Hollywood and the Muslim Ban: The Contemporary War Film as Urban Cinema

Black Hawk Down (Ridley Scott, 2001)
Johan Andersson considers the relationship between Trump's rhetoric and the anti-urban themes of the contemporary war film.
[Ed. note: this post is part of an editorial discussion on “Media and the City in Light of Trump, Brexit, and the Global Far Right.” For more background on the discussion and to view other posts in the series, see here.]

The first round of posts for this roundtable oscillated between a humanist hope in cinema and visual media’s power to aid progressive causes (“the points of warmth” in Sabine’s examples of migrant cinema, Stan’s use of The Wire for a critique of neoliberalism, or my evocation of Lukács’s belief in art’s ability to foster class consciousness) and a growing recognition that this power is currently being utilised more effectively by reactionary forces (Mark’s plea for us to study more carefully media outside the liberal polis). After a week in which the worst case scenario of a Trump presidency has already started to come true, I devote my second post to a continuation of Caitlin’s focus on cinema’s anti-urban themes and the ways in which they have informed some of the new administration’s rhetoric. While these have typically been associated with the American city of gangster cinema, film noir, gritty thrillers, and post-apocalyptic sci-fi, one of the most vibrant urban Hollywood genres today is the war film set abroad.

The seven Muslim-majority countries now included in the Trump administration’s ban on visas are perhaps not the ones we think of first in terms of scholarship on cinema and the city, yet there is a significant repertoire of Hollywood films set in their cities. The last 20 years have seen the knife-wielding Arabs in the desert of Aladdin and Indiana Jones largely replaced with equally vicious stereotypes of mobs, suicide bombers, and armed civilians in urban settings. Most prominently featured in films about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, we also have the armed and angry crowds of the unspecified Yemeni city in Rules of Engagement (William Friedkin, 2000), the Mogadishu of Black Hawk Down (Ridley Scott, 2001), or the Tehran of Argo (Ben Affleck, 2012), just to mention some examples that did well at the box office. If these cities all merge into one, it is because they are never actually shot on location, but in Morocco, Jordan, or Southern California, which stand in for the generic “Muslim city” of savagery and bloodshed.

This generic urban image is a powerful one that Trump himself has frequently deployed: in his first presidential interview last week, he drew parallels between Chicago and the cities of Afghanistan and the Middle-East. On the campaign trail, he evoked and frequently merged domestic and foreign anti-urban imagery directly borrowed from cinema. Firstly, his dystopic and racialized notion of the US “inner-city”, oblivious to the gentrification and falling crime rates of the last 25 years, resembled the hood cinema of the 1990s, but above all, perhaps, the 1970s films of “white flight” and urban crisis. Secondly, his descriptions of London, Paris, and Brussels as “hellholes” or no-go areas of Islamic radicalisation superimposed the Orientalist trope of the “Muslim city” as chaos – currently associated with war films – on some of the quintessential cities of European modernity. There is a certain lineage between the two genres – 70s crisis film and the contemporary war movie – not least because of the overlap in personnel: the protagonist in Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper – the highest grossing film in the US in 2014 – has an ideological affinity with Harry Callahan, the rogue San Francisco cop played by Eastwood in Dirty Harry (Don Siegel, 1971), while some of the 70s auteurs who made films about crime-ridden New York have gone on to make war movies.

Brian De Palma’s Redacted (2007), a reworking of his Vietnam epic Causalities of War (1989), is a genuine anti-war film that flopped, while Friedkin’s jingoistic Rules of Engagement (2000), about a terrorist attack on the American embassy in Yemen, is his highest grossing film after The Exorcist (1973) and The French Connection (1971). Both are concerned with “tapes”: in Redacted multimedia “found” footage is used to complicate and provide multiple perspectives on the Iraq war, while in Rules of Engagement the one and only truth about the attack on the embassy in Yemen is hidden on a security camera tape. Friedkin’s film, which portrays almost all Yemenis as terrorists and rejoices in close-ups of the American army machine-gunning civilians, has one moment that stands out in its sheer awfulness: in a flashback, a one-legged girl we have been made to sympathise with as a victim of the terrorist attack is seen with a gun, shooting at American soldiers. Needless to say, there is a direct parallel between the crude implication of this scene – that all Muslims, including children, are terrorists – and the Trump administration’s blanket ban on all citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries. Indeed, the same conflation between Muslim people in general and Islamic terrorism led Trump’s National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn, to describe Islam itself as a “malignant cancer”.

What makes the flashback scene in Rules of Engagement particularly uncomfortable is the horror shock factor it so effectively produces. Clearly, Friedkin has been willing to lend his considerable skills as a filmmaker – the tricks and tropes of the possessed child from The Exorcist – to a nasty propaganda film produced with assistance from the Department of Defense. It made me think of an interview with Fritz Lang, which Friedkin himself conducted, in which the émigré director tells the story of how in the spring of 1933, Joseph Goebbels invited him to the German Ministry of Propaganda. There he was offered the post of managing director for the entire German film industry, but claims, perhaps inaccurately, to have escaped the country the same evening (the exact details matter less, ultimately, than his refusal to work for the regime). Other talented people in the German film industry stayed, and their names are forever synonymous with complicity and collaboration.

Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow, 2012)

A couple of years ago, Naomi Wolf – like many others – perceived Zero Dark Thirty (2012), the film about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, as pro-torture and compared its director, Kathryn Bigelow, to Leni Riefenstahl. The comparison is I think unfair – there is great moral complexity to Zero Dark Thirty, and other commentators viewed it as anti-torture – yet as Wolf correctly pointed out, it is implausible that the scenes with state of the art military helicopters were made without support from the Department of Defense (which presumably also had to approve its script). While it still seems unlikely that the Trump administration will turn Hollywood in its entirety into a propaganda machine, it seems highly likely that a person with Steve Bannon’s background and connections – he too has been compared to Leni Riefenstahl, but in this instance the comparison was delivered as a compliment by Andrew Breitbart – will encourage and support films which aid the administration’s political agenda. The war film’s conflicting demands between high-tech realism and independence from Washington are not new, but only in the last week, the ethical stakes have risen considerably.

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