5-2 | Table of Con­tents | http://​dx​.doi​.org/10.17742/IMAGE.TGVC.5-2.7 | Riegler PDF


By draw­ing upon Siegfried Kracauer’s con­cept of cin­e­ma as a “mir­ror” of soci­ety, this arti­cle explores the impact of the “ter­ror years” since 2001 on US cin­e­ma. Hol­ly­wood was the main cul­tur­al appa­ra­tus for cop­ing with 9/11, which had left Amer­i­cans strug­gling in the “desert of the real” (Žižek). Visu­al con­tent sim­pli­fies trau­mat­ic events like the ter­ror­ist attacks for audiences—often express­ing them in sim­ple Manichean black and white terms and there­by offer­ing moral guid­ance, uni­ty, and a sense of des­tiny. Hollywood’s response to 9/11 includ­ed all these dif­fer­ent aspects: It appealed to an “unbro­ken” spir­it, strove to reassert the sym­bol­ic coor­di­nates of the pre­vail­ing Amer­i­can real­i­ty, and mobilised for a response to new chal­lenges. With time pass­ing, Hol­ly­wood also incor­po­rat­ed the mount­ing doubts and dis­sent asso­ci­at­ed with this process. As the review of relat­ing movies of the “ter­ror years” demon­strates, the Amer­i­can film indus­try has exam­ined, processed, and inter­pret­ed the mean­ing of the ter­ror­ist attacks in great vari­ety: Rang­ing from mere­ly atmos­pher­ic ref­er­ences to re-enact­ments, from pro-war pro­pa­gan­da to crit­i­cal self-inquiry.

Prenant appui sur le con­cept de ciné­ma comme “miroir” de la société chez Siefried Kra­cauer, cet arti­cle explore l’impact des “années de la ter­reur” sur le ciné­ma améri­cain depuis 2001. Hol­ly­wood fut un out­il cul­turel cru­cial dans la ges­tion du trau­ma­tisme du 11 sep­tem­bre, trau­ma­tisme qui a sem­blé laiss­er les Améri­cains se débat­tre dans “le désert du réel” (Žižek). Le con­tenu visuel des films met à la portée du pub­lic des événe­ments trau­ma­tiques comme les attaques ter­ror­istes (sou­vent en ter­mes manichéens) ; ce faisant il crée une ori­en­ta­tion morale, empreint d’un sen­ti­ment d’unité et de des­tinée. La réponse d’Hollywood au 11 sep­tem­bre s’est faite sous dif­férents aspects : celui d’un appel à l’esprit nation­al, celui d’une réaf­fir­ma­tion des points car­dinaux sym­bol­iques de l’identité améri­caine dom­i­nante, et celui de l’instrumentalisation du film en ver­tus de l’idée de rassem­ble­ment pro­pre à réa­gir à de nou­veaux enjeux. Au fil du temps, Hol­ly­wood a égale­ment incor­poré l’accroissement des doutes et des oppo­si­tions qui ont accom­pa­g­né ce proces­sus. Comme en témoignent les cri­tiques des films des “années de la ter­reur”, l’industrie améri­caine de la ciné­matogra­phie a exam­iné, digéré, et inter­prété le sens des attaques ter­ror­istes sous divers­es formes, allant de sim­ples références atmo­sphériques à la recon­sti­tu­tion his­torique, en pas­sant par la pro­pa­gande de guerre et la cri­tique exis­ten­tial­iste.

Thomas Riegler | Vien­na

Mirroring terror”:
The impact of 9/11 on Hollywood cinema

Introduction: “Let us look in the mirror”

In a 1927 essay film the­o­rist Siegfried Kra­cauer stat­ed: “Films are the mir­ror of the pre­vail­ing soci­ety” (McCormick, Guen­ther-Pal 99). Again in 1948, he rein­forced this argu­ment: “Films sup­ple­ment real life. […] They stir our aware­ness of the intan­gi­ble, and they reflect the hid­den cours­es of our exis­tence. They point out sit­u­a­tions that are often dif­fi­cult to grasp direct­ly but show, under the sur­face, what we think about our­selves. […] Films mir­ror our real­i­ty. Let us look in the mir­ror” (Von Moltke, Raw­son 72). In the course of this arti­cle, Kracauer’s theme of the cin­e­mat­ic mir­ror is adapt­ed to sort out var­i­ous man­i­fes­ta­tions of socio-polit­i­cal anx­i­eties linked to 9/11 as well as the pro­cess­ing of the ter­ror relat­ed trau­ma and the reaf­fir­ma­tion of America’s ide­o­log­i­cal under­pin­nings (indi­vid­ual and eco­nom­ic free­dom, faith, fam­i­ly). As Kra­cauer indi­cat­ed, this engage­ment is less overt or out­spo­ken, but con­veyed indi­rect­ly via metaphor, sen­ti­ment, and atmos­phere. Read this way, “under the sur­face,” the post 9/11 Hol­ly­wood pic­tures express how US soci­ety and cul­ture under­went pro­found changes since 2001: From free­dom towards secu­ri­ty and para­noia, from per­ceived sta­bil­i­ty towards uncer­tain­ty.

To start with the ori­gins of the cin­e­mat­ic depic­tion of ter­ror­ism, its mod­ern understanding—as a form of polit­i­cal­ly moti­vat­ed vio­lence aim­ing to achieve mass coverage—was first adapt­ed in the 1970s. Back then ter­ror­ism had not yet struck the US direct­ly, the enter­tain­ment indus­try looked abroad for inspi­ra­tion. Major events like the Munich hostage mas­sacre or the Entebbe res­cue mis­sion were re-enact­ed (21 Hours at Munich, 1975, Vic­to­ry at Entebbe, 1976). John Frankenheimer’s Black Sun­day (1977) was excep­tion­al, because it fea­tured Pales­tin­ian ter­ror­ists tar­get­ing the Super Bowl finale (Prince 22–28).

This dis­tanced per­spec­tive on ter­ror­ism rad­i­cal­ly changed dur­ing the 1980s, fol­low­ing the Iran­ian hostage cri­sis (1979), the Amer­i­can involve­ment in the Lebanese civ­il war (1982–1984), and the result­ing con­fronta­tion with Shi­ite extrem­ism. The US became increas­ing­ly involved in Mid­dle East­ern con­flicts and suf­fered a string of trau­ma­tiz­ing attacks as well as hijack­ings. As a result, the depic­tion of ter­ror­ism hard­ened: Its per­pe­tra­tors were coined as arch ene­mies of the Amer­i­can Dream, and lacked any legit­i­mate cause (Palmer 164).

The end of the Cold War brought a brief peri­od of eas­ing: Instead of ide­o­log­i­cal or reli­gious zealots, apo­lit­i­cal ter­ror­ists dom­i­nat­ed. Fit­ting the cli­mate of polit­i­cal cor­rect­ness of the post-Cold War years the movie ter­ror­ists of the 1990s are eth­ni­cal­ly var­ied: Euro­pean rad­i­cals (Pas­sen­ger 57, 1992), Irish repub­li­cans (Blown Away, 1994, The Devil’s Own, 1997), cor­rupt Russ­ian mil­i­tary fig­ures in alliance with resent­ful Bosn­ian Serbs (The Peace­mak­er, 1997), and Latin Amer­i­can drug lords (Clear and Present Dan­ger, 1994). But most of them were home­grown: dis­grun­tled for­mer employ­ees of law enforce­ment agen­cies (Speed, 1994) and rene­gade sol­diers (Die Hard II, 1990, Oper­a­tion Bro­ken Arrow, 1996, The Rock, 1996) (Licht­en­feld 170–71).

Fig. 1: Crim­i­nals pos­ing as ter­ror­ists – Die Hard (1988)

Among these vil­lains, the jihadist is fea­tured promi­nent­ly for the first time. His appear­ance fol­lows in the wake of the bomb­ing of the World Trade Cen­ter (1993), the first act of rad­i­cal Islamist ter­ror­ism on US soil. Hol­ly­wood react­ed swift­ly and intro­duced the jihadist in films like True Lies (1994), Exec­u­tive Deci­sion (1996), The Siege (1999), and Rules of Engage­ment (2000) to the screen: Fanat­i­cal in his hatred of the US, dis­play­ing no regard for inno­cent life when enact­ing spec­tac­u­lar vio­lence, and reject­ing all pos­si­bil­i­ties of mod­er­a­tion. There­by cin­e­ma high­light­ed the emerg­ing dan­ger of reli­gious­ly inspired mass ter­ror on home soil years before 2001.

After 9/11: Escaping into fantasy, history, and past conflicts

In the imme­di­ate peri­od after Sep­tem­ber 11, 2001, the over­rid­ing exec­u­tive mantra was: “No more movies of mass destruc­tion.” 45 film projects were either can­celled, sub­stan­tial­ly altered, or post­poned. Some com­men­ta­tors even argued that Hol­ly­wood was to blame for 9/11, because its movies had pre­fig­ured, even “inspired” the ter­ror­ist per­pe­tra­tors (Maher). Direc­tor Robert Alt­man, for exam­ple, claimed that such an atroc­i­ty would have been unthink­able, “unless they’d seen it in a movie” (Coyle). There were also promis­es that Hol­ly­wood would pro­vide hence­forth a “kinder, gen­tler” form of enter­tain­ment – but as Jim Hober­man has remarked, “audi­ences, though, were not buy­ing it” (Hober­man). Dur­ing the first months after 9/11, action flicks like Die Hard or True Lies were rent­ed three times more fre­quent­ly than before, as if the often ago­nis­ing inef­fi­ca­cy of real life coun­tert­er­ror­ism had to be com­pen­sat­ed for in the sphere of enter­tain­ment (McCorkle 171). The sense of inse­cu­ri­ty also boost­ed patri­ot­ic and war­like themes—shortly after the US inva­sion of Afghanistan began on 7 Octo­ber, 2001, “Hol­ly­wood start­ed to march to a mil­i­tary beat” (Newsweek). US box office charts were topped by war movies like Black Hawk Down (2001), Behind Ene­my Lines (2001), and We Were Sol­diers (2002). “There’s a greater under­stand­ing now of how you would feel if your coun­try was under attack,” a direc­tor com­ment­ed on the rea­sons for this trend (And­son). None of these war movies engaged with the top­ic of ter­ror­ism and instead re-enact­ed clear cut bat­tle­field vic­to­ries in Viet­nam as well as US con­tri­bu­tions to flawed UN inter­ven­tions in the Balka­ns and Soma­lia in the ear­ly 1990s—but it did not mat­ter any­way: “Revis­it­ing past con­flicts while Amer­i­ca waged a new one, they appear as much about the US after 9/11 as Viet­nam and Soma­lia, their his­tor­i­cal and geo­graph­i­cal locales” (Car­ruthers).

Before the ter­ror­ist strikes, such films would have been read as a plea for a reluc­tant US role in world affairs, but after the ter­ror­ist attacks the plot lines were per­ceived as pro-interventionist—reflecting George W. Bush’s procla­ma­tion of the War on Ter­ror as an endeav­our that “will not end until every ter­ror­ist group of glob­al reach has been found, stopped and defeat­ed.” In case of Black Hawk Down, short­ly before the release in Decem­ber 2001, a post­script was added. It sug­gest­ed that Washington’s deci­sion to with­draw from Soma­lia in 1993, as well as its deci­sion not to inter­vene in Rwan­da and Bosnia, “was part of a reluc­tance to wage war that even­tu­al­ly embold­ened America’s ene­mies to attack the Pen­ta­gon and the World Trade Cen­ter.” That idea was dropped, as direc­tor Rid­ley Scott con­clud­ed it was “a good time” for releas­ing the movie: “We saw that these sol­diers were like fire­fight­ers and the police offi­cers and the res­cue work­ers, in that they are all peo­ple who would go into burn­ing build­ings or under fire with­out think­ing of them­selves, but only about their duty” (Malanows­ki).

The wave of mil­i­tary relat­ed films soon ebbed away after the high­ly con­tro­ver­sial US inva­sion of Iraq in 2003—both the World War II epic Windtalk­ers (2002) and the pro inter­ven­tion­ist Tears of the Sun (2003) were low gross­ing. Com­men­ta­tors found it dif­fi­cult to deter­mine whether audi­ences per­ceived films that glo­ri­fied the might of the Amer­i­can mil­i­tary as moral­ly ambigu­ous or if they were sim­ply war-weary after watch­ing real-life com­bat on the news (Hol­son).

In the wake of the ter­ror­ist attacks, some experts had warned of a strate­gic “pact” between Hol­ly­wood and Wash­ing­ton pro­mot­ing patri­o­tism and even jingoism—just like in after­math of Pearl Har­bour (1941). Short­ly after 9/11, Jack Valen­ti, long­time pres­i­dent of the Motion Pic­ture Asso­ci­a­tion of Amer­i­ca, had indeed assured that the indus­try would answer the call: “Many peo­ple in Hol­ly­wood are vet­er­ans that fought in oth­er wars and they are ready to fight again if their coun­try needs them” (Valen­ti). But in ret­ro­spect, the response proved to be more ambiva­lent than straight­for­ward pro­pa­gan­da.

A major part was in fact pure escapism: Mon­u­men­tal strug­gles between the forces of light and dark­ness were extreme­ly pop­u­lar after 9/11. In ref­er­ence to the Lord of the Rings (2001–2003) tril­o­gy, crit­ic Lev Gross­man explained the fas­ci­na­tion of this matter—especially in com­par­i­son to the murky strug­gle against ter­ror­ism: “Tolkien gives us the war we wish we were fighting—a strug­gle with a foe whose face we can see, who fights on the open bat­tle­field, far removed from inno­cent civil­ians. In Mid­dle Earth, unlike the Mid­dle East, you can tell an evil­do­er, because he or she looks evil” (Gross­man). Sim­i­lar­ly, one of the rea­sons why the Har­ry Pot­ter (2001–2011) and The Chron­i­cles of Nar­nia (2005/2008/2010) fran­chis­es struck a note with audi­ences was that the sto­ries engaged with notions of war, lead­er­ship, dan­gers of pow­er, hero­ism, and per­son­al sacrifice—all rel­e­vant in uncer­tain times. “You could look at the Har­ry Pot­ter series through the veil of 9/11,” a New York Times crit­ic explained. “It became very dif­fi­cult not to, with the idea of Lord Volde­mort as the evil­do­er of all evil­do­ers who was going to try to take down [the world]. And the apoc­a­lyp­tic end­ing reaf­firmed that for me” (White).

The sim­ple nar­ra­tive of the super­hero myth was also favoured as if the events had instilled new belief in the need of lone and all-pow­er­ful indi­vid­u­als ris­ing up to the chal­lenge. Com­ment­ing on the Super­man remake Man of Steel (2013) and ques­tion­ing the cul­tur­al rea­sons behind the cur­rent burst of the genre, Joe Queenan argued that “super­hero movies are made for a soci­ety that has basi­cal­ly giv­en up. The police can’t pro­tect us, the gov­ern­ment can’t pro­tect us, there are no more charis­mat­ic lon­ers to pro­tect us and the Euro is defunct. Clint East­wood has left the build­ing. So let’s turn things over to the vig­i­lantes” (Queenan).

Christo­pher Nolan’s Bat­man tril­o­gy was the trend­set­ter for this realign­ment of the pre­vi­ous­ly goofy super­hero genre: It became dark­er, pes­simistic, and pseu­do-real­is­tic. In Bat­man Begins (2005), Gotham City’s water sup­ply and pub­lic trans­port sys­tem is attacked in order to spread a tox­in that instils fear and chaos. The Dark Knight (2008) put for­ward the “Jok­er,” who ter­roris­es Gotham City with such elab­o­rate schemes that Bat­man has no oth­er option except to fight “fire with fire.” Accord­ing to Dou­glas Kell­ner, the Jok­er is pre­sent­ed „as the spir­it of anar­chy and chaos of a par­tic­u­lar­ly destruc­tive and nihilis­tic nature. In the con­tem­po­rary con­text, the Jok­er rep­re­sents the spir­it of ter­ror­ism and the film is full of iconog­ra­phy relat­ed to 9/11” (Kell­ner 11). In The Dark Knight Ris­es (2012), Bat­man has to take on the masked mer­ce­nary Bane, who aims to destroy Gotham City in a nuclear explo­sion.

The more iron­ic Iron Man movies (2008, 2010, 2013) fea­ture the hero, Tony Stark, fly­ing in his mechan­i­cal suit pound­ing a rad­i­cal-Islam­ic group called “Ten Rings.” Iron Man 3 final­ly intro­duces its leader, a Bin Laden look-alike supert­er­ror­ist called the “Man­darin”, who hacks him­self into TV air­waves to present threat­en­ing mes­sages. But ulti­mate­ly, he is revealed as an actor hired to por­tray a men­ace to deflect atten­tion from an out-of-con­trol sci­en­tif­ic pro­gramme. This sort of plot­line exem­pli­fies the con­tra­dic­to­ry nature of the stu­dios approach to 9/11: “They want to tap into the pow­er­ful reac­tions those events induced, while dodg­ing the com­plex issues and espe­cial­ly the polit­i­cal argu­ments that might turn off tick­et buy­ers” (Dragis “Bang Boom”).

While 9/11 ref­er­ences in super­hero movies are dif­fuse and not direct asser­tions, there is a major shift in the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the cen­tral char­ac­ters that cap­tures the pes­simism of the post 9/11 mind­set. Whether it is Bat­man, Cap­tain Amer­i­ca, Super­man, Iron Man, Spi­der­man, Wolver­ine, or Thor, these heroes suf­fer set­backs and humil­i­at­ing defeats – in fact, they all come across as flawed, trau­ma­tised, and ulti­mate­ly ambiva­lent, but nonethe­less they keep doing what is “nec­es­sary” (Pol­lard 183).

Fig. 2: Recalled to duty—Cap­tain Amer­i­ca. The First Avenger (2011)

Accord­ing to some crit­ics, Hollywood’s explo­ration of the post 9/11 world had start­ed in earnest with Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds (2005): A mod­ern adap­ta­tion of the clas­sic extrater­res­tri­al inva­sion sto­ry by H. G. Wells, The Guardian labelled the film „the first piece of mul­ti­plex fod­der ripped straight from the rub­ble of 9/11” (Pre­ston). Spiel­berg remarked on the con­nec­tions of his film to real­i­ty: “I think 9/11 rein­formed every­thing I’m putting into War of the Worlds. Just how we come togeth­er, how this nation unites in every known way to sur­vive a for­eign invad­er and a frontal assault. We now know what it feels like to be ter­ror­ized” (Abramowitz). Over­all, sim­i­lar to the Cold War era, there was a string of alien inva­sion sce­nar­ios brought to the screen: Sky­line (2010), Cow­boys and Aliens (2010), Super 8 (2011), and Pacif­ic Rim (2013). Accord­ing to direc­tor Paul Hag­gis the Trans­form­ers series (2007-2011) offered a “fan­ta­sy where the mes­sage is that if we can’t win over there, we can win it at home on our screens” (Jaa­far 20). In these films two races of good and evil robots bat­tle each oth­er right in the mid­dle of down­town Chica­go. The teenage hero, who is told by an offi­cer, “You are a sol­dier now,” absorbs the les­son of the strug­gle quick­ly: “No sac­ri­fice, no vic­to­ry” (Jaa­far 16-21). The same mes­sage was picked up by World Inva­sion: Bat­tle Los Ange­les (2011) and Bat­tle­ship (2012), where the US-mil­i­tary has to fight full scale alien inva­sions. On the oth­er hand, the more anti-impe­ri­al­ist lean­ings of James Cameron’s Avatar (2009), so far the high­est-gross­ing film of all time, sug­gest­ed that after almost a decade, a major­i­ty of the pub­lic had turned away from the Bush doc­trine (O’Hehir). Pres­i­dent Obama’s sub­se­quent shift from inter­ven­tion­ism to drone strikes and spe­cial forces mis­sions was addressed in Star Trek: Into Dark­ness (2013): Here, Cap­tain Kirk (Chris Pine) choos­es to cap­ture ter­ror­ist mas­ter­mind Khan, who bombed Star Fleet’s main archive build­ing, for tri­al instead of killing him extra­ju­di­cial with a long range tor­pe­do.

Revis­it­ing the past also offered an approach for film­mak­ers: By depict­ing the cru­sades (King­dom of Heav­en, 2005), by replay­ing the myths of the ancient world (Troy, 2004, Alexan­der, 2005, 300, 2007, Immor­tals, 2011), or by reimag­in­ing Amer­i­can his­to­ry and leg­ends (Gangs of New York, 2002, Alamo, 2004, The New World, 2005, Good Night, and Good Luck, 2005, Flags of our Fathers, 2006, There will be Blood, 2007, Lin­coln, 2012) the present day sit­u­a­tion could be addressed in an indi­rect way. For exam­ple, film schol­ar Stephen Prince sug­gest­ed that 300—a com­ic book adap­ta­tion fea­tur­ing the hero­ic last stand of the Spar­tans against the supe­ri­or Per­sian army—uses con­tem­po­rary con­flicts as tem­plates, “and it pro­vides and an argu­ment and a jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for wag­ing war against Iraq and Iran” (Prince 291). Slavoj Žižek instead pro­posed a very dif­fer­ent read­ing by set­ting the rigid, “fun­da­men­tal­ist” Spar­tan iden­ti­ty in con­trast to the “mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ist dif­fer­ent-lifestyles par­adise” of the Per­sians (Žižek 2007).

The pitched bat­tle scenes in movies like 300 offered clar­i­ty and over­sight lack­ing in the “real” world, as well as the cer­tain­ty that the forces of good will even­tu­al­ly tri­umph. “This is our way of deal­ing with 9/11 and how we feel about those for­eign­ers, and those ter­ror­ists, whom we are try­ing very hard to define”, a film his­to­ri­an told the New York Times under the head­line: “At the movies, at least, good van­quish­es evil” (Wax­mann).

New age of fear, horror, and dystopia

In a 2008 piece for The Atlantic Month­ly Ross Douhat argued that after 9/11 Hol­ly­wood returned to the “para­noid, cyn­i­cal, end-of-empire 1970s” (Douhat). There are indeed many sim­i­lar­i­ties between the 1970s and the 2000s: Both were decades of polit­i­cal and social cri­sis, pro­duc­ing, among oth­er results, a pes­simistic cul­tur­al out­look. For instance, after 9/11 Hol­ly­wood envi­sioned the dark, amoral world of unreg­u­lat­ed and destruc­tive cor­po­rate pow­er in a sim­i­lar way to the 1970s: The Manchuri­an Can­di­date (2004), Syr­i­ana (2005), Blood Dia­mond (2006), Shoot­er (2007), Michael Clay­ton (2007), War Inc. (2008), Noth­ing But the Truth (2008), State of Play (2009), and Fair Game (2010) are pop­u­lat­ed with pow­er­ful schemers, who use every means nec­es­sary to enhance pow­er, prof­its, and per­son­al gain. “Amer­i­ca isn’t a coun­try; it’s a busi­ness,” a thought­ful hit­man declares in Killing Them Soft­ly (2012), and turns to one of his col­leagues: “Now give me my mon­ey” (Scott “One Bad Turn”). Anoth­er dis­tinct 1970s char­ac­ter also returned—the vig­i­lante: Man on Fire (2004), The Pun­ish­er (2004), Hit­man (2007), The Brave One (2007), and Jack Reach­er (2012) show lone­ly avengers going on wild ram­pages.

Fig. 3: A thought­ful hitman—Brad Pitt in Killing Them Soft­ly (2012)

Anoth­er major par­al­lel to the 1970s is the boom of hor­ror. Since 2001, a retro-trend brought remakes of almost all clas­sics, often made by their vet­er­an direc­tors. Notably, George A. Romero returned with Land of the Dead (2005), Diary of the Dead (2008), and Sur­vival of the Dead (2009). Romero inte­grat­ed cer­tain con­tem­po­rary influ­ences into his movies: “The idea of liv­ing with terrorism—I’ve tried to make it more applic­a­ble to the con­cerns Amer­i­cans are going through now” (Beale). As dur­ing the 1970s, in post 9/11 hor­ror, evil lurks in remote places at home, most­ly in red state ter­ri­to­ry and in the shape of igno­rant, reac­tionary or retard­ed back­woods­men, whose “appetite” for slay­ing young­sters seems insa­tiable. This reflects the ten­sions and divi­sions with­in Amer­i­can society—whether it is about the dif­fer­ence between city and coun­try­side or diverg­ing opin­ions on morals, reli­gion, and pol­i­tics. Thus, like in the clas­sics, the main char­ac­ters find them­selves sud­den­ly beset by sav­age strangers and dead­ly threats (Wrong Turn, 2003, The Devil’s Reject, 2005, Tur­is­tas, 2006, Hatch­et, 2007). Some of the recent hor­ror films even had a dis­tinct trade­mark of their own: Hos­tel (2005), Hos­tel: Part II (2007), or Saw (six parts between 2004 and 2009) fea­ture explic­it and up-close vio­lence that is admin­is­tered on the vic­tims in lengthy ses­sions. Crit­ics labelled this “tor­ture porn” (Edel­stein), while direc­tor Eli Roth remarked that his two Hos­tel films were sim­ply made through the lens­es of 9/11 and the War on Ter­ror (Brax­ton).

There was also wide­spread demand for dis­as­ter movies: Unlike its 1970s pre­de­ces­sors, the post 9/11 films nei­ther pro­vide moral ral­ly­ing points nor suc­cess­ful coun­ter­strokes, but appear utter­ly pes­simistic: The US gov­ern­ment is too slow to respond to the rapid cli­mate change in The Day after Tomor­row (2004). When Earth is hit by a series of quakes and mega-tsunamis in 2012 (2009), elites are con­cerned sole­ly with their own sur­vival: While leav­ing the rest of mankind to per­ish, they sur­vive on board of pre-con­struct­ed arks. More real­is­ti­cal­ly, Con­ta­gion (2011) evokes the spec­tre of a swift­ly col­laps­ing order as a result of a spread­ing killer virus. A pan­dem­ic that turns humans into zom­bies caus­es glob­al apoc­a­lypse in World War Z (2013)—not so much a film about the undead, but a con­crete take on gov­ern­ment inad­e­qua­cy and pub­lic pan­ic in the face of over­whelm­ing dis­as­ter. “The gen­er­al premise is that any­thing can hap­pen, in any kind of sce­nario, on any giv­en day,” direc­tor Marc Forster com­ment­ed (World War Z pro­duc­tion notes).

A threat from the out­side is realised in Red Dawn (2012), where large parts of the US fall prey to ruth­less North Kore­an invaders: The con­ser­v­a­tive lean­ing film hints that the coun­try has left itself open to Com­mu­nist occu­pa­tion, because of weak for­eign pol­i­cy, squan­der­ing mil­i­tary might, and eco­nom­ic decline (O’Sullivan). Rise of the Plan­et of the Apes (2011) depicts mankind in the role of the oppres­sor until mutat­ed chim­panzees and goril­las throw off their shack­les and spread hav­oc: “It’s the end of the world as we know it, and the ani­mals feel fine” (Dragis “Apoc­a­lypse”).

On a more per­son­al lev­el, Tak­ing Shel­ter (2011) fea­tures Cur­tis LaForche (Michael Shan­non), a young hus­band and father, tor­ment­ed by apoc­a­lyp­tic visions that spell dan­ger to his loved ones. In the progress, LaForche becomes more and more obsessed with pro­vid­ing secu­ri­ty for his fam­i­ly, and this para­noia threat­ens to unrav­el every­thing he cares about (Scott “Splin­ter­ing Psy­che”). Once Armaged­don has passed, the strug­gle for sur­vival con­tin­ues even more mer­ci­less­ly in dystopias like I Am Leg­end (2009), The Road (2009), The Book of Eli (2010), The Hunger Games (2012), Obliv­ion (2013), and Ely­si­um (2013). Sup­pos­ed­ly, even god “got tired of all the bullshit”—and so he sends an army of angels to destroy mankind in Legion (2010). Pic­tures like these stress that the only hope for human­i­ty lies in virtues such as love, self-sac­ri­fice, and faith—typical cul­tur­al reac­tions to states of uncer­tain­ty.

9/11 arrives on the screen

Draw­ing up a con­clu­sion on the tenth anniver­sary of the ter­ror­ist attacks, Jim Hober­man observed on Hollywood’s out­put that “the events of 9/11 were to be avenged but not reliv­ed.” While it formed the emo­tion­al back­ground for all kinds of escapist adven­tures, there was con­sid­er­ably less inter­est in depict­ing the actu­al event. Thus, the first films relat­ing to 9/11 did this in a con­scious­ly dis­tanced way, aim­ing not to attract con­tro­ver­sy. Accord­ing to the New York Times, the trau­ma “qui­et­ly arrived, writ small in a series of new pic­tures that have no polit­i­cal con­tent but that are suf­fused with a deep, endur­ing sense of grief born in the tragedy’s wake” (Far­ber). First came The Guys (2002): It fea­tured a jour­nal­ist help­ing a FDNY cap­tain who lost nine men in the Twin Tow­ers to com­pose eulo­gies. Spike Lee’s 25th Hour (2002), released 15 months after the ter­ror­ist attacks, fol­lows a con­vict­ed New York drug deal­er on his last day of free­dom before begin­ning a sev­en-year prison sen­tence (LaSalle).

It took more than five years for the enter­tain­ment indus­try to tack­le 9/11 direct­ly: In Unit­ed 93 (2006) Paul Green­grass retold the sto­ry of the hijacked flight that did not reach its intend­ed tar­get on Sep­tem­ber 11th. Instead it crashed into a field in Penn­syl­va­nia, sup­pos­ed­ly because the pas­sen­gers revolt­ed against the hijack­ers. Since Unit­ed 93 is all about civil­ian hero­ism, the moti­va­tion and per­son­al back­ground of the ter­ror­ists remain com­plete­ly obscure to the view­er. Oliv­er Stone’s World Trade Cen­ter (2006) did not even show the planes hit­ting the tow­ers, instead focused on the mirac­u­lous res­cue of two sur­vivors from Ground Zero. The Great New Won­der­ful (2005) pre­sent­ed a series of vignettes of inci­dents tak­ing place con­cur­rent­ly around Man­hat­tan – with­out men­tion­ing 9/11 (Abramowitz, Horn). The event was fur­ther domes­ti­cat­ed in the bud­dy movie Reign Over Me (2007), where two for­mer col­lege room­mates meet up again by chance on a Man­hat­tan street cor­ner. One of them has lost his fam­i­ly on 9/11 and is unable to cope with the tragedy (Prince 120).

9/11 forms the emo­tion­al cli­max in the love dra­ma Remem­ber Me (2010): Tyler (Robert Pat­tin­son) is last seen in his father’s office on the 88th floor of the World Trade Cen­ter and it is lat­er revealed that the date is 11 Sep­tem­ber 2001. For that, the film was crit­i­cized as “appalling” and “exploita­tive,” because it uses 9/11 as “a sim­ple plot device” (White). Extreme­ly Loud and Incred­i­bly Close (2011) focus­es on an eleven year old New York­er cop­ing with the loss of his father in the rub­ble of the World Trade Cen­ter. Accord­ing to Manohla Dragis the film “isn’t about Sept. 11. It’s about the impulse to drain that day of its speci­fici­ty and turn it into yet anoth­er well­spring of gener­ic emo­tions: sad­ness, lone­li­ness, hap­pi­ness. This is how kitsch works” (Dragis “Young­ster with a Key”). Like many oth­er 9/11 movies, the 40 mil­lion dol­lar pro­duc­tion was not well received at the box office, but gained an Acad­e­my Award nom­i­na­tion nonethe­less.

The obvi­ous pref­er­ence for escapism was again con­firmed by the suc­cess of the safe­ly immers­ing Clover­field (2011): It reimag­ined the ter­ror­ist strikes as a sud­den dev­as­tat­ing attack by a giant mon­ster that top­ples sky­scrap­ers and major land­marks. A sim­i­lar­ly spec­tac­u­lar action show­down in the mid­dle of Man­hat­tan can be found in the super­hero film The Avengers (2012). The images of urban destruc­tion turn it, accord­ing to Jim Hober­man, into a watershed—Hollywood is “no longer afraid to tack­le 9/11”: “The Avengers demon­strates how com­plete­ly 9/11 has been super­seded by anoth­er cat­a­stro­phe, name­ly the finan­cial melt­down of Sep­tem­ber 2008” (Hober­man).

Fig. 4: Space invaders tar­get down­town Man­hat­tan in The Avengers (2012)

From commentary to historization

As men­tioned, a direct exam­i­na­tion of 9/11 was a sort of taboo in the ear­ly stages. Ter­ror­ism relat­ed films like Col­lat­er­al Dam­age (2002) and The Sum of All Fears (2002), which had been pro­duced before 2001, were sud­den­ly out of touch with the new par­a­digm. The Sum of All Fears was much noticed because it dis­played the nuclear destruc­tion of Bal­ti­more, but when it came to the depic­tion of the enemy—European Neo-Nazis—the film was crit­i­cized for being implau­si­ble. Here­upon, “9/11 rang down the cur­tain on Hollywood’s the­atre of mass destruc­tion, at least for a while,” Stephen Prince not­ed (70). But with grow­ing dis­tance, film­mak­ers began to focus on the War on Ter­ror, its progress and impli­ca­tions, both domes­tic and inter­na­tion­al. Stephen Spiel­berg chose a his­tor­i­cal anal­o­gy to place a com­ment on the coun­tert­er­ror­ism strug­gle: His film Munich (2005), the adap­ta­tion of a nov­el telling the sto­ry of the Israeli revenge for the mas­sacre of its ath­letes dur­ing the 1972 Olympics, explored the cycle of vio­lence engulf­ing the Mid­dle East. Beyond that, it could also be read as cri­tique of the futil­i­ty of the War on Ter­ror, with a final lin­ger­ing shot of the Twin Tow­ers in the dis­tance (Alford 145). Among oth­er issues, Syr­i­ana (2005) explored how the cor­rup­tion of the oil busi­ness indi­rect­ly fuels ter­ror­ism, while Char­lie Wilson’s War (2007) explored the CIA’s col­lu­sion with jihadists in the wake of the Sovi­et inva­sion of Afghanistan.

In pro­duc­tions like these, coun­tert­er­ror­ism came across increas­ing­ly as an amoral strug­gle in the shadows—an obvi­ous reac­tion to the Abu Ghraib scan­dal and rev­e­la­tions about sus­pects dis­ap­pear­ing in a secret CIA prison net­work. In Body of Lies (2008), agent Roger Fer­ris (Leonar­do DiCaprio) is such a shad­ow war­rior, who sets up a fic­ti­tious ter­ror group, equips it with fake bank accounts, and plants mes­sages in fun­da­men­tal­ist chat rooms – in order to flush out an Al Qae­da mas­ter­mind (Stevens). Gavin Hood’s 2007 film Ren­di­tion took on the oppos­ing per­spec­tive by depict­ing an Arab as the vic­tim of unlaw­ful US vig­i­lance. Although being mar­ried to an Amer­i­can wife, he is abduct­ed and sent to a North African coun­try for inter­ro­ga­tion. While wit­ness­ing the bru­tal­i­ty inflict­ed, the local CIA liai­son offi­cer begins to doubt the agency’s meth­ods: “In all the years we‘ve been doing this, how often can you say that we‘ve pro­duced tru­ly legit­i­mate intel­li­gence?” (Alford 150). The King­dom (2007) can be seen as an alter­na­tive sce­nario in its depic­tion of a suc­cess­ful coop­er­a­tion between West­ern and Mid­dle East­ern police forces (Scott 28 Sept. 2007). Due to dis­ap­point­ing box office results, the adap­ta­tion of ter­ror­ism relat­ed themes decreased between 2009 and 2012. Unthink­able (2010), a movie about an FBI inter­roga­tor caught in the moral dilem­ma of a clas­sic “tick­ing bomb” sce­nario, was released direct-to-video.

Fig. 5: West­ern jihadist—Michael Sheen in Unthink­able (2010)

Com­pared to this rather slow adap­ta­tion of coun­tert­er­ror­ism, the war in Iraq arrived on screen with unpar­al­leled speed: “Not since World War II has Hol­ly­wood so embraced an ongo­ing con­flict. It took years for pop cul­ture to tack­le the Kore­an wars, and it took time before the coun­try was ready to be enter­tained by those polit­i­cal­ly charged con­flicts” (Sori­ano, Old­en­burg). Yet most of the Iraq movies did not focus on the con­flict, but instead on the home­com­ing of the vet­er­ans, or the plight of mil­i­tary fam­i­lies left behind (Land of the Brave, 2006, In the Val­ley of Elah, 2007, Bad­land, 2007, Grace is Gone, 2007, Stop Loss, 2008). Redact­ed (2007) and The Hurt Lock­er (2008) took on the per­spec­tive of GIs hope­less­ly entrapped in a “dirty” con­flict, which they do not under­stand and often turn their frus­tra­tion against civil­ians. Lions for Lambs (2007) and Green Zone (2010) open­ly con­tra­dict­ed the offi­cial lin­eage of the Bush admin­is­tra­tion in regard to the war effort and addressed issues of polit­i­cal account­abil­i­ty and manip­u­la­tion. But just like the 9/11 films, most of these pro­duc­tions failed commercially—even the acclaimed The Hurt Lock­er was the low­est gross­ing Best Pic­ture win­ner since the fifties (Har­ris).

Fig. 6: Manip­u­lat­ed into the Iraq war—Green Zone (2010)

In com­par­i­son, the Viet­nam movies of the 1970s and 1980s had the ben­e­fit of hind­sight and offered an oppor­tu­ni­ty to reflect from a dis­tance on what had gone wrong (Jaa­far 16–21). Com­pared to past con­flicts, the Glob­al War on Ter­ror, despite its length, had always remained enig­mat­ic and dis­tant to the larg­er pub­lic. As Luke Buck­mas­ters has point­ed out: “The war on ter­ror­ism, as we know it, invokes a mud­dled sense of time and loca­tion. Its themes are both old and new and the ene­my is impos­si­ble to rel­e­gate to a spe­cif­ic geo­graph­ic area. The trick­i­er ene­mies are to define, the hard­er they are to visu­alise.” (Buck­mas­ters). The sur­pris­ing box office suc­cess of Act of Val­or (2012) demon­strat­ed that mil­i­tary relat­ed themes still res­onat­ed with audi­ences, once they were removed from the messy con­text of Iraq and Afghanistan. The movie fea­tured sup­pos­ed­ly real-life Spe­cial Forces oper­a­tives on mis­sions in Cos­ta Rica, the Sudan, and Mex­i­co that ulti­mate­ly thwart the hideous plans of a jihadist net­work (Pinker­ton).

Fig. 7: Jihadist video com­mu­ni­ca­tion in Act of Val­or (2012)

Short­ly before the tenth anniver­sary of 9/11, some key pol­i­cy deci­sions and events put both the US coun­tert­er­ror­ism approach and its cul­tur­al rep­re­sen­ta­tion in a new frame­work: The killing of Osama Bin Laden (2011) marked a high­ly sym­bol­ic US vic­to­ry. With­in a year, the US strike was under­go­ing drama­ti­za­tion in a TV adap­ta­tion (Seal Team Six. The Raid on Osama Bin Laden, 2012) and a movie: Zero Dark Thir­ty (2012). Also in 2011, the US with­drew its com­bat troops from Iraq and sched­uled a retreat from Afghanistan for 2014, effec­tive­ly con­clud­ing the Glob­al War on Ter­ror as out­lined by George W. Bush.

The out­look on rad­i­cal Islam­ic ter­ror­ism and 9/11 is there­fore set to evolve from social and polit­i­cal com­men­tary to a grad­ual his­tor­iza­tion of the sub­ject. For the first time Zero Dark Thir­ty applied this ret­ro­spec­tive out­look: Orig­i­nal­ly out­lined as a nar­row­ly focused and closed-end­ed inves­ti­ga­tion of the fail­ure of the US mil­i­tary to appre­hend Bin Laden in late 2001, the suc­cess­ful raid on Abbot­tabad had changed the sto­ry­line com­plete­ly. Zero Dark Thir­ty now chron­i­cled the even­tu­al­ly suc­cess­ful ten year man­hunt for Osama Bin Laden, while high­light­ing the moral costs (Har­ris). Accord­ing to Manohla Dragis, the movie depicts “the dark side of that war. It shows the unspeak­able and lets us decide if the death of Bin Laden was worth the price we paid” (Dragis “By any means”). How­ev­er, Zero Dark Thir­ty is force­ful in its por­tray­al of the War on Ter­ror as a form of jus­ti­fied revenge for the hor­rors of 9/11—illuminated in the begin­ning by fea­tur­ing emer­gency phone calls from the burn­ing tow­ers and hijacked planes against a black screen (West­well 86).

Fig. 8: Jus­ti­fied revenge for 9/11—identifying Osama Bin Laden (Zero Dark Thir­ty, 2012)

This shift­ing per­spec­tive on 9/11, mov­ing from real­i­ty towards his­to­ry, is fur­ther ampli­fied by a loss in sig­nif­i­cance on part of the coun­tert­er­ror­ism strug­gle: Since 2007/2008 eco­nom­ic woes have increas­ing­ly replaced the fear of ter­ror­ism as pri­or­i­ty No. 1 on the pub­lic agen­da. The finan­cial cri­sis and the huge bud­get deficit also have wide­spread con­se­quences for the US role in world affairs: In 2012 Pres­i­dent Oba­ma pledged that the US would only fight war that “absolute­ly nec­es­sary” (McGre­al and Williams) from now on, effec­tive­ly con­clud­ing the era of post 9/11 inter­ven­tion­ism. It is like­ly that the reces­sion and a result­ing demise of con­fi­dence in the Amer­i­can Dream could affect the pub­lic mind in a more last­ing way than the shock of the 9/11 attacks. Hol­ly­wood has begun to come to terms with the slump and its effects (Up in the Air, 2009, The Com­pa­ny Men, 2010, Wall Street: Mon­ey Nev­er Sleeps, 2010, Mar­gin Call, 2011, Mon­ey­ball, 2011, Cos­mopo­lis, 2012, Arbi­trage, 2012, Promised Land, 2012).

By 2013 even the post 9/11 ret­i­cence of depict­ing ter­ror­ism as block­buster enter­tain­ment was all but gone: G.I. Joe Retal­i­a­tion, Olym­pus Has Fall­en, and White House Down fea­tured major insti­tu­tions of Amer­i­can democ­ra­cy being tak­en over and tar­nished by ter­ror­ists. The fact that audi­ences seemed pre­pared to watch the White House, the Capi­tol, or Air Force One destroyed indi­cates for some observers that “Amer­i­cans have men­tal­ly recov­ered from the shock of 9/11.” Oth­ers drew a dif­fer­ent con­clu­sion in high­light­ing the para­noid and self-hat­ing notions of these sce­nar­ios (Har­ris “9/11 taboo”).

Hollywood’s stance on terrorism

The fol­low­ing sec­tion exam­ines the crit­i­cal ques­tion of how Hol­ly­wood movies process the def­i­n­i­tion and sub­stance of “ter­ror­ism” for audi­ences both aes­thet­i­cal­ly and ide­o­log­i­cal­ly. Although the out­put varies in rela­tion­ship to its spe­cif­ic con­text, the polit­i­cal and ide­o­log­i­cal sub­text con­veyed by Hollywood’s ter­ror­ism films can be dis­tilled in cer­tain core nar­ra­tives:

(1.) Ter­ror­ism is the prod­uct of “mad,” psy­chot­ic minds and essen­tial­ly “un-Amer­i­can”: This used to be the quin­tes­sen­tial mes­sage of 1970s and 1980s sce­nar­ios. Fol­low­ing the end of the Cold War cer­tain ene­my stereo­types were dis­card­ed, but the ter­ror­ist remained as a mere de-politi­cized “shell”—depicted as a greedy crim­i­nal impos­tor. While this nar­ra­tive was prac­ti­cal­ly aban­doned after 2001, it has resur­faced late­ly in form of a retro trend: Die Hard 4.0 (2007) and A Good Day to Die Hard (2013) stick to the old for­mu­la of crim­i­nals or rene­gades hid­ing behind a fake agen­da. The hijack­er in the remake of The Tak­ing of Pel­ham 1-2-3 (2009) bets on media cov­er­age affect­ing the stock mar­ket so that his own invest­ments pay off (Cettl 16). Like­wise, the cli­mac­tic show­down of White House Down reveals the dev­as­tat­ing attack by a rightwing mili­tia at the heart of gov­ern­ment as a dis­guised coup d'état. Even the con­tro­ver­sial choice of North Kore­an com­man­dos as the ene­my in Olym­pus Has Fall­en is quick­ly abat­ed by fact that the group is led by an extrem­ist act­ing on his own impulse.

(2.) The dark side of coun­tert­er­ror­ism, the employ­ment of extrale­gal and “dirty mea­sures,” is not left out of the pic­ture. Crit­i­cal movies, for instance, high­light the CIA’s reliance on proxy forces groups to sup­press Latin Amer­i­can guer­ril­las in the 1980s (Under Fire 1983, Walk­er, 1987). In 2001, Spy Game recounts parts of the CIA’s dark Cold War his­to­ry: The Phoenix assas­si­na­tion pro­gramme dur­ing the Viet­nam War as well as the unsuc­cess­ful attempt to kill a Shi­ite sheikh in Beirut dur­ing the 1980s. In the lat­ter case, the bomb­ing results in con­sid­er­able civil­ian “col­lat­er­al dam­age.” Fur­ther­more, the Jason Bourne fran­chise (The Bourne Iden­ti­ty, 2002, The Bourne Suprema­cy, 2004, The Bourne Ulti­ma­tum, 2007, The Bourne Lega­cy, 2012) fea­tures a cor­rupt CIA under­cov­er unit orches­trat­ing a string of assas­si­na­tions con­cealed as coun­tert­er­ror­ism mea­sures (Valan­tin 103–04). In con­trast, con­ser­v­a­tive films tend to present this esca­la­tion of vio­lence as the most prac­ti­cal way to defeat ter­ror­ism. Such mis­sions are already out­sourced in The Expend­ables (2010) and Expend­ables 2: Back for War (2012): Whether it is over­throw­ing a Latin Amer­i­can dic­ta­tor­ship or pre­vent­ing Russ­ian plu­to­ni­um falling into ter­ror­ist hands, a band of mer­ce­nar­ies does the job.

(3.) It is per­haps iron­ic that despite its pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with ter­ror­ism, Hol­ly­wood in fact takes lit­tle inter­est in the sub­ject itself. By large the ter­ror­ist is sim­ply a “sign” and almost nev­er devel­oped as a believ­able char­ac­ter. Although it is true that ter­ror­ist mas­ter­minds repeat­ed­ly lay down their agen­da and accuse the US and its for­eign pol­i­cy, this comes across as “loony” talk by fanat­i­cal mad­men (Van­hala 238). For exam­ple, Air Force One (1997), grants hijack­er Ivan Kor­shunov (Gary Old­man) a moment of explana­to­ry rhetoric, but in the con­text of the scene, this is noth­ing but self-serv­ing cyn­i­cism put for­ward by a thug, who threat­ens women and chil­dren (Auge).

In recent films, dec­la­ra­tions by ter­ror­ists are spars­er and less over the top: In Body of Lies mas­ter­mind Al Sameen brags about future plans of his net­work: “As we destroyed the bus in Sheffield last week, we will be ready for the oper­a­tion in Britain. We avenge the Amer­i­can wars on the Mus­lim world.” Yet this mega­lo­ma­nia quick­ly results in his downfall—Al Sameen’s dri­ve for pub­lic­i­ty expos­es him to joint US-Jor­dan­ian coun­tert­er­ror­ism (Pol­lard 119). As the men­tioned films indi­cate, there may be blow­back stem­ming from West­ern poli­cies, but such griev­ances are no excuse for killing and maim­ing inno­cent peo­ple. Ter­ror­ism is thor­ough­ly ille­git­i­mate and has to be met on its own terms (Bog­gs, Pol­lard 207).

Fig. 9: The face of the ene­my “oth­er”—The Expend­ables (2010)

In con­trast, Euro­pean films like the West­ern Ger­man out­look on the left­wing ter­ror­ism of the 1970s tend to decon­struct ter­ror­ism (Deutsch­land im Herb­st, 1977, Die bleierne Zeit, 1981, Stammheim, 1986, Die innere Sicher­heit, 2000, Baad­er, 2002, Der Baad­er Mein­hof Kom­plex, 2010, Wer, wenn nicht wir, 2011). These movies con­scious­ly focus on the ter­ror­ist per­son­al­i­ty as well as on the inner group dynam­ics of ter­ror­ist orga­ni­za­tions, sub­jects large­ly omit­ted by Hol­ly­wood. But over­all, the Ger­man films explore the polit­i­cal and social envi­ron­ment in which the actors are oper­at­ing and how it is trans­formed in the wake of the con­fronta­tion with law enforce­ment. This results in mul­ti-lay­ered accounts instead of clear-cut good vs. evil.

Conclusion

In the wake of the 9/11 some com­men­ta­tors went as far as to pro­claim the “end of the age of irony” or a “turn­ing point against a gen­er­a­tion of cyn­i­cism for all of us” (Kaku­tani). With the ben­e­fit of hind­sight, Michiko Kaku­tani reached a more sober con­clu­sion about the impact of the ter­ror­ist strikes on pop­u­lar cul­ture: “We know now that the New Nor­mal was very much like the Old Nor­mal, at least in terms of the country’s arts and enter­tain­ment. […]. Ten years lat­er, it is even clear­er that 9/11 has not pro­voked a seis­mic change in the arts” (Kaku­tani). While 9/11 may have been no water­shed, it left a pro­found impact nonethe­less: Ter­ror­ism and relat­ing fears, para­noia and inse­cu­ri­ty, were all but prime ingre­di­ents of Hol­ly­wood cin­e­ma since 2001.

Anger, brood­ing and melan­choly dis­played both by super- and action heroes were indi­ca­tors of post 9/11 Hollywood’s pref­er­ence of ambi­gu­i­ties over absolutes. As A. O. Scott has point­ed out, this grim­ness of the heroes “arose less from the moral defect of being tempt­ed by evil than from their inti­mate knowl­edge of its depths. They could be law­less, venge­ful, guilty and tor­ment­ed, but only because the ene­mies they faced were so utter­ly beyond the reach of com­pas­sion or rea­son” (Scott “Worst Ene­mies”). The ensu­ing Manichean bat­tles were so intense because vil­lains like Volde­mort, the Jok­er, or Bane pur­sued grandiose schemes that were aimed direct­ly against the estab­lished order of things. Their dark con­vic­tion, as artic­u­lat­ed by Bane (“It doesn’t mat­ter who we are, what mat­ters is our plan”), not only set them apart from tra­di­tion­al crim­i­nals, but was rem­i­nis­cent of ter­ror­ist zeal.

Apoc­a­lyp­tic themes, para­noia, and graph­ic vio­lence were as pop­u­lar as dur­ing the 1970s, a decade of sim­i­lar upheaval and scep­ti­cism in soci­ety. After 2001, besides the fear of ter­ror­ism there was a grow­ing aware­ness of fur­ther threats like pan­demics, nat­ur­al dis­as­ters, or the break­down of soci­ety.

Fur­ther­more, the post 9/11 peri­od gave rise to a whole set of polit­i­cal movies that addressed the Glob­al War on Ter­ror and its con­se­quences. Crit­ic Peter Brad­shaw labelled them “lib­er­al fence-sit­ters”: Ago­nised, con­science-strick­en, “but still unwill­ing to risk being dis­loy­al to any­one” (Brad­shaw). Indeed, as the box office results demon­strat­ed, audi­ences pre­ferred indi­rect approach­es to overt­ly polit­i­cal ones. That choice may have con­tributed to Hollywood’s uneasi­ness in rep­re­sent­ing the actu­al events of 9/11. For a large seg­ment of the pub­lic the trau­mat­ic event is still too raw, too hard to grasp in its entire­ty, and thus is con­sid­ered an unsuit­able theme for mere enter­tain­ment (Smith). As indi­cat­ed, the 2011 killing of Osama Bin Laden may her­ald a new phase of rec­ol­lec­tion and reassess­ment, which may leave more pos­si­bil­i­ties for the sort of cathar­sis many experts not­ed was absent so far.

Gen­er­al­ly, Hol­ly­wood pro­vides valu­able insight into the social and polit­i­cal real­i­ties of its con­text. In his com­pli­ca­tion on cin­e­ma in the “Bush-Cheney Era,” Dou­glas Kell­ner has observed: “Films can dis­play social real­i­ties of the events and phe­nom­e­na of an epoch. But films can also pro­vide alle­gor­i­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tions that inter­pret, com­ment, and indi­rect­ly por­tray aspects of an era” (14). In ref­er­ence to the post 9/11 years, Hol­ly­wood has reflect­ed the essence of that peri­od. At the core, it addressed the pro­found sense of vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty and shat­tered inno­cence felt in the wake of the ter­ror­ist attacks. For the first time since 1941, the US had been hit on home soil. In this spe­cif­ic sit­u­a­tion, cin­e­mat­ic fic­tion came into play as a major cul­tur­al means to engage with a rad­i­cal­ly altered word. Over­all, the cul­tur­al “mir­ror” tells of a soci­ety deeply affect­ed by fear and uncer­tain­ty, while strug­gling to find new mean­ing. That may be the “ter­ror years” most endur­ing lega­cy.

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Image Notes

Fig­ure 1: Die Hard. Dir John McTier­nan. 20th Cen­tu­ry Fox, 1988.

Fig­ure 2: Cap­tain Amer­i­ca The First Avenger. Dir. Joe John­ston. Mar­vel Stu­dios, 2011.

Fig­ure 3: Killing Them Soft­ly. Dir. Andrew Dominik. Anna­pur­na Pic­tures, 1984 Pri­vate Defense Con­trac­tors, Plan B Enter­tain­ment, Chock­stone Pic­tures, 2010.

Fig­ure 4: The Avengers. Dir. Joss Whe­don. Mar­vel Stu­dios, 2012.

Fig­ure 5: Unthink­able. Dir. Gre­gor Jor­dan. Lle­ju Pro­duc­tions, Sid­ney Kim­mel Enter­tain­ment, Kim­mel Inter­na­tion­al, Chub­b­Co Film, Sen­a­tor Enter­tain­ment Co., 2010.

Fig­ure 6: Green Zone. Dir. Paul Green­grass. Work­ing Title Films, 2010.

Fig­ure 7: Act of Val­or. Dir. Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh. Ban­di­to Broth­ers, 2012.

Fig­ure 8: Zero Dark Thir­ty. Dir. Kathryn Bigelow. Ana­pur­na Pic­tures, 2012.

Fig­ure 9: The Expend­ables. Dir. Sylvester Stal­lone. Nu Image and Mil­len­ni­um Films, 2010.


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