[Even—perhaps especially—recent, painful, and controversial events and topics demand our AmericanStudying. So this week, I’ll offer a handful of ways to AmericanStudy September 11th, 2001, and its contexts and aftermaths, leading up to a special memorial post this weekend.]
On the most salient aspect of an underappreciated, premonitory film.
Director Edward Zwick made three films with Denzel Washington, and it’s fair to say that each was less successful and significant than the one before. Glory (1989), their first collaboration, is an undisputed American masterpiece, did hugely significant historical and cultural work, and stands as perhaps the greatest film yet made about the Civil War. Courage Under Fire (1996), their second collaboration, was far less prominent, but nonetheless won a ton of awards and remains one of the best films made about the first Gulf War. And then there’s The Siege (1998), a film that, despite the combined star power of Washington, Bruce Willis, and Annette Bening, lost an estimated $30 million at the box office and has, as far as I can tell, disappeared entirely from our cultural landscape and collective memories.
That disappearance is pretty strange—not because the film is brilliant or anything (although I don’t think it’s bad at all, and it features great performances from the three leads as well as future Monk star Tony Shalhoub), but because this 1998 movie foreshadowed and predicted so, so thoroughly the 2001 terrorist attacks and nearly all of the events, debates, and revelations of their aftermath. [SPOILERS FOLLOW:] The film’s Islamic terrorists are members of an Al Qaeda-like group that was trained in Afghanistan by CIA agent Bening before turning against the United States; after their attacks on New York City, debates ensue over the best ways to respond, with military officer Willis favoring civil liberties restrictions, illegal detention and torture, and other methods of what FBI agent Washington calls “shredding the Constitution just a little bit”; and the film thus becomes at one and the same time a thriller about stopping the terrorists and one about the battle between these opposed American perspectives on an unfolding “war on terror.”
All of those elements and themes remain highly salient for our contemporary society, of course. But there’s one particular plot thread that resonates strikingly with the late July 2015 moment in which I’m writing this post: after declaring martial law in New York City, Willis’ general instigates a forced internment of most of the city’s Arabic and Muslim American residents (including the son of Shalhoub’s FBI agent character). In the aftermath of the mid-July, Chattanooga, Tennessee killings of five US servicemen by what seems to have been a radicalized Muslim American, retired General Wesley Clark advocated for precisely such an internment program. (To be clear, Clark officially advocated for only interning “radical” Muslim Americans—but that’s the ostensible goal of Willis’ program in The Siege as well, and I’m quite certain such an effort would cast just as wide and indiscriminatory net in reality as it does in the film.) While part of me finds it impossible to believe that we’re even talking about interning Americans once more, another part recognizes—as, years before 9/11, did Zwick’s film—that such extreme, dark responses to tragedy remain a part of our national identity, and one with which The Siege helps us engage.
Last AmericanStudying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? 9/11 contexts and analyses you’d share?
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