Hollywood’s Take on Islam

Culture Watch

Thomas Doherty is Professor of American Studies at Brandeis University. He specializes in the history of film. His latest book is Hollywood's Censor: Joseph I. Breen and the Production Code Administration (Columbia, 2009).

Hollywood’s first cinematic response to 9-11 was to digitally erase the Twin Towers from the New York City skyline in Zoolander (2001), a fashionista parody by director-star Ben Stiller, released seventeen days after the buildings vaporized.  The comedian was bitterly condemned for what was perceived, in those tense and discombobulating days, as an act of visual sacrilege.  “To remove the towers is to pretend they were never there,” sniped film producer Michael Mailer.  In a contrite letter to the New York Times, a shell-shocked Stiller tried to explain his decision.  “In deciding to go ahead [with the release of Zoolander], I had to make an immediate judgment about the skyline shots, which were indispensable to the story.  I decided to edit out one shot, and to obscure the towers in another.”  In hindsight, he admitted, “the omission of the towers was disconcerting to some,” but “I felt that people who chose to see the movie as escapist entertainment were not looking for another reminder of the tragedy.” (1)

The digital erasure of the Twin Towers in Zoolander offers a perhaps too convenient metaphor for the more extensive erasures of 9-11 from the architecture of Hollywood cinema.  Nine years after the most spectacular and devastating attack on American soil since Pearl Harbor, surprisingly few major feature films have probed the meaning of 9-11 or mined the ready-made towering inferno scenario for melodrama or action adventure.  The exceptions— Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center (2006), Paul Greengrass’s United 93 (2006, ) and a trickle of post traumatic stress psychodramas such as Jim Simpson’s The Guys (2002) and Mike Binder’s Reign over Me (2007)—are minor tributaries in the main currents of American cinema.  Hollywood’s response to the event that has determined American foreign policy, ignited two overseas ground wars, and reshaped domestic politics has been strangely muted.  Today, in films set in Manhattan, typically frothy romantic comedies partaking of the sex and shopping in the city, the towers of 9-11 loom not even as shadows.

The inertia of genre—a kind of cinematic “path dependence” —explains some of the absence.  At some point in the late 1960s, and with increasing momentum from the 1970s onwards, Hollywood typecast Washington as its go-to villain and prime plot mover.  In the backfire of Vietnam and Watergate, anti-military and anti-government scenarios built around labyrinthine conspiracies concocted at the highest levels of American authority fueled countless thrillers and action adventure fare.  By the mid-1980s, the plotline had hardened into concrete:  a lone truth seeker, who in Act I is a stalwart patriot, discovers that the senior American command structure is rife with traitors, cowards, and greed heads.  As his eyes open and the body count rises, he peels back layer after layer of official duplicity and betrayal.  Sometimes, he dies in the end reel; more often, he unravels the web of deceit and blasts the no-longer-faceless bureaucrats to hell.

The anti-American government template was also encouraged by the momentous convulsion in international politics near the end of the century.  With the collapse of communism in 1991, the elimination of a polar-opposite nemesis and credible source of menace beset Hollywood with what frazzled screenwriters quite seriously dubbed a “villain shortage.”  After all, the conflict and violence that is the lifeblood of drama and the occasion for spectacular FX demands a threat backed by blockbuster firepower.  Throughout the 1990s, Hollywood flailed about desperately for a geopolitical force majeure—South African diamond smugglers, Russian terrorists, South American drug dealers, whomever.  This summer’s Angelina Jolie vehicle Salt (2010), directed by Philip Noyce, was an exercise in generic nostalgia that underscores the point:  the plotline must dredge up the Cold War version of the U.S.S.R. to hatch a scheme that can threaten the present-day national security apparatus of the United States.  No wonder Hollywood prefers to escape to the realms of science fiction or fantasy for omnipotent villains and battalions of storm troopers.

Still, for the scenario that pretends to be located on the ground of the real world, Hollywood’s favorite monster still resides in Washington.  In a unipolar world, America reigns supreme as a wellspring of monolithic villainy brandishing military prowess and international tentacles.  An establishing shot of the CIA headquarters in Langley or an aerial view of the geometric contours of the Pentagon is sufficient to set the mood and pinpoint the locus of evil.  Historical happenstance met up with a perverse kind of national chauvinism to make America the fount of most nefarious doings on a global scale.

The paranoid style in Hollywood cinema has proven remarkably resilient and ideologically malleable.  Whether from the left or right, Jason Bourne or Jack Ryan, the enemy is not them but us:  a star chamber pulling the strings behind the scenes, a government no longer of but against the people.  It was no surprise that in the update of The Manchurian Candidate (2004), the programmed assassin came not from Red China but from the military-industrial-governmental complex.  Or, to take a more recent example, that in the recent Mel Gibson vehicle Edge of Darkness (2010), the plot swirls around a scurvy United States senator and a sinister nuclear power plant executive who conspire to launch a bio-chemical attack on American soil—and to blame the incident on innocent Muslims in order to ensure the continued flow of defense speeding.  

The perpetrators of 9-11 might have seemed to be the slam-dunk answer to the villain shortage.  Foreign, sociopathic, killers of the innocent—the bearded jihadists were a camera-ready gift from Central Casting.  Yet, in the main, Hollywood has resisted the casting of jihadists as hissible villains and American moviegoers have evinced little stomach for the satisfactions of ethno-religious jingoism.  By the time Jodie Foster climbed into the fuselage of Robert Schwentke’s airplane-set thriller Flightplan (2005), any American moviegoer who thought that the Middle Eastern-looking passenger was the cause of the turbulence hadn’t been paying attention.

Not that Hollywood could altogether avoid an explicit address of the war on terror and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  On this turf, two main variations on two venerable genres quickly emerged:  one with roots in the espionage thriller, the other steeped in the conventions of the combat film; one clandestine, the other an open-air battlefield.  Both, so far, have been more likely to look back to pre-9-11 Hollywood tropes than forward to any post-9-11 themes.

The perimeters of the combat films have mapped out territory that looks especially familiar.  Faithfully retracing the hoariest clichés of the precedent genre, the spate of Iraqi war films that came to the screen during the second term of the Bush administration were mainly ill-disguised Vietnam war films:  desert for jungle, IEDs for bouncing bettys, ragheads for gooks.  On the homefront, post- traumatically stressed out veterans awoke with night terrors and seethed with homicide rage; in the combat zone, American soldiers killed each other with more single-minded determination than they pursued the enemy.  Whether in a forward operating base in Iraq or back home in the world, a duplicitous military-civilian axis worked overtime to conceal the basic fecklessness of the mission and its own malign motives.  A typical variation on the Vietnam theme was Paul Haggis’s In the Valley of Elah (2007), which blended battlefield war crimes and native ground backfire.  The film ends with an embittered, disillusioned but no longer blindly patriotic veteran (Tommy Lee Jones, the craggy personification of down-home Texan integrity), hoisting an American flag upside down, the signal of the distress and rot in America’s core.  Meanwhile, in the actual theater of war, Paul Greengrass’s Green Zone (2010) barely misses a beat as it imprints the post-Vietnam syndrome onto the early days of the Iraq War.  A lone American hero (Matt Damon) searches desperately for weapons of mass destruction only to find, not the WMDs, but a civilian-military conspiracy whose masterminds are fully cognizant of the wild goose chase he and his men are risking their lives for.  I suspect part of the critical exaltation that greeted Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker (2009) came from a sense of relief that her extended exegesis on Alfred Hitchcock’s ticking bomb theory of cinematic suspense at least felt like the Iraq, not Vietnam.

The generic path dependence is no less evident in the espionage thrillers and conspiracy films generated in the wake of 9-11.  In its Cold War iterations—The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Seven Days in May (1964), and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965), come to mind—the genre thrived on moral complexity, bureaucratic verisimilitude, and vertiginous plot twists.  By contrast, predictability and derivativeness mark the age-of-terror update.  Though ostensibly progressive and left of center in their overt politics, the films are strikingly reactionary in a cinematic sense:  returning, compulsively, to the familiar contours of the pre-9-11 conspiracy scenario.  How much of the retro,  anti-American government arc of the twenty-first century Hollywood espionage thriller is an ideological stance and how much generic inertia is hard to calibrate, but the obsession with an enemy within has blocked out an understanding of the enemy without.

Nowhere is the absence of address more conspicuous than in the ethno-religionist element of the war on terror—the refusal to speak the name of radical Islam. (2)  As if by unspoken agreement, the silence crosses genres across the theater marquee.  Jon Favreau’s Iron Man (2008) is emblematic of the risk avoidance. The Marvel Comics megahit sets its overseas operation in the real battlefront of Afghanistan, but populates the terrain with tribal fighters who seem never to have heard of Allah.  Though vaguely Taliban-esque in costume, visage, and facial hair, the warriors articulate no political or religious gripe with the USA.  The spectacular CGI combat is all about metal and money—there’s not a mullah in sight.  Likewise, in Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlosverg’s hilariously addled Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay (2008), few ethnic and racial taboos are left unbroken, but when Korean-American geek Harold and the Indian-American doper Kumar encounter a pair of real terrorists at Gitmo, the prisoners look like jihadists but even for this wildly transgressive road movie a religious wisecrack is beyond the pale.  

A world away in budget and tone, respectively, from Iron Man and Harold and Kumar is Syriana (2005), a geopolitical espionage thriller wandering through the dust storm of Mideast politics.  Directed and written by Stephen Gaghan, best known for his screenplay to Steven Sonderburg’s similarly multinational-plot layered social problem film Traffic (2000), Syriana garnered a good deal of critical praise and industry self-congratulation.  To A.O. Scott in the New York Times, Gaghan took the familiar signposts of Hollywood storytelling “to a state of heightened attention and pushes beyond the cliché of heroism and suspense towards something a good more unsettling.  Something you could almost call realism.” (3)  In Variety, Todd McCarthy detected a “must-see for thinking audiences” and hailed “a weighty and deeply intriguing look at the many-tentacled beast that is in international oil industry."  (He also said the film is "not “didactic or motivated by political-point making,” a remark I find bewildering." (4)  Gaghan received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay and George Clooney won the award for Best Supporting Actor.

Even by the loopy standards of Hollywood conspiracy mongering, the plot is convoluted, but as near as I can make out the action swirls around the machinations of two recently merged Big American Oil leviathans to gain drilling rights to the oceans of crude in an unnamed Dubai-like Persian Gulf  nation.  Two Arab princes—one sensitive, visionary, and incorruptible; the other Westernized, avaricious, and pliable—are vying to assume the throne once their aged King Faisal-like father dies.  The CIA, in collusion with Big Oil, wants to maneuver the willing pawn into power and hatches an assassination plot to grease the skids.  The agent in change of the hit is veteran field operative Bob (Clooney, plus 30 pounds), who in the prologue to the film has proven his wet work mettle by selling two surface-to-air missiles to a terrorist cell in Tehran.  One of the missiles explodes on cue, killing the would-be terrorists; the other falls into the hands of another terrorist cell, which is not part of the plan.  Functioning as a kind of cylindrical MacGuffin, the missile will turn up again in the possession of Islamic radicals with a legitimate gripe against American imperialism.

Throughout Syriana, the macro-geopolitical drama intersects with the micro- interpersonal melodrama.  As the CIA/Big Oil cartel schemes against Arab self-determination, a Geneva-based energy analyst (Matt Damon) is drawn into the orbit of the good prince after his son is accidentally killed in the royal family’s swimming pool.  Meanwhile, in the third or maybe forth major plot strand, two Pakistani guest workers toiling in the Gulf oil fields become radicalized by economic oppression and police brutality.  At a madrasah, they find solace and direction in Islamic radicalism—a doctrine, in Hollywood’s translation, that is part Koran, part Das Capital.  

Amid the planet-wide backstabbing, careerism, and cruel-world realpolitik depicted in Syriana, the only beacon of integrity and morality is the good prince, who seeks democratic reform (“real democracy rising up organically”) and the end to the treatment of woman as second class citizens.  When the king decides to appoint the scoundrel younger brother to the throne, the good prince resolves to launch a coup that will bring true democracy and liberal reform to his nation. 

To highlight the aura of seriousness, Gaghan’s aesthetic style brandishes the jerky handheld camerawork that bespeaks serious, cinema verite-like docudrama, the action ping-ponging via sharp editing and subtitle signposts from Tehran to Georgetown to Geneva, to the sleek boardrooms of multinational energy companies to dirty and dusty locations in Dubai and Morocco standing in for less welcoming Middle Eastern exteriors. 

In the final reel, Gaghan cross-cuts between two missile attacks:  one, a drone attack by the CIA on the good prince and his family as they ride by convoy to take the reins of power; the other, a seaborne suicide attack on a LNG facility in the Persian Gulf by the radicalized Pakistanis.  In Syriana, it is the Americans who are guilty of the real terrorist attack, killing the prince, his wife, and child by remote control, without blinking an eye; the hands-on Islamic suicide bombers attack a military target in a revolutionary action with no innocent civilians caught in the crossfire.

The scenes in Syriana that explicitly engage the lure of Islamic radicalism are especially intriguing—both for what they say and what remains muted.  Though the two Pakistanis guest workers are caught up in the worldwide web of American popular culture—debating the symbolic significance of the spider who bit Peter Parker, watching videos of Hollywood blockbusters, and salivating over American junk food—they are also alienated and primed for radicalization.  Fired from their jobs in the oil fields and beaten by local police while seeking work, they are the natural offspring of economic dispossession and authoritarian oppression.  The madrasah offers an emotional and spiritual lifeline—a place to eat well, hang with the boys, and find direction.  Of course, that lifeline will also lead them to death.

Laudably, Syriana takes the audience into the curriculum of the madrasah with a series of fascinating sessions of religious indoctrination.  Again, however, there is an avoidance of so much that gets to the heart of the matter, what the theoretically inclined might call a “structured absence” of elephantine dimensions.  Not once in the entire 128-minutemrunning time of this extravagantly praised “thinking audience’s” inquiry into Mideast politics, CIA black ops, and Islamic terrorism does the soundtrack utter two words rather pertinent to the discourse of the Mideast and the curriculum of the madrasah: Israel and Jew. 

Why the avoidance?  I suspect Hollywood’s aversion to probing the religious element in the war on terror has less to do with a craven fear of retaliation (although, let’s face it, that may be part of it) than with a very American befuddlement about a theology that, in its extreme wings, celebrates war and violence against infidels.  Americans understand race wars, we understand wars of ideology, but religious warfare is off our radar.  One can point to the occasional blip of religious violence in American history—the anti-Catholicism of the Know=Nothings, the anti-Mormonism of the mid-nineteenth century, and the rare spasm of anti-Semitism, but, on the whole, the problem of religion was solved when Roger Williams fled to Rhode Island and replaced an ethos of persecution with tolerance.  The ecumenical spirit is perhaps best symbolized in the family of man tableaux that opens Guadalcanal Diary (1943):  on shipboard, a Catholic priest is performing chaplain duties for the sick Protestant chaplain, leading the crew-congregation in a rousing version of the ur-Protestant hymn “Rock of Ages."  In the congregation, one sailor turns to his shipmate and says, “Say, Sammy, your voice is okay.”  “Why not?” replies Sammy.  “My father was a cantor in the synagogue.”

Not least, wars of race and ideology also have familiar generic antecedents in literature and Hollywood film.  World War II films yoked the two strands in the configurations of the two enemies in their respective theaters of war.  In Europe, a war against Nazism, not Germans; in the Pacific, a war against the Japs, not imperialism.  Know Your Enemy: Germany (1945) and Know Your Enemy: Japan (1945) instructed the propaganda films—one, an ideological threat; the other a racial menace.

In the Cold War too, the struggle against communism was mainly ideological. To be sure, communism was godless and America god-fearing, but the American Judeo-Christian God was an amorphous nondenominational being of middle class manners and moderate temperament.  When He got angry, as in the most popular film of the era—Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1956) —He had good reason.  Also, He was not doctrinal or sectarian.

Islam is not godless but god-ridden. It is also a religion without deep roots in the American experience, its mosques, rituals, and incantations sounding a discordant ring to the native ear.  For all the exotic otherness of the African and the Indian to the European American, the people were close at hand, literally part of the national bloodstream.  Islam has yet to mingle into the main currents of American life and Hollywood, frankly, seems not to know what to do with it.  The utter perplexity about Islam and the ability of the religion to confound and discombobulate has been on vivid display this past summer in the frenzy over the Ground Zero mosque and the zero IQ preachers.  It also bespeaks a more profound perplexity about a religion whose adherents could countenance, even celebrate, 9-11 and kindred terrorist acts.

So, whether the genre is comedy, combat, action adventure, or thriller, Hollywood leaves radical Islam on the cutting room floor.  To date, only one filmmaker of international stature has probed the Islamist element in the War on Terror with the same zeal that Americans have focused the lens on their own—the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, who with feminist Ayaan Hirsi Ali created the 12-minute indictment of Shar’ia law, Submission Part 1 (2004).  On November 2, 2004, shortly after the film was broadcast on Dutch television, van Gogh was shot and stabbed to death by a Muslim extremist in the streets of Amsterdam. 

(1)  A singular, though partial, exception occurs in the opening moments of Ridley Scott's Body of Lies (2008), which blurts out an orthodox War on Terror message before reverting to genre type.  "What we're dealing with here is potentially a global conflagration that requires constant diligence to suppress," says CIA agent Ed Hoffman (Russell Crowe), explaining the theological realpolitik of the Mideast to a pair of government bureaucrats.  "What I need you to fully understand is that these people they do not want to negotiate.  Not at all.  They want the universal caliphate established across the face of the earth.  And they want every infidel converted or dead."

Editor's Note: This piece has been updated

(2) Ben Stiller, “Editing the Towers,” New York Times, October 25, 2001.

(3)  A.O. Scott, “Clooney and a Maze of Confusion,” New York Times, November 23, 2005: E23.  

(4) Todd McCarthy, “Syriana,”  Variety, November 19, 2005.

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Abraham Joseph Shragge - 11/8/2010

You go, Tom!


james joseph butler - 11/5/2010

Doherty wants reality from la la land. We go to the movies for dreams and comfort food.

Hollywood doesn't confront the hideous reality of Islamofascism because it's too complicated. Islamofascism is codependent with Western Imperialism and Zionism. Osama would be a living in London or Dubai if Israel didn't exist. Hollywood solved the Israel problem with 'Exodus', when was Paul Newman a bad guy?

'Submission, Part One',Palestine, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Syria,... is what the West and Israel have asked from the Middle East since 1917. Doherty needs to recognize the limits of the medium. Hundreds of movies have been made about WW2, name one that limns an understanding of why it happened.

omar ibrahim baker - 11/3/2010

no offense taken but I propose rereading it

Timothy Furnish - 11/2/2010

Mr. Moise,
Beware: you have no idea about the sea of irrelevancies and non sequiturs in which you are about to drown, courtesy of Mr. Baker.

Timothy Furnish - 11/2/2010

No offense, but I have no bloody idea what your point is.

omar ibrahim baker - 11/2/2010

Did you ever hear of, or read about, the USA incendiary bombing of Tokyo?
And what it did to civilians?
Just asking!

omar ibrahim baker - 11/2/2010

Sad treasonous omissions and unmitigated unpatriotic forgetfulness are the decisions that excised, thus acquitting, Moslems and Islam from its rightful, and Legitimate?, place/role/identity (trial or no trial!) as the undoubted and unquestionable culprits, criminals and over all bad guys all over the world including in works of fiction such as 1)"The Sum of All Fears," and .2) "Iron Man,"

So declaims an illustrious Professor !

The worst though is that:
(A):" Overall, Hollywood has long since decided that the real bad guys/villains/threats to the world are Chrisitans (sic) and Christianity-- "
Which is bad enough BUT worst still, the absolute evil, is that:
(B): "--and no amoung(sic) of real-world Islamic, Qur'an-based violence will alter that perverse conviction.”
That is what a Professor, no less , thinks and has to say, and of course tell his students, about some movies and the movie industry “overall” for the reasons cited and rationale displayed.!

However going by his own assertion (A): ” that the real bad guys/villains/threats to the world ( according to USA moviedom are Chrisitans (sic) and Christianity-- "
seems to possibly betray a lurking religious/confessional bias about American Jews in American cinema!
Is their alleged absence from the world of USA criminaldom portrayed by Hollywood, as perceived by Dr Furnish, :
a- A deliberate, laudable, though not immaculately factual, praise worthy act meant to ward off any accusation of anti Semitism? OR
b- A damnable act of discrimination in that it, their absence, implies non recognition of their intrinsic Americanism which includes, inter alia, their full participation in USA criminaldom?
c- An affirmation of a historical truth?
(DR Furnish is a historian or at least a history major after all !)

Dare we hope that the illustrious Professor will elucidate!!

Be that what it may the unpardonable, the horrific delinquency of Hollywood is that Hollywood by not reasserting the unassailable fact that :
(B): "--and no amoung(sic) of real-world Islamic, Qur'an-based violence will alter that perverse conviction.”

Miserably fails to undertake diligently, and patriotically ?, its universal enlightening mission !

Thus spake and wrote a Professor which makes one wonder!

Edwin Moise - 11/1/2010

In Doherty's summary of the plot of the film "Syriana," he says that toward the end of the film, Islamic militants carry out "a seaborne suicide attack on a LNG facility in the Persian Gulf." His comment on this is that it was not a terrorist incident; "the hands-on Islamic suicide bombers attack a military target in a revolutionary action with no innocent civilians caught in the crossfire."

Run that by me again? A liquefied natural gas facility is a military, not a civilian, target? Its work force includes no innocent civilians?

Timothy Furnish - 10/31/2010

An excellent piece, to which I would add the following salient points:
1) What about the Hollywood version of Tom Clancy's excellent book "The Sum of All Fears," in which a group of ISLAMIC terrorists set off a radiological bomb at the Super Bowl? Hollywood changed the perps to Serbians.
2) In "Iron Man," as this author points out, the quasi-Afghan terrorists evince no hint of Islam; in fact, they advocate (if I recall correctly, and I don't have time to watch the DVD again) re-creating Tamerlane's empire.
3) Overall, Hollywood has long since decided that the real bad guys/villains/threats to the world are Chrisitans and Christianity--and no amoung of real-world Islamic, Qur'an-based violence will alter that perverse conviction.