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Culture Warrior: Speculating Bin Laden’s Cinematic Legacy

By  · Published on May 10th, 2011

There will inevitably be a movie about the mission to kill Osama bin Laden – this much is certain. Recent news has established that Kathryn Bigelow might be the first to try to put into play one of several projects related to last week’s assassination amongst several that are being shopped around. The reasoning is clear, as the material lends itself inherently to cinematic expression. The mission itself, in short, feels like a movie. Whether or not this movie (or movies) will have anything to say beyond what we already know and think and feel is unknown and, in Cole Abaius’s terms, it will be difficult for such projects to escape an inherent potential to come across as a shameless “cash-in.”

My personal prediction is that the first movie that arises from bin Laden’s death will, at best, be an exciting procedural that visualizes an incident we are currently so invested in and preoccupied with. But I doubt that anything released so soon will remotely approach a full understanding of bin Laden’s death as catharsis for American citizens, as a harbinger for change in the West’s relationship to the Middle East and the Muslim world, as a precedent for the possible fall of al Qaeda, etc. In short, we won’t be able to express cinematically (or in any other medium, for that matter) what the death of bin Laden means until the benefits of time and hindsight actually provide that meaning.

This is why I think any movies about Osama Bin Laden that arise several decades from now, originating from any country, will most likely have far more insight than any movie about his life or the events of May 1, 2011 released in the next few years.

Godwin’s Law for Movies

As a case study for argumentation, let’s look at the cinematic legacy of Adolf Hitler as an example for potential comparison (note: this is not to endorse the hyperbolic statement that bin Laden was “the Hitler of our time,” which is a simplistic, ahistorical, and ultimately meaningless phrase. bin Laden was nothing but the bin Laden of our time.) During WWII, everything from newsreels to cartoons to gangster movies were part of the war effort, and while all of these films are quite interesting from a historical perspective, very few of them emerged from their context as great cinema. Outstanding films like Howard Hawks’s Sergeant York (1941) were effective and timeless because they spoke to the impending war effort by historical analogy – in this case, WWI. Overt propaganda, by contrast, rarely ages well (and, with the exception of Leni Riefenstahl’s films, this goes for Germany as well). The most interesting American films about the war to emerge from the war were movies that reflected on the war. This is why William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) was the first film about WWII to be celebrated as much as it was. This is also why the most canonized films about Vietnam were those released after Vietnam. One inevitably has more to say with the perspective of a historical moment rather than the immediacy of an ongoing moment.

Of course, it’s very different to make a movie about a war than to make a movie about the figurehead who symbolizes what one is fighting against (this is not, of course, to say that Hitler, or – by indirect analogy – bin Laden, were strictly symbolic, but a pluralized “enemy” is often summarized via the representative icon of the individual figurehead; thus, Hitler as national leader epitomized “the enemy” of WWII even though that enemy comprised various nations and peoples). As far as direct depictions of the man himself from the era in which he was actually in power go, the most iconic cinematic images that have stuck around for the past seventy years have been, surprisingly, from comedies. Films like Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940) and Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be (1942), as well as numerous Warner Bros. cartoons, both before and during the war gave audiences a means for catharsis by subverting the intimidating aura associated with what was in the eyes of many a pure manifestation of evil. Chaplin would later go on to admit that he wouldn’t have made his thinly veiled satirical and farcical mock of the fuhrer had he known how incredibly atrocious the man’s acts truly were, but this not only underestimates how important The Great Dictator was and still is, but more importantly it undervalues the incredibly subversive and cathartic power of comedy when it operates in the face of real danger.

While our various interventions in the Middle East are by no means over, Bin Laden’s death is certainly a significant close to a major chapter in the events that have defined what the 21st century has come to mean geopolitically. So, to use a loaded phrase, “during the war” (by that I mean, post-9/11/01, pre-5/1/11) we were also afforded catharsis through comedy in the face of trauma and further potential danger: for example, Four Lions (2010) and the first episode of South Park after 9/11. Both of these were audacious and controversial, but for good reason. With finding humor in the humorless, or the heaviest and most daunting of situations, comes potential catharsis and the ability to chip away at an aura of power associated with a threat.

The Banality of Bin Laden

“The enemy” isn’t exactly deconstructed through comedy (comedy was arguably itself a part of the war effort during WWII), but its associations are challenged or at least momentarily subverted. Where notions that defined the enemy become deconstructed cinematically are in those films released decades after the events they depict have taken place, when time and distance have allowed new means of assessing the perspective of the opposition.

Recently, German cinema has been unpacking much of its complex 21st century history. Films like Goodbye, Lenin! (2003), Downfall (2004), The Lives of Others (2006) and The Baader Meinhof Complex (2008) have excavated dark and complex chapters of their political histories and permitted an understanding of the subjective experience of “the enemies” – giving them a voice and a means of audience understanding (to varying degrees between these films) without necessarily endorsing their ideology.

Before Downfall was a tired Internet meme, it was a brilliant movie. In humanizing Hitler, the film confronts audiences with the most difficult concept to accept surrounding his legacy: that it’s harder to understand him as a human being who did evil things than to denounce him as the embodiment of evil. In humanizing Hitler, Downfall attempts to provide a means of allowing us to confront not only who Hitler might have been, but more importantly, what Hitler really means. Movies like Downfall remind us that the quote which introduces Braveheart isn’t completely true: history isn’t always written by its winners.

The best American equivalent to this new perspectival engagement with otherwise familiar history is Clint Eastwood’s Letters From Iwo Jima (2006), which was far more interesting than its companion piece Flags of Our Fathers for the simple reason that it gave a story of WWII that is rarely told on silver screens.

This is why the idea of a movie about Osama Bin Laden that is released several decades from now is far more promising and potentially interesting than the prospects of films that may come out within the next few years. It may be the movie that provides actual insight, perspective, and thus the ability to surprise by not simply giving us the narrative already so familiar to us elsewhere in culture (after all, what would a movie about bin Laden’s death released next year be besides a visualization of what we already know?). Already, Bin Laden is a confounding, contradictory figure that isn’t exactly what we thought of him to be throughout the past decade: he was captured in a mansion with many of the luxuries of modern society rather than in the isolates caves of the east that were so thoroughly associated with his persona, and the “wife as human shield” story we were so ready to believe wasn’t exactly true. Finally, a movie about the last days of Bin Laden’s life from his own perspective would likely be most shocking by having to commit the ultimate cinematic sin by showing the boredom and monotony of isolation, giving a new spin to the otherwise tired thematic notion of the “banality of evil.”

Regardless, with the necessary distance provided, I’m looking forward to the many stories that can be told about the current historical moment when the current moment is afforded the time and space to actually become past history.

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