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9/11 and the revival of the critical eye in Hollywood


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The Conversation

Pablo Castrillo

Professor of Culture and Audiovisual Communication department

On a September morning twenty-two years ago, when two airliners crashed into the Twin Towers in Manhattan and when, shortly thereafter, the buildings crumbled in a cloud of debris and concrete that flooded the streets, the minds of millions of viewers were quick to make a seemingly trivial connection, "It looks like something out of a movie."

The caustic director Robert Altman stated bitterly, "We have created this atmosphere and taught them [the terrorists] how to do it." Indeed, Hollywood cinema had for years shown an enthusiastic fondness for the spectacle of destruction. But 9/11, in its dimension of human tragedy and, at the same time, visual trauma, initially caused the opposite effect.

The anecdotal removal of a trailer for Spider Man (2002) in which a group group of muggers escaping by helicopter is trapped by a giant web woven between the twin skyscrapers of the World Trade Center is well known (the scene can be seen on YouTube). This cautious self-censorship affected many other films, which were edited or postponed, and even cancelled at the project stage.

Predictor movies

Less frequent, however, was the reference letter a Black Sundaya 1977 thriller in which the Palestinian terrorist group Black September orchestrates a chilling attack during the Super Bowl final, crashing the iconic explosives-laden Goodyear blimp into the stands.

The film's director , John Frankenheimer, was precisely the man who fifteen years earlier had inaugurated the American political thriller genre with The Messenger of Fear (1962), in which a presidential candidate was assassinated by a war veteran psychologically conditioned by his captors.

The viewers of that paranoid and deranged film that culminated with a rifle shot at an election rally were able to witness and feel some familiarity, just a few months later, with the assassination of President Kennedy. Precisely, when The Messenger of Fear ended its -not very successful- run at locker, the rumor spread that it had been withdrawn for reasons of sensitivity, a rumor that was denied even by Frank Sinatra himself, star and producer of the film. And from that crossroads a cinematographic current was born that would reach its peak in the seventies.

The political cinema of the 1970s

The civil service examination to the Vietnam War -which had been escalating since 1965-, the civil rights movement, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy in 1968, and the succession of political scandals that would culminate in the Watergate affair, all these convulsive forces converged in a period of countercultural effervescence and political turmoil that was also felt in Hollywood.

Those years gave birth to film gems such as The Conversation (1974), The Last Witness (1974), The Three Days of the Condor (1975), All the President's Men, Marathon Man (1976) y The China Syndrome (1979).

They were dark films, with disoriented protagonists, embroiled in elusive conspiracies, and threatened by a seemingly inexorable political machine. More often than not, their endings were unsatisfying or bitterly ambiguous. And they almost always offered an image of the political class deeply marked by corruption, deceit and a mentality in which spurious ends justified immoral means.

The return of the political thriller

It is significant that, after the tragic attacks of September 11, 2001, and after a brief period of respectful (or fearful) creative silence, Hollywood gave the green light to the remake, precisely, of The Messenger of Fear (2004).

Directed by Jonathan Demme(The Silence of the Lambs), the film adapted the political context of the original - the McCarthyite Red Scare - to a climate of analogous extremism, oscillating between the poles of security and freedom. Beyond its magnicidal conspiracy, the new version portrayed an American society gripped by fear, inclined to redouble its militaristic efforts, and tainted by the interests of megacorporations accustomed to manipulating puppet politicians.

And so was born a new golden age for the Hollywood political thriller, armed with a critical and sometimes downright pessimistic outlook.

Diverse views on terrorism

Between 2005 and 2011 alone, twenty-five political thrillers were released, albeit with various Degrees of contesting attitude and quality, of course. Among the most hopeless stories, Syriana (2005) y transcript Anwar (2007) attribute the causes of Islamist terrorism to the United States' own economic and security policies, embodying in multiple plots and convoluted temporality the notion of "blowback", something like a geostrategic boomerang effect.

The Interpreter (2005), directed by Sydney Pollack with no few nods to his own The Three Days of the Condor, also shot mainly in New York, illustrates the perverse effects of a certain spirit of historical revenge, precisely in the city that was still trying to heal its scars. The same Pollack released -more successfully- Michael Clayton (2007), whose antagonist is a multinational agrochemical company and, incidentally, the legal system that defends its questionable practices.

The delirious action thriller Shooter (2007) depicts the collusion of American senators and energy companies and how their mutual enrichment justifies atrocities that, in turn, must be silenced by all means, starting with the media but also including the security and intelligence agencies, even going as far as state assassination.

The Shadow of Power (2009) denounces the interference of private economic interests in the legislation in subject of security, intoning in turn a nostalgic apology of the fourth power.

And the list goes on in a mosaic of critical reflections on the global banking system (The International2009), the false justification of the invasion of Iraq (Green Zone2010), the corruption of internal processes in political parties (The Ides of March2011), the questioning of the moral status of the United States in global geopolitics (The Darkest Night2012) and the culture of interpenetration between private business and public representatives in Washington, D.C. (Miss Sloane, 2016).

Persistent background issues

Although this "new wave" of Hollywood political thrillers seems to have quieted down in recent years - or perhaps shifted, in part, to the realm of series - the underlying themes they have explored persist over time.

Few genres have so aptly revived the deep Kafkaesque concern about the possibility of effective individual action in modern society, bureaucratized and hypermediatized; to which is added skepticism about the possibility of discovering or revealing the truth that political and economic organizations try to obscure.

Viewers of Syriana will undoubtedly remember the tragic helplessness and piercing irony of its ending. On Hollywood screens in the aftermath of 9/11 and the "war on terror," as was the case almost half a century earlier, the hero's journey becomes a labyrinth with no way out.