American Cinema in the Shadow of 9/11

Terence McSweeney discusses a new collection of essays that explore the legacy of September 11th in recent film

We begin our conversation having marked the fifteenth anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks. The legacy of those events has had an inestimable effect on the cultural, historical, and ideological landscape. What do you think it means to say that we are living ‘in the shadow of 9/11’?

American Cinema in the Shadow of 9/11, edited by Terence McSweeney (EUP, 2016)

The title of the book is derived from this often repeated phrase “in the shadow of 9/11” which was one we heard very frequently during the turbulent first decade of the new millennium. Even though fifteen years have passed since September 11th 2001 we can clearly see how impactful the events of 9/11 and the ‘War on Terror’ still are on contemporary geo-politics. This is not to endorse that simplistic aphorism that “9/11 changed everything”, because it certainly did not, but what it and events after did was to provoke what we might describe as the shifting of ideological co-ordinates in a variety of ways: whether in terms of American foreign policy decisions or the considerable impact of what Jason Burke called “the 9/11 wars” on the body of films which have been produced by the American film industry since. It seems hard to deny that the ‘War on Terror’ is one of the most profoundly impactful cultural events of the last two decades and just as fears and anxieties concerning the Second World War and the cold war became materialised in novels, films and TV shows in their respective eras, so 9/11 and the ‘War on Terror’ can often be found within the frames of contemporary American film.

Could you say a little bit about the origins of the book?

This edited collection originated from the research compiled for my 2014 monograph The ‘War on Terror’ and American Film: 9/11 Frames Per Second. While writing the book I had the opportunity to meet and interact with some of the foremost scholars in the field of contemporary American film and decided that an edited collection to coincide with the fifteenth anniversary of 9/11 in September 2016 might be a valuable way to contribute to the discourse at this very important time. Luckily some wonderful scholars agreed and this is why the book is filled with writers like Geoff King, John Shelton Lawrence, Robert Jewett, Guy Westwell, Sean Redmond, Steffen Hantke, Ian Scott and many others who have already made a significant contribution to the studies of contemporary American film in their own work.

Do you think cinema has changed in the last fifteen years, in the light of 9/11?

Film industries, whether in the United States or anywhere else around the globe, provide us with a fascinating paradox in the sense they are both spaces of tremendous change and also refusal to change. The changes come from the impact of the dynamic technological shifts which certainly seem to have gathered pace in the last few years, but there is also a profound stasis which comes from the fact that as the vast majority of popular media emerge from capitalist, corporate owned enterprises, the texts that are produced and disseminated most widely frequently adopt and therefore inculcate dominant ideological perspectives. This book tries to avoid simplistic assertions with regard to causality the likes of which have sometimes marred some of the writing on the topic of what we might call ‘post-9/11 film’.

I certainly do not suggest that there was some sort of monolithic overnight change that swept through the American film industry, in fact it is only a few years later in 2005 and 2006 that we start to see the first films exploring the topic either explicitly or through allegory. So I do not use the term ‘post-9/11 film’ primarily as a chronological marker, rather as a term which frames the debate within the arena of how a significant number of films to be made in the era which seem to positively beat with the pulse of the decade.

Just as writers like Robin Wood, Peter Lev, Michael Ryan and Douglas Kellner have all argued that the fractious political climate of 1960s and 1970s America became viscerally materialised within the frames of films like Dirty Harry (1971), Chinatown (1974), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Three Days of the Condor (1975), Taxi Driver (1976), Star Wars (1977), Dawn of the Dead (1978), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), Apocalypse Now (1979) and many others, American Cinema in The Shadow of 9/11 does something very similar for contemporary film, suggesting that films from a whole host of genres, like Casino Royale (2005), Children of Men (2006), The Mist (2007), The Kingdom (2007), Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2011), Edge of Tomorrow (2014), American Sniper (2014), and many others, function as a cultural battleground on which a war of meaning was (and still is) waged. These films do much more than reflect the prevailing cultural discourse; in fact, they contribute to it in a range of palpable and compelling ways.

What do you think makes film a productive medium for exploring trauma and cultural memory?

There is an unfortunate general consensus that popular film (and media in general) is inconsequential and empty of meaning, which I would argue could not be further from the truth. We often hear this epithet “it’s only a movie”, but for me to disregard the power of popular cinema seems quite naïve and even worrying. Not only does the tremendous popularity of popular cinema function as a barometer but also it is profoundly affective and influential in terms of how people see the world. There is a considerable body of work, upon which my own research sits, that has persuasively demonstrated the affective cultural function of national cinemas and their ability to embody aspects of national identity whether it is post-World War One Weimar era German cinema or Cold War era American science fiction films.

“We often hear this epithet “it’s only a movie”, but for me to disregard the power of popular cinema seems quite naïve and even worrying.”

It for these reasons, and many others, that studies of the media, given its considerable power, are important, not just for those experiencing it as it is made but for generations to come who in the future will derive much of their knowledge about the era from it. For those of us who did not experience the Second World War and the Vietnam War where does our understanding of the conflict about come from? History books, one would hope, but for the majority of people, I would argue, their understanding of cultural events is shaped by film and television. In her remarkable book, Tangled Memories: The Vietnam War, the AIDS Epidemic, and the Politics of Remembering (1997), Maria Sturken quotes a Vietnam veteran by the name of William Adams who stated, “When Platoon was first released, a number of people asked me, ‘Was the war really like that?’ I never found an answer… because what ‘really’ happened is now so thoroughly mixed up in my mind with what has been said about what happened that the pure experience is no longer there” (121). If films can be so influential to those who encountered an event first-hand, what might the impact be on those who only ever experienced culturally traumatic events vicariously through the media?

The book not only engages with 9/11, but with the ‘War on Terror’ that followed. To what degree to you think post-9/11 cinema is bound up in questions that are political or ideological in nature?

The wonderful Jean-Louis Comolli and jean Narboni remind us that “every film is political, inasmuch as it is determined by the ideology which produces it”. So I would argue that even the most innocuous sounding romantic comedy, action adventure or family film is bound up with the ideological values of the culture which produces it.  Many might be sceptical that the Transformers franchise (2007-), the Bond series (1962-), or the films that comprise the Marvel Cinematic Universe (2008-) are able to provide us with vivid and visceral documents through which to explore and interrogate contemporary culture but it seems to me they are hugely relevant and revealing. In this way I suppose I am proposing a different criteria for assessing the worth of films which departs from conventional judgements connected to what might be broadly defined as ‘quality’. Instead, I offer the idea that a film’s efficacy is more closely connected to its relevance to any given cultural debate. So while there are a range of films that most might not regard as ‘good’ in the traditional sense, for example, Taken (2008), Rambo (2008), I am Legend (2007), White House Down (2013) and Pacific Rim (2013), but for reflecting some of the tensions of the climate in which they were made they are valuable, and for me, they are undeniably ‘post-9/11’ films whatever one’s definition of the term encompasses.

“Given the cultural resonance of the ‘War on Terror’, it comes as no surprise that many allegorical films were able to bear witness to this fractious period, mirroring the events of the decade in the form of alien invasions, zombie outbreaks, superhero films, disaster films or even ‘torture porn'”

Given the cultural resonance of the ‘War on Terror’, it comes as no surprise that many allegorical films were able to bear witness to this fractious period, mirroring the events of the decade in the form of alien invasions, zombie outbreaks, superhero films, disaster films or even ‘torture porn’, each projecting their narratives through the prism of 9/11 and the ‘War on Terror’. Even though it has been more than fifteen years since 9/11 I would argue that we can still see its relevance in a range of films released in 2016: Captain America: Civil War (2016), Jason Bourne (2016), Independence Day: Resurgence (2016), London has Fallen (2016), 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi (2016), to name just a few.

One of the interesting things about the book is the way it engages with film franchises, sequels, and reboots. We see how familiar pop culture characters like James Bond or Robocop seem to adapt to a new cultural environment. What can this tell us?

While sequels, remakes and franchises have been around since almost the beginning of film history there can be no denying we live in an era in which the pace and apparently the demand for these things seems to have become more and more frequent. I would suggest that franchises and adaptations of texts which existed before 9/11 are particularly interesting case studies: for example, the Mission Impossible franchise (1996-), the Jason Bourne films (2002), the Rambo series (1982-2008), War of the Worlds (2005) and Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy (2005-2012) or the continuously evolving Marvel Cinematic Universe. In these we can see some very interesting changes and shifts which might pertain to both industrial developments and the world we see engaged with in their frames. What makes Christopher Nolan’s iteration of Batman distinctly post-9/11 in its presentation of a narrative that has existed in various forms since 1939? Or Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of H.G Wells’ classic alien invasion novel The War of the Worlds (1898) intrinsically connected to the post 9/11 era? What does Paul Greengrass’s Jason Bourne (2016) contribute to the evolution of a genre which has always been immersed in the ideological fault-lines of the times in which it is made? The answers to these questions must always reside with an individuals’ interpretation of any given film, but the expanding body of work on the topic of post-9/11 film helps to frame these texts for audiences who do not believe that a film is ever ‘just a movie’.

One of the great things about teaching film studies in higher education is introducing students to films and genres they might not have been aware of but also new perspectives on those they have already seen. So when I challenge my undergraduate students to read the works of Robin Wood, Siegfried Kracauer, Geoff King, John Shelton Lawrence and Robert Jewett, they are confronted with new approaches to films they might have already seen, but never considered in such a way.

As you might expect, their experiences of the world are very different to my own. I know that within seconds, and this isn’t even an exaggeration as I have seen it happen, they can find almost any film or television show on their electronic devices. People from my generation and before remember when the only place to see a film was at the cinema, which was then followed by a very long wait for a VHS release (in the late 1970s and early 1980s). As a young teen I can distinctly remember our household possessing only three precious VHS tapes which were played almost on a loop to family and friends until scenes were remembered by heart and the tapes themselves became physically worn out! Those films were Bugsy Malone (1976), The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Rambo: First Blood Part Two (1985) in case anyone is interested. The experiences young people have with film now are very different to this, and I should add I am not making a value judgement here as there are considerable definite benefits in this digital age (perhaps chief among is the availability of films from different cultures), but one can’t help wonder if something might be lost slightly when everything is available at any time.

Post 9/11 cinema has also had an impact on how we represent history in the present-day. How do you think biopics like Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, or Quentin Tarantino’s postmodern period dramas (Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained) engage with the legacy of September 11?

The book is divided into three sections: Part One is concerned with films that dramatise the events of 9/11 and the War on Terror explicitly, that is films from either the war/combat genres (e.g. American Sniper, Zero Dark Thirty), about the day of September 11th 2001 (e.g. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, United 93) or about the American Muslim experience post-9/11 (e.g. The Reluctant Fundamentalist, AmericanEast). Part Two is about films which are arguably affected by these events but those which do not, on the whole, portray them directly. In this section we have some films set years and sometimes even centuries before 2001 but which several of our authors argue that current events can be seen as being embodied within them in an agreement with Benedetto Croce’s assertion that “All history is contemporary history.” Might films like Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven (2005), John Lee Hancock’s The Alamo (2004), Robert Redford’s The Conspirator (2010) and Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation (2016) tell us more about the present than they can ever do about the past in which they are set.

I would suggest that historical films such as The Birth of a Nation (1915), Spartacus (1960), Schindler’s List (1993) and 300 (2006) are extremely limited in what they are able to reveal to us about historical periods like the American Civil War, the Roman Empire, the Holocaust or the Greco-Persian wars, but as texts about attitudes towards these events at the times they were made they are exemplary. Thus Spielberg’s 1993 film offers a compelling insight not into the Holocaust itself, but its place in the “contemporary culture of memory and memorializing” that has arisen in the fifty years since the traumatic event itself (Hansen 81, Spielberg’s Holocaust: Critical Perspectives on Schindler’s List, 1997). These films, and others from the genre, are easy to dismiss, as many have, given the liberties they often take with recorded history, but it is not so easy to ignore how they have undoubtedly “played a decisive role articulating an image of America that informs, or in some cases challenges, our sense of national self-identity, an image of nation that is projected to the world” (Burgoyne,  The Hollywood Historical Film, 2). As for Zack Snyder’s 300 it would be hard to find a more potent cultural artefact emblematic of American cultural attitudes towards the Middle East in the era, and, as Hamid Dabashi memorably suggested, “If we ever forget what G.W Bush’s America felt like, it will take only ten minutes of 300 to remind us”.

The book also touches on the role of horror and allegory in examining recent American history. Could you say a little bit more about that?

For me allegory is of primary importance for many reasons and despite the writings of many on the value of the allegorical mode by the likes of Benjamin, De Man and Jameson 1981, a lingering distrust of allegory remains in favour of the problematic uncritical acceptance of the ability of realism to render the world objectively. At times when direct representation of any given topic is, for one reason or another, difficult, allegories are the way artists, whether in literature, art, drama or film, can explore controversial or unpalatable ideas with a certain amount of creative freedom. The allegorical form often provided a valuable witness to ideological tensions throughout the twentieth century: from cold war fears of HUAC and Soviet invasion (also fears of the intrusion of HUAC upon civil liberties in the same period) reproduced in the science fiction films of the 1950s to what Douglas Pye described as the ‘Vietnam Western’, in films like The Wild Bunch (1969), Little Big Man (1970), Soldier Blue (1970) and Ulzana’s Raid (1972), which were able to manifest the ideological ruptures of the 1960s and 1970s before they were dealt with explicitly by American cinema in films directly about the Vietnam War (See Pye 1981). In the early years of the first decade of the new millennium the topic of 9/11 and the ‘War on Terror’ was (and still is of course) a highly sensitive one and films expressing direct criticism of the Bush doctrine were few and far between. So just as those amazing cold war science fiction films in the 1950s explored the fears and anxieties of their era, American horror, science fiction and other genre films in the first two decades of the new millennium are often remarkable texts.

Therefore, one can appreciate Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight as a consummate example of the popular superhero genre, Paul Greengrass’ The Bourne Ultimatum as a thrilling spy caper and a direct descendent of Dr No (1962) and Goldfinger (1964), and Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of War of the Worlds as a rip-roaring sci fi adventure, or one can look beyond their spectacularly realised blockbuster patina to see how far the films might offer a discourse on the War on Terror era. One might argue that this displacement into allegory is evidence of the failure of American cinema to adequately confront the war on terror era directly, and this is certainly true. However, in doing so they often prove able to function as a site of sustained and interrogative discourse on the era.

Recently, I have been hooked on HBO’s The Night Of, a television crime drama that examines a young Muslim man accused of murder in New York City. In what way do you think recent cinema has sought to represent or reimagine Arab American identities?

There is a remarkable book by Jack Shaheen called Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People (2001 but new edition was released in 2015) which is an account of the representation of Arabs on the American screen in the last hundred years. Throughout its history American cinema has rarely offered sympathetic images of the Other, those figures that do not correspond to what a society defines as its ‘norm’ whether in terms of race, nationality, gender or sexuality. A study of post-9/11 American film sees a continuation of this practice of failing to recognise or portray the essential humanity of alternate lives. Judith Butler’s Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence asks the question, ‘What can be the cultural impact of such an approach?’ A system which places greater value on the lives of individuals from the First World than the lives of others?

The films which have emerged from the American film industry charting the War on Terror, even the self-consciously liberal ones, have continued the trend of dehumanizing individuals who transgress ideas of racial normativity, which arguably makes their fate in the real world easier to ignore. These ideas are literalised in John Tirman’s The Deaths of Others: the Fate of Civilians in America’s Wars (2011). Tirman wrote, ‘One of the most remarkable aspects of American wars is how little we discuss the victims who are not Americans. The costs of war to the populations and common soldiers of the ‘enemy’ are rarely found in the narratives and dissections of conflict, and this habit is a durable feature of how we remember war’ (3-4). Tirman’s findings confirm what the likes of a broad range of theorists from Louis Althusser, Michel Foucault, Noam Chomsky and Franz Fanon have concluded, that we live in an ideological system which inculcates a strict cultural hierarchy through its production and dissemination of meanings and values. Accordingly, post-9/11 American films privilege American subjectivity, humanity and moral authority at the expense of these Others, perpetuating the idea that suffering is a First World privilege by both marginalizing and even excluding non-westerners from the cinema screen.

As a researcher, what have been some of the challenges of exploring a history and a legacy that continues to unfold in real-time?

It is both hugely rewarding to work in a field which is in a state of constant flux and change but also tremendously challenging too. The release of a single culturally impactful film can shift the coordinates of a particular debate in the arena of post-9/11 film. I can give a specific example of this which might be of interest. For at least the first ten years after 9/11 war films set in Iraq and Afghanistan like In the Valley of Elah (2007), Battle for Haditha (2007), Redacted (2007), Stop-Loss (2008), Green Zone (2010), and many others like them performed so poorly at the box office, despite the presence of big name stars, that to make a film set in Iraq or Afghanistan was considered  ‘box office poison’. Furthermore, because of the increasingly divisive relationship to the conflict the war film in these years became, according to Martin Barker to be ‘a toxic genre’.

Even though The Hurt Locker won a total of six Academy Awards (including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay) it too was one of those underachieving films, earning just $17 million at the U.S Box office and a global total of $49 million meaning that it is, at the time of writing, the lowest grossing film to win a Best Picture Oscar by quite some margin. However, the release of American Sniper (2014) with $547 million at the world-wide box office proved a remarkable exception to this and made those assertions made before problematic. One might ask then what was it about the film which made it able to resonate with audiences in a way no film about the conflict had done before? It is a question that is perhaps too complicated to answer here, but it is one which is explored within American Cinema in the Shadow of 9/11 by John Shelton Lawrence and Robert Jewett in the book’s opening chapter. For my part American Sniper tells the story of the Iraq War as many Americans wanted it to be told and, just as importantly, as they wanted to remember it.

What’s next for you?

I have been working on a couple of interesting projects of late but I believe my next monograph is on the topic of the renaissance of the superhero genre in the last couple of decades, in particular the films produced by Marvel Studios under the umbrella of what is called the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The book is currently titled Avengers Assemble! Critical Perspectives on the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Given the pronounced financial and cultural impact of these films it is an interesting topic to engage with critically. As a body of work the MCU emerges as a remarkable range of case studies, representative both of the changes that swept through the film and television industries during the period and of how profoundly immersed in the turbulent political climate of the era new millennial American cinema became.  As well as that I am interested in the topic of how the ‘War on Terror’ has been dramatised in other cultures. Most of the work on this topic has been very America-centric, and my work on this has been equally guilty of this. So I have been looking at how a range of other countries have depicted these events from South Korea, to India, to France and Turkey and hope that this might be the theme of a project in the future.

American Cinema in the Shadow of 9/11 is available from Edinburgh University Press.

About the Editor

Terence McSweeney is Lecturer in the School of Media Arts and Technology, Southampton Solent University. He is the author of The ‘War on Terror’ and American Film: 9/11 Frames Per Second (EUP, 2014).


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