As we approach the 10th anniversary of 9/11, we are about to see a great deal of commentary about how the attacks altered the country. Over the last few months, I have procrastinated by watching a number of films that deal with terrorism and related issues. They provide a window into how much the culture has changed because of the attacks.
When you look at films that deal with terrorism from the 1980s and 90s, the humorous tone of the movies is noteworthy. Both Die Hard (1988) and Die Hard 2 (1990), for instance, are full of Bruce Willis’ wisecracks and public officials who don’t take the situations seriously. The lack of airport security is notable in Die Hard 2, as John McLane engages in full-scale firefights within the airport itself while security seems to exist solely of glorified rent-a-cops. I realize that some of these elements exist for dramatic effect, but it would inconceivable today for a film to depict the head of airport security ignoring a shooting in his own airport, as occurs in Die Hard 2.
Similarly, 1994’s True Lies, one of the first films to deal with the possibility of terrorists getting nuclear weapons, features a similar comedic tone. The film is a complete farce with cartoonish terrorists and includes a scene with Jamie Lee Curtis and Arnold Schwarzenegger kissing as a loose nuke explodes in the background.
Some film franchises provide clear demarcations between pre and post 9-11 culture. For example, the 90s Batman films, particularly Batman Forever (1995) and Batman and Robin (1997), feature over-the-top villains and cartoonish plots reminiscent of the Adam West TV show from the 1960s. On the other hand, the 21st century Christopher Nolan directed Batman Begin (2005) and Dark Knight (2008) have depicted relatively realistic threats similar to terrorist plots, such as Raz-a-Ghul’s attempt to poison the water in Gotham and the Joker’s multiple attacks.
Another clear contrast can be seen in the difference between the James Bond films of the 1990s and the post 9-11 007 movies. While Pierce Brosnan revived the franchise, the films are notable for ludicrous plots that couldn’t possibly be taken seriously, culminating in 2002’s Die Another Day, where Bond uses an invisible car and drives through an ice palace. It makes Moonraker look positively believable!
On the other hand, the Daniel Craig films feature a Bond that is ultra-serious and doesn’t even bother to engage in the usual puns and wisecracks. The plots of Casino Royale (2006) and Quantum of Solace (2009) are relatively believable and it seems as if genuine issues are actually a stake. Bond doesn’t even use the usual gadgets that have been such a trademark of the franchise as Q doesn’t appear in either movie. One couldn’t imagine Roger Moore, the Bond of my childhood, starring in these films.
Indeed, the Craig films seem inspired by the Bourne movies. Though based on the Robert Ludlum novels of the 1970s, the movies update the plots for the post 9/11 era. Bourne is a somber CIA-trained assassin trying to figure out his own identity. The third film, the Bourne Ultimatum (2007) is replete with commentary on the Bush era. When Joan Allen’s ethical CIA officer questions the agency’s extreme tactics, asking “When does this end,” her counterpart played by David Straitharn says, “It ends when we win!” When Bourne later asks Allen’s character, Pam Landy, why she is helping him, she responds, “This isn’t what I signed on for. This isn’t us.”
Generally speaking, action adventure films have taken a more serious tone in the years after 9/11. We will see if this continues or if this development will fade as we gain more distance from the attacks