The other day I rented “The Siege”, the 1998 movie about an Islamic terrorist cell that attacks New York City. The things they got right are as striking as the things they got terribly and naively wrong.
For all it’s sympathy and attempted accuracy about Muslims, the movie still portrays the terrorists as religious fanatics. They really do “hate our way of life.” The filmmakers are the same crew that made “Glory” (also starring Denzel Washington), so there’s no shortage of American accountability for the evils that befall America, but the movie misses the mark when it comes to the venomous hatred for the U.S. that we’ve now all seen on the streets of Iraq. It’s conveniently colonial to think of the terrorists as misguided fundamentalists. What if they just hate our country? Not for its culture, but for its actions, for its politics. Too scary for Hollywood pre-9/11. Too scary for our own pampered imaginations.
There’s also a naivete in the portrayal of the military. The morality tale about war versus diplomacy plays out as a declaration of martial law in Brooklyn, with all Arab-American men between the ages of 18 and 50 detained at schools and jails. Tanks patrol DUMBO after dark, blaring fascistic warnings in English and Arabic. Evil? Sure? Reminiscent of Guantanamo? Yes. But it’s a circa-1968 vision of military excess. As the Rumsfeld/Richard Clarke/Powell general in charge of the emergency, Bruce Willis seems at worst too macho, which also explains the casting. Our post-9/11 unilateralism abroad and manic surveillance at home are much more dangerous than simple bullying, and much less conveniently visible. In the real movie, it wouldn’t be Bruce Willis–it’d be J.T. Walsh or Tommy Lee Jones or Anthony Hopkins. Not someone who’ll knock you down and haul you away. Someone who’ll shake your hand and then rifle your mom’s 1040s.
And the scale was off. When a bus blows up and the music swells with the horror of it, the play-glass and confetti raining down on Denzel look meager and harmless. When theatergoers are hustled into ambulances after an attack, you know the filmmakers were looking at footage of the 1993 WTC bombing, and you just shake your head at the mildness of it all. Smoke inhalation and a lost forearm.
But throughout the movie, the Towers are everywhere. That was the most chilling thing, really. Just look at the poster. (I know, it’s in German.)
To understand the scale of the 9/11 attacks and the impact of the impact in Hollywood terms, we need to flash forward to 2004, and go see “The Day After Tomorrow”, in which New York is decimated in nearly an instant, leaving the characters and the audience paralyzed by the enormity of all that has been lost. The world, as Cate Blanchett recites in “The Fellowship of the Ring,” has changed. We can no longer rely on our skyline of assumptions.