorism from other types of violent social interaction.”

According to Reinares, the first basic trait is when the “psychical effects” of the act, “within a certain population or social aggregate, in terms of widespread emotional reactions such as fear and anxiety, likely to condition attitudes and behavior in a determined direction, are out of proportion with respect to its actual or potential material consequences … physical damage to both people and things.” The second trait is that in order to be effective, the violence “must be systematic and rather unpredictable, usually directed against targets selected because of their symbolic relevance within a prevailing cultural frame and in a given institutional context.” The third trait is that “the harming of such targets is used to convey messages and threats that make terrorism a mechanism of both communication and social control.”

There exist many other definitions of terror from additional perspectives, but these traits are useful in considering the dimensions of terrorism within entertainment. Additionally, Reinares’ attention to scale, place, and purpose corresponds to the formal arrangement of narrative that is any filmmaker’s responsibility as a storyteller. An examination of recent examples of films that evoke the age of terror reveals that sometimes the works most derided by critics explore terror in a fuller manner than programs whose reception is comparatively positive. This seemingly inverse relationship further motivates the use of the above considerations as evaluative criteria for terror-related media.

If online aggregators of film reviews are to be believed, there is a strong consensus that Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) is a bad movie. Despite its commercially successful opening weekend, the bad word of mouth surrounding the film’s rollout has already begun to affect its box office staying power and its reputation as a film intended to launch the DC Extended Universe. The first film in that universe, Snyder’s Man of Steel (2013) was criticized for the violent interaction of Superman (Henry Cavill) and villain General Zod (Michael Shannon), which takes place both on a large scale (the destruction of Metropolis) and an individual one (Superman kills Zod).

Batman v Superman begins with Bruce Wayne [Batman] (Ben Affleck) witnessing that destruction and experiencing it from many perspectives: from the outside, from the inside, mindful of the “mass deaths” (Snyder’s words from a 2013 interview with the Japan Times), and intervening to help individuals. Snyder’s staging (of David S. Goyer and Chris Terrio’s script) invites the audience to share these perspectives with Wayne, an initial exposure to destruction that sets up his later choice to go to war with Superman: “Count the dead. It’s thousands of people. What’s next? Millions? He has the power to wipe out the entire human race and if we believe there is even a one percent chance that he’s our enemy we have to take it as an absolute certainty, and we have to destroy him.”

The “one percent” line is provocative for the way in which it seems to redefine Batman’s approach to crime and punishment, as well as its possible allusion to Ron Suskind’s The One Percent Doctrine. Yet it rings true within the context of the skewed proportionality Reinares describes as a component of terrorism. As a statement of readiness, it also responds to the historical memory of the IRA’s missive about the 1984 Brighton bomb blast: “Today we were unlucky, but remember, we only have to be lucky once; you will have to be lucky always.” Batman would rather be lucky always than risk any threat level Superman poses.


Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)

Batman v Superman involves “targets selected because of their symbolic relevance”, and the “cultural frame” and “institutional context” are especially complex because the plot concerns a fight between two worlds that do not share the same rules and powers. Batman and Superman are representative of these distinct worlds, both have double identities, and both bear symbols that mark them as hero and villain, depending on changing perspectives of their actions. All of this, including the fact that mankind will enjoy the resultant peace they reach or the ongoing war of their conflicts, creates within the film an engaging illustration of the doctrine of double effect.

In John Horgan and Kurt Braddock’s Terrorism Studies: A Reader Andrew Silke writes, “in considering the risks associated with the use of harsh measures to combat terrorism, it is worth returning to the story of the Hydra”, in which violence becomes “more destructive and intense” following counteraction. Doomsday, the common enemy that Batman and Superman encounter, is literally born from a combination of threats old and new, born from two worlds and impervious to most weapons.

The conflict of symbolic relevance recedes as Batman and Superman find a couple of shared values, one strictly nominal and the other being the need to stop Doomsday, the ultimate threat. Critics’ charges that the film is incoherently constructed and lacking in humor lose some of their power in light of the overall plot. The mechanics of terror produce grim confoundedness. To inject the movie with jokes and slick transitions might conform more to the Marvel style of feature film comic book stories, but it would also work against this film’s understanding of terror.


London Has Fallen (2016)

Babak Najafi’s London Has Fallen, written by Creighton Rothenberger, Katrin Benedikt, Chad St. John, and Christian Gudegast, is another 2016 release that received widespread negative reviews despite its effectiveness in conveying the experiences and effects of terror. A sequel to Olympus Has Fallen (2013), a film in which the White House was attacked by North Korean terrorists, London Has Fallen begins by showing the effects of that attack on the survivors. Secret Service agent Mike Banning (Gerard Butler), who met the challenge in the first film, now faces a future of being a new father in a violent world. The six security cameras in his child’s nursery suggest that this child will be born into a family for which there’s no such thing as excessive precautions.

As this is a fairly traditional action film, the nursery camera detail and some other plot points like Banning’s relationship to President Asher (Aaron Eckhart) are expressed with some levity. Unlike Batman v Superman, London Has Fallen is situated in the world as we know it, yet the tone of the film vacillates between the seriousness of warfare and terror threats versus the need to appreciate the lighter moments of life while they’re still available. To that end, Banning is about to submit his resignation when he is called into action to protect Asher in London.

The view of terror in London Has Fallen is one in which remote actions have close consequences. The film’s lead terrorist is Aamir Barkawi (Alon Moni Aboutboul), a powerful arms dealer. In Punjab, Pakistan for a family member’s wedding, Barkawi is the target of a drone strike carried out by the US. This strike kills Barkawi’s family members but not Barkawi, and his revenge includes murdering the Prime Minister with poison so that dozens of world leaders will convene in London for the funeral. At this gathering, the world leaders and their respective security teams are the very embodiment of what Reinares calls “targets selected because of their symbolic relevance within a prevailing cultural frame and in a given institutional context.”

Thus, London Has Fallen opens with an admission that war claims some victims strictly because they are related to enemies and/or are in close proximity when an operation occurs. The film also illustrates that the escalation of war in response to operations such as this drone strike comes to involve casualties (these world leaders and their security teams and civilians) who were similarly uninvolved in the initial strike. In London Has Fallen, the concept of warring “sides” is one in which everyone on earth could be implicated and/or eliminated on a long enough timeline of intensifying responses. Critics who write the film off as pure jingoism seem to miss this point.

The well-connected Barkawi orchestrates an operation that utterly devastates the site of a gathering that the media within the film characterize as “the most protected event on earth”. Most viewers choosing to see London Has Fallen will know that this protection will not stop the coming attack, because the movie is named and promoted as a film in which London is hit, in a sequel to a film in which another heavily protected structure was invaded. What distinguishes London Has Fallen from United 93’s narrative foregone conclusion is that most of these expectations have to do with the demands of the form, genre, and franchise.

Television’s Cynical Depictions of Terror

We expect to see the world leaders come under fire, and to see the American President targeted, and to see Banning save the president once more. A line of dialogue from Secret Service Director Lynne Jacobs (Angela Bassett) establishes the besieged characters’ predicament as well as the cinematic task at hand: “It’s one thing to plan for this. It’s another thing to live through it.” Najafi directs the extended attack sequences with attention to the experiential qualities of living through terror. Namely, in the midst of a sudden attack of this large scale and of such thorough planning, there’s no such thing as a safe distance from harm. Further, there’s no way to easily identify the terrorists, as Barkawi has seemingly managed to install moles in every sphere of the city.

Billions creates a picture of Axe not unlike Bruce Wayne at the beginning of Batman v Superman. He’s a spectator to a disaster, who must choose how to respond and to live with the effects of his intervention. House of Cards collapses in an attempt to make its resident baddie and source of audience identification worse than terror’s imagination.

Yes, it’s a stretch to imagine that such ironclad protection could be so completely penetrated by terrorists (in this respect, 24 and Homeland are comparatively realistic), but the aftermath of the attack is staged cogently in the connection of present actions to lasting effects. Because the terrorists have so successfully integrated into the population and security forces, civilians retreat into their homes to stay isolated from threats. The effect is like the depopulated London of 28 Days Later, but here the empty streets are the result of viral fear.

When President Asher is abducted by terrorists who intend to broadcast his execution to the world, his concern is not the physical death, but instead the potential for his execution to be used as propaganda that would live on YouTube and haunt his son for the rest of his life. Asher faces off with his would-be killer, saying “I won’t justify your insanity to make you feel better about yourself.” This climactic section of the film circles back to the first act’s establishment of the retributive cycle of strike and counterstrike. Now, however, lines are drawn to distinguish legitimate acts of war from “the harming of such targets … to convey messages” as the terrorists hope to do via a broadcast of his murder.

Whatever their flaws, Batman v Superman and London Has Fallen are action films premised on the age of terror and stirring in their depictions of the choices made by heroes in circumstances of war and retribution. By contrast, Billions and House of Cards, two television programs that are “certified fresh” (in the parlance of review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes), merely use terror to boost their protagonists’ antiheroism.


Billions (2016)

The first season of Billions sees hedge fund manager Bobby Axelrod (Damian Lewis) attempting to dodge the investigations of Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti), who is the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York in the film’s fictionalized version of the city. Axe, as he’s known, runs Axe Capital, and his supremacy and wealth seem second to none. Rhoades is fixated on taking Axe down, but this mission is complicated by his wife’s position as a psychiatrist / performance coach at Axe Capital. There are many other players and scores of ethically / morally / legally questionable choices on either side of this conflict, but it’s the contextualization of Axe’s rise to power within the 9/11 attacks that is pertinent to this essay.

Axe, whose overall character arc prior to the plot’s beginning is that of a self-made man, is identified as his fund’s only survivor of the attack, having been absent from World Trade Center. At the beginning of the season, this condition suggests some compulsory generosity, in that he continues to financially support the educations of the children of deceased colleagues. None of Axe’s altruism is free of some benefit to himself, however, and much of the drama of the season comes from a secret from his past, one that benefitted him spectacularly.

The revealed secret, conveyed through a couple of forms of media within the series, is that Axe profited from 9/11 as it occurred. Using his financial acumen and common sense to short stocks that would be affected by the attack, Axe committed to doing what he does best and made a fortune. There’s a scene in which Axe, now exposed for his actions, confesses his sins to firefighters who embodied a different sort of risk that day. But his confession carries a sort of boast: that he continued his market play after the reality of the attack was known.

In this expository plot, Billions creates a picture of Axe not unlike Bruce Wayne at the beginning of Batman v Superman. He’s a spectator to a disaster, who must choose how to respond and to live with the effects of his intervention. While the characterization of Axe as an antihero rather than comic book hero is perfectly acceptable within the TV landscape, the inclusion of 9/11 — a real-life traumatizing terror attack — as a means of highlighting the character’s unscrupulousness is wholly unnecessary and done in poor taste.

After all, this New York is already an alternate version of our own, with different financial and political figures in charge. To dip selectively into the real history of the city necessarily invites attention to the why and how of that creative choice. In the present-day plot, Axe commits wrongs that are arguably more intentional, personal, and decidedly inhumane than his decision to profit from tragedy. For Axe, and for Billions, 9/11 is not intended to be considered for meaning or reflection, but rather a perverse sort of window dressing to enhance a lawless character.


House of Cards (2013 – )

The fourth season of the American version of House of Cards contains some concepts more timely and satirically potent than anything the series has dealt with to date. In “FU2016: Foreign Policy’s ‘House of Cards’ Preview”, Reid Standish identified these things succinctly: “Oil prices are sky high. The president of the United States has committed murder with his own hands. The Democratic primary is a heated contest filled with lies and backstabbing, and the Kremlin is on the verge of being overthrown by a cadre of Russian liberal businessmen. Sound like a parallel universe?”

One key to the ongoing success of House of Cards is the writers’ ability to weave new outrageous decisions and actions into President Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) and First Lady Claire Underwood’s (Robin Wright) mutual ascendancy to ultimate power. Season three concluded on a major fracture between the two, which in context of their unstoppable united front, was more shocking than the growing list of careers and lives ended by their endeavors.

Season four plays so close to current events (with the DNC activity looking downright prescient), however, that the already thin line between the show’s fiction and our reality nearly disappears. When a terrorist group called ICO (Islamic Caliphate Organization) becomes important to the plot, viewers will naturally make comparisons to ISIS. In a couple of ways, this direction of plot is an inspired choice.

First, a global threat of this sort creates the possibility that President Underwood will have to act heroically, in the manner that a Hollywood president like Asher of London Has Fallen rises to the occasion. Yet any viewer who has made it to the fourth season of this series knows that heroism is not in Frank’s character, so any hope for valor comes down to the chance that his egoism will produce a positive end. This nod to Frank’s ego is present in the second standout feature of the terror plot, which is a scenario in which homegrown terrorists capture a family in America and threaten their lives. Among their demands is direct communication with Will Conway (Joel Kinnaman), Frank’s Republican rival.

The shifting balance of power between Frank, Will, and Claire, who has met with the terror leader, is fascinating and stokes the imagination of the machinations behind real-life threats. At their low point, Frank and Claire choose to act boldly in order to destroy enemies foreign and domestic. But the final scene of the season, in which the arrangement of the above elements could fail or succeed, fails miserably to make meaning of terror ripped from the headlines.

Frank and Claire watch a live broadcast of the terrorists killing the father of the captured family. The method of murder is as barbaric as those that have appeared too regularly in the news since 9/11. The government and military officials and other political advisors in the room are shocked. Then, the camera slowly focuses attention on Frank, who regales the viewer with another take on the situation: “That’s right. We don’t submit to terror. We make the terror.”

One struggles to imagine a more banal way Beau Willimon could have ended the season. Network, cable, and web series are full of antiheroes, perhaps the ongoing effect of the critical canonization of Tony Soprano. To watch the final seconds of House of Cards’ fourth installment is like realizing that the entire season has been an hours-long Walter White meme.

Vince Gilligan and Gennifer Hutchison of Breaking Bad rolled the dice on the line “I am not in danger … I am the danger” and it worked for antihero White and the situation he was in. Before that was Jim Lahey’s “I am the liquor” on Trailer Park Boys and Judge Dredd‘s “I am the law.” Even Billions has a variation on the phrase, with Axe declaring toward the end of season one, “I am the difference-maker.”

For the line from House of Cards, far worse than its unoriginality and predictability is its instant trivialization of the terror scenario depicted on the series. As written by Willimon and acted by Spacey, “We make the terror” is a rejection that terror has meaning beyond the individual character in power and the viewer admiring him, likely from a place of safety. London Has Fallen focuses the spectator’s mind on the effects of remote acts of war and the online permanence of murder committed and broadcast for propagandistic purposes. House of Cards wants to sell you more Netflix.

House of Cards collapses in an attempt to make its resident baddie and source of audience identification worse than terror’s imagination. Though the execution of the scene is absent of larger meaning, there is something telling about the choice to end a season this way. The decision makers behind House of Cards appear to want to keep viewers’ eyes so fixed on their screen that they ignore the screen within show. The one that depicts the beheading. The one that asks the tough questions.