The three movies we cover in this episode are: Ridley Scott’s 2005 Crusade saga – Kingdom of Heaven; Oliver Stone’s 2004 bio-pic – Alexander; and Zach Snyder’s 2006 extravaganza – 300. We decided to start with these because they all fall into a classic Hollywood genre: the sword and sandals epics. What these films have in common is also what makes them weird because when you think about that kind of movie, you think of it as something way outdated and not a popular draw. But in the years since 9/11 THEY KEEP SHOWING UP.
Sure, Ridley Scott made Gladiator in the 1990s, but part of what made that movie such a success was that it sort of reimagined the genre. We weren’t expecting him to go back to that well again. And Oliver Stone, whose obsession with history is usually – even notoriously – centered in 20th century American history – is suddenly interested in Alexander the Great. And superhero movie auteur Zach Snyder decided that the best follow up to his remake of Dawn of the Dead was a graphic novel revisiting a battle from ancient Greek history.
What are the lies agreed upon that these movies have in common?
That lengthy wars are inevitable and justified in the name of defending civilization against barbarians.
That the East and the West have always and will always be enemies.
Kingdom of Heaven (2005) – Directed by Ridley Scott, written by William Monahan. It stars Orlando Bloom, Liam Neeson, Jeremy Irons, Eva Green, Edward Norton, Brendan Gleeson, and Michael Sheen, among others. Bloom is a French blacksmith named Balian who heads off to the Crusades because his life is really crappy in Europe. In fact, at the beginning of the film we get a helpful scroll telling us all that Europe is a mess and men are fleeing to the east to seek their fortunes.
The year is 1184 to be precise (which is between the Second and Third Crusades for those keeping score), Jerusalem is ruled over by Christians at this point in the 200-year collision between Christain and Muslim. Apparently, because he’s the bastard son of a knight (Liam Neeson) who convinces him to go along, Balian is able to quickly acquire all the skill he needs, like swordfighting.
Once we’re in Jerusalem, it isn’t really what the average viewer is expecting. After their previous victory, the Christians have set up a King in Jerusalem (Edward Norton), who is trying to keep the multi-ethnic, multi-religion, multi-racial territory in a workable peace and hates it when fundamentalists show up – in other words, Crusaders. The rest of the movie is the tolerant/enlightened Christians, including the King, his advisor Tiberias (played by Jeremy Irons), Balian, and the King’s sister, Sybilla, played by Eva Green, as well as the equally reasonable Saladin (played really well by Syrian actor/filmmaker Ghassan Massoud) trying to stop the region from blowing up into a war because of the ignorant, violence-loving radical Christian Knights Templar, who act as the posse for Sybilla’s husband, Guy de Lusignan.
Initially, when Balian arrives and claims the lands given to his now-dead father, the plot is dedicated to showing the improvement of the lands, and the wise leadership of the King. We are introduced first to Saladin’s chief minister and then to Saladin himself, who are also eager to keep the peace so that the various people can prosper.
There are a series of escalating events, all caused by either Guy himself or the leader of the Knights Templar, Raynard (played by Brendan Gleeson). Multiple times, a major war is averted due to the tolerant leadership on both sides. But eventually, war is provoked. Raynard kills Saladin’s sister and so Saladin is forced to respond. And that gives Guy and his fundamentalist followers the excuse to drag the entire society into a giant confrontation between Muslims and Christians.
The battle becomes a siege which becomes a stalemate. Eventually, Balian and Saladin parlay. They agree to spare the innocent people of Jerusalem by having the Christians retreat and leave the city to Saladin.
Of course this also means that the lands and title that Balian inherited from his crusader father must also be abandoned. And the end of the movie finds Balian living happily as a blacksmith in France again, with Sybilla as his wife. The next wave of crusaders come through town on their way to retake Jerusalem yet again, but Balian refuses to join them. A final message on the screen reads “nearly a thousand years later, peace in the Holy Land still remains elusive.”
It seems since Braveheart every one of these sweeping historical dramas needs a big speech. Let’s listen to Balian describing the true meaning of the Kingdom of Heaven:
Ridley Scott and William Monahan are getting the 12th Century to do a lot of heavy lifting in the cultural commentary department. But they aren’t alone. Oliver Stone, similarly, seems to have thought Alexander the Great would be a good vehicle for him to work out what he was feeling in response to the current state of affairs.
Alexander (2004) was written by Oliver Stone and Christopher Kyle and stars Colin Farrel, Val Kilmer, Angelina Jolie, Anthony Hopkins, Rosario Dawson, Jared Leto among others.
The film is based on the life of Alexander the Great, King of Macedon, who conquered Asia Minor, Egypt, Persia and part of Ancient India. Stone begins by showing us Alexander’s early life, including his difficult relationship with his father Philip II of Macedon, his strained feeling towards his mother Olympias, and his “close friendships” with other noble Macedonians. But most of the film concerns the conquest of the Persian Empire in 331 BC. It also details his plans to reform his empire and the attempts he made to reach the end of the then known world.
Stone can’t decide whether Alexander’s mission of blending civilizations is laudable or fanciful, and neither do the characters. It is clear Stone is flummoxed by Alexander’s sexuality and we have to endure his discomfort as well.
Alexander’s tutor was Aristotle, which isn’t bad I guess, but he had some nasty things to say about the Persians:
At the end of it all, Alexander’s story doesn’t quite work for the message of tolerance – because the Greeks were the ones who didn’t seem so keen – and Oliver Stone couldn’t decide whether Bablylon and India were awesome and way more fun than Greece, nor could he deal with Alexander’s homosexuality because it got in the way of his textbook exoticization of the “East”.
300 doesn’t have any of those problems. 300 (2006) was originally a graphic novel by Frank Miller and inspired by the 1962 film The 300 Spartans. It is directed by Zach Snyder and written by Snyder and Kurt Johnstad. It stars Gerard Butler, Lena Headey, Dominic West, and Rodgrigo Santoro as Xerxes
In the Battle of Thermopylae of 480 BC an alliance of Greek city-states fought the invading Persian army in a mountain pass. Vastly outnumbered, the Greeks held back the enemy in one of the most famous last stands of history. Persian King Xerxes led an army of well over 100,000 men to Greece and was confronted by 300 Spartans, 700 Thespians, and 400 Thebans. Xerxes waited for 10 days for King Leonidas to surrender or withdraw but left with no options he pushed forward. Leonidas and the 300 sacrifice themselves to allow Greece more time to prepare and fight another day.
The movie version of this story sets the elders of Sparta, who refuse to ok Leonidas’s pan to keep the Persians at bay, against the brave 300. It’s revealed as the movie goes on that at least one of those politicians has been bribed by Xerxes. Played as a true slimeball by Dominic West, he forces Gorgo to hav sex with him in exchange for a promise to send reinforcements, but he doesn’t and then he tries to publicly shame Gorgo to further discredit her and her husband. Gorgo kills him. Her husband might be dead, but virtuous Sparta will live on in her son, and with the leadership of Leonidas’s right hand man Dilios, one year later, the Greeks fight as a united force and repel the Persians.
In between the bloody fighting there are moments to speak about a clash of civilizations, mythologizing Sparta as a democratic racial stronghold and Persia as the colossus from the East. Let’s listen to the fateful meeting between Xerxes and King Leonidas:
So why have we chosen these three movies? Why did the writers, directors, and producers all decide to make these movies? Why did they think the movie going public would want to watch these movies? Simply by the way we’ve summarized these films you’ve probably started to pick up some common elements. But to make things clearer, let’s remind everyone just what was going on between 2004 and 2206, when these movies were released.
The George W. Bush administration launched an invasion of Iraq in March 2003 after misleading the public about connections between Saddam Hussein and 9/11. Bush famously declared mission accomplished in May, although the war dragged on for another 8 years, costing hundreds of thousands of lives and untold treasure, and he infamously called the war a “crusade,” alarming even the conservative National Review, which depicted a cartoon Bush as a Knight Templar. Meanwhile, the war in Afghanistan was also raging, and had been since right after 9/11. The moviegoing public in the west watched wars rage in these two Muslim countries. It was styled by media and pundits and some lazy historians as a clash of civilizations. And it was in this moment that Hollywood felt compelled to excavate the history of the region where those clashes had supposedly been going on for millenia.
The problem is that Bush himself, amazingly, was unable to articulate a coherent strategy or message about what came to be known as the Global War on Terror. Let’s listen to Bush’s address to a joint session of Congress just days after 9/11
Notice how he distinguishes between Islam and the radical extremists represented by Al Qaeda and compare that to this impromptu press conference on the White House lawn.
So now, let’s return to the plots of these movies…and the lies agreed upon:
In the aftermath of 9/11, the lies agreed upon were that lengthy wars are inevitable and justified in the name of defending civilization against barbarians. And that the east and the west have always and will always be enemies.
Bush’s speech to Congress is a careful expression of the clash of civilizations, a sentiment that seems more like Balian’s on the walls of Jerusalem. There are good Muslims and its a shame it had to come to this, but this war must be fought.
Bush’s Crusade press conference, where he attacks the evil doers and condemns the barbarism trying to attack a superior western civilization is all 300, except if we were being historically accurate it is the Spartans who are the savage barbarians and the Persians the cultured civilization.
Alexander is muddled and wavers between preaching a clash of civilization thesis versus coexistence and mutual respect. I think this might be the most accurate description of American foreign policy in the Middle East. Muddled, improvised, swallowed up by the East, like all who came before it.
It is painfully clear by now that that September 17, 2001 Bush speech ushered in an era of endless war, something our three movies also address. The Crusades, Alexander’s conquest, and nearly a century of Greece vs. Persia followed rapidly by Greece vs. Greece.
What have we learned from the endless wars, both real and imagined? First, the fundamentalists are the most violent, and often Christian or representing the West. The Spartans are the blood thirsty death cultists and Alexander’s Macedonians wander the known world for no discernible reason.
Second, if you think you will be greeted as liberators, think again. The Crusaders learned this hard way, as did the Persians, and later the Spartans for that matter. Alexander’s enlightened idea of blending civilizations was less popular with the Greeks than the people he conquered.
Finally, the wars pit the disciplined and heroic West versus the chaotic hordes of the East. In 300, the Persians are literally monstrous. If defeat comes at the hands of the East, and it does in each film, it is only because of their vast numbers, indifference to death, and slave mentality.
Welcome to Lies Agreed Upon, the podcast that looks at how film and television use history to talk about today.
I’m Lia Paradis
And I’m Brian Crim.
Every one of us tries to make sense of our current world by telling versions of history that seem to put the puzzle pieces together, or offer the most validation. Our own lies agreed upon. In this first season of our podcast, we’ve explored the many ways that 9/11 influenced writers, directors and producers and how they used history to discuss and process that day and its legacy.
In our final episode we are doing something a little different. Our focus has been on how historical events are portrayed on screen after 9/11 – from Antiquity to 9/11 itself. But we all know the cultural impact of 9/11 went far deeper and extends to every genre and medium of representation. Holocaust scholars speak of a “before” and an “after” when it comes to culture, religion, politics, and philosophy. In a memorable and much cited passage in Cultural Criticism and Society (1949), Theodor Adorno, the eminent German philosopher and founder of the so-called Frankfurt School, wrote: “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” What he was really saying is that you can’t return to traditional modes of representation without taking into account the Holocaust. More to the point, it is impossible to avoid.
America’s 21st century began with a trauma, an event that acts a similar “before and after” milestone. As we’ve discussed these past six episodes, Hollywood used history to reflect how the world changed and offer interpretations about 9/11’s causes and legacies. It took five years to address directly the trauma itself, World Trade Center and United 93 for example. But SciFi, and horror for that matter (often the distinction is purely academic), was processing our trauma and representing it unapologetically almost immediately after 9/11. This episode is more of a free-wheeling discussion about movies and tv shows that used the otherworldly to communicate our fear, anxiety, and let’s face it – fascination with the aesthetics of destruction. SciFi has always been political, from War of the Worlds the book, written in 1898, toWar of the Worlds the movie (2005 version). And it’s not just 9/11 Sci Fi takes on, but all that came after. Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the national security state, torture and detention, insurgency and counterinsurgency, and fear of the “Other.”
There’s an entire body of academic literature on Sci Fi’s relationship to traumatic events like the Holocaust or 9/11 we won’t bore you with, but I will promote my own book for a second because it did lead me to this topic for Lies Agreed Upon. I wrote Planet Auschwitz: Holocaust Representation in Science Fiction and Horror Film and Television after teaching Holocaust history and cinema courses for many years. I noticed how frequently these genres mined the imagery from both real history and the cinematic Holocaust to represent trauma, horror, grief, apocalyptic ideologies, and the perrenial fear of the return of the repressed. Nazism may be defeated, but how many films and video games tell us otherwise? While researching for the book I noticed more recent examples of this phenomenon of using the Holocaust as fodder for SciFi and horror used 9/11 just as freely, often conflating and muddling the imagery and messaging of both traumas. The Holocaust was the THE STANDARD for representing horror in the modern world – why wouldn’t it be? But after 9/11 there was a new aesthetic standard and they live together very comfortably in some of the shows and movies you love.
What’s really striking is how so many people referenced movies like Independence Day and it’s spectacular destruction of American landmarks just hours after the attack. There simply was no earthly comparison to what we experienced. And we all know terrorism is supposed to be cinematic. Here’s what film critic Neal Gabler wrote a few days after 9/11:
“In a sense, this was the terrorists’ own real-life disaster movie – bigger than ‘Independence Day’ or ‘Godzilla’ or ‘Armageddon’, and in the bizarre competition among terrorists, bigger even than Timothy J. McVeigh’s own real life horror film in Oklahoma City, heretofore the standard. You have to believe at some level it was their rebuff to Hollywood as well as their triumph over it – they could out-Hollywood Hollywood.”
I was in the intelligence community right after 9/11 and one of the big initiatives was for agencies to reach out to Hollywood writers and novelists for ideas on what could be coming next. In other words, actual intelligence experts needed the most far out scenarios laid out for them by people whose job was to imagine the destruction of our society. These Red Team analyses actually made their way to lowly analysts like myself and it became my job to determine if a dastardly terrorist might also be reading Tom Clancy or mimicking something they saw on 24.
But it’s Sci Fi that luxuriates in mass destruction without real consequences. The great Susan Sontag wrote “The Imagination of Disaster” in 1965 to comment on the spate of Sci Fi films dominating the landscape during the atomic age. She believed the whole genre, which became enormously popular after World War II, downplayed the crises plaguing the world, like nuclear destruction, and thereby normalized “what is psychologically unbearable, thereby inuring us to it.” She continues, “Science fiction films are one of the most accomplished of the popular art forms, and can give a great deal of pleasure to sophisticated film addicts. Part of the pleasure, indeed, comes from the sense in which these movies are in complicity with the abhorrent.” She calls Sci Fi the “purest form of spectacle.” After 9/11, Sontag’s essay suddenly started making the rounds again because suddenly the unthinkable became our reality and SciFi wasted no time, as she says, becoming complicit with the abhorrent.
What are some common themes of post-9/11 SciFi? See this article by Annalee Newitz, which informs some of our thoughts below.
The first, and it’s obviously not new but took on greater significance is that New York must be destroyed. We already talked about how Independence Day leveled our landmarks, the Empire State Building in this case, but soon the tri-state area was ravaged again in War of the Worlds (2005), I AmLegend (2007), Cloverfield (2008), the first season of Heroes (2006-07). We can go on and on.
A second theme, fairly new and obviously the result of a post-Patriot Act society, is that the Surveillance State is watching you. Think ofMinority Report(2002) another Spielberg, and A Scanner Darkly (2006)
Third, the terrorists are everywhere. Its also ok to dehumanize the enemy and kill them without guilt or remorse. They are beyond Other. It’s not a stretch to see the real terrorists, or anyone who looks like them, as target just enemies to exterminate. Remember the classic miniseries V from the 80s? The reboot in 2009 featured aliens who were organized in underground cells like terrorists. We’ll talk about Battlestar Galactica, which pretty much defines the 9/11 SciFi epic and its debates about terrorism. There’s even terrorists in Star Trek: Enterprise and HarryPotter. They’re everywhere.
Fourth, the national security state is plotting the end of the World. The new slate of agencies charged with ensuring the nebulous and menacing concept “homeland security” quickly turned sinister in our feverish imaginations. In the series Jericho government agencies nuked parts of the US to start a coup. Also, 28 Weeks Later, the sequel to the new zombie classic28 DaysLater, where authorities can’t resist trying to control the virus that took out our closest ally in a month. In the 50s the military and government delivers us from monsters, after 9/11 they are usually unleashing them upon us and covering their asses in the process.
There are many more, and horror is a related genre with some obvious post-9/11 signatures. Kevin Wetmore s’ book on subject is worth quoting:
“One key difference between pre-9/11 and post-9/11 horror is that the former frequently allows for hope and the latter just as frequently does not.
After 911, nihilism, despair, random violence and death, combined with tropes and images generated by the terrorist attacks began to assume a greater prominence in horror cinema.”
Torture porn also became popular – Saw, Hostel, any of the movies where Americans abroad are duped and tortured for being stupid, naive, or just plaine rude. In post-9/11 horror there’s often times no reason for the horror, like in The Strangers. Just random, cruel violence. How much of this was an attitude shift after 9/11 or the result of our own actions in places like Abu Ghraib or the dozen black sites around the globe is an open question. Are we feeling pain or alluding to our own guilt for causing so much of it?
What are some examples of the 9/11 aesthetic in Sci Fi. And do films that appropriate the terrible images of the day comment on the political and ideological fallout?
War of the Worlds (2005), directed by Steven Spielberg and based on the 1898 novel by H.G. Wells. The script is written by Josh Freedman and David Koepp. It stars Tom Cruise, a young and from what you can already see here a very talented Dakota Fanning, a memorable appearance by Tim Robbins, and a great actor I like, Justin Chatwin. He was in a few seasons of Shameless on Showtime. But, it’s mostly the Cruise and Fanning show as father and daughter make the perilous journey from Bayonne New Jersey to Boston, dodging the fearsome tripods and vampiric alien creatures bent on literally sucking humanity dry. Along the way, human beings prove they can be just as monstrous as the aliens, a trope we all recognize in SciFi.
Spielberg, who released Munich around the same time, another film with very explicit references to 9/11 and the war on terror, wanted audiences to know his new sci fi movie was heavily influenced by 9/11:
“It seemed like the time was right for me as a filmmaker to let the audience experience an alien that is a little less pleasant than E.T. Today, in the shadow of 9/11, I think the film has found a place in society.”
He also said that his film was ‘about Americans fleeing for their lives, being attacked for no reason, having no idea why they are being attacked and who is attacking them’
The film’s references to September 11 are both visual, the most striking and sometimes really disturbing elements, and within the plot, which is of course very familiar but resonates in a specific way in 2005. War and terror are a way of life.
Let’s run down a list of how War of the Worlds does this:
The aliens don’t show up in flying saucers like most alien invasions, they are already here, buried underground and waiting to strike like a well-organized terrorist cell.
The kids’ only frame of reference for what’s happening is terrorism. Fanning shrieks, “is it the terrorists?” Robbie too assumes this, but Ray, who saw the tripod rise and obliterate everything, tells him they’re from somewhere else.
Like 9/11, everyone has to recalibrate their frames of reference.
The most vivid destruction occurs in northern New Jersey. Spielberg did not want to tear apart Manhattan out of respect it seems, but these communities in NJ were greatly affected by 9/11. As we’ve seen in other films, this is where many of the people who died, the commuters, came from.
The plane crash, with a fiery 747 engine literally in the living room where the TV would be is a nice touch, and scary. We are meant to think a tripod is coming, but worse, it’s a plane.
Robbie, Cruise’s son, has a very specific paper assignment to work on during this weekend with his estranged father. The French Occupation of Algeria. Combine that with the extended scenes in rural New England and the conclusion and Boston and there is a prominent revolution and resistance theme going on here. . We see this in many other Sci Fi examples, from Battlestar Galactica to the series Falling Skies, another story of alien invasion in and around New England.
This is most dramatically portrayed by the strange Tim Robbins character, another survivor hiding in the basement of an old farmhouse. He’s frantic and unstable, trying to enlist Ray in a crazy dream of insurgency. “They defeated the greatest power in the world in a couple of days.” Robbins wants to be like the Iraqi insurgents, picking off the vastly superior enemy one by one. As if it wasn’t obvious enough, Robbins tells Ray, “Occupations always fail. History’s taught us that a thousand times.”
Here’s Ray and Robbins having it out after watching the tripods feed on human beings, prompting Ray to kill Robbins, but not before he paints his picture of an underground army waiting to topple the alien overlords.
Smaller moments, like the blood bank saying “we already have more than we need.” Everyone, including me, seemed to think giving blood was the best way to help after 9/11 and all it did was burden the hospitals and blood banks. This is a nod to that.
Cloverfield (2008), directed by Matt Reeves and written by Drew Goddard. It’s part of the Bad Robot, JJ Abrams universe and you might remember the novel advertising campaign which capitalized on the viral trailer idea. The mystery behind Cloverfield, which was just a government codename, had everyone buzzing. This 88 minute movie comprised totally of simulated “found footage” has no real stars, although I recognized Lizzy Caplan from Masters of Sex and TJ Miller from Silicon Valley. The star is the titular character, a Godzilla-like monster that shows up out of nowhere and tears Manhattan apart. Cloverfield tears the head off of the Statue of Liberty and demolishes the Brooklyn Bridge
There are some stunning scenes that mimic now iconic 9/11 footage. Straggling zombie NEw Yorkers in shock, covered in dust, papers falling from the sky. The Empire State Building collapses just like Tower 1. A lot of people were offended by Cloverfield for cynically appropriating these moments. Not everyone, however. Jessica Wakeman at the HuffingtonPost, only 17 on 9/11 had this to say:
“The first 45 minutes of Cloverfield is the closest I think I can get to showing someone else what 9/11 was like for me on an emotional level. Cloverfield nails what that morning felt like: the confusion at first, and then fear overwhelms and all you can think about is the possibility of dying and needing to escape by getting out-out-out but where can you go because the subways and trains aren’t running? It gets what it looks like and feels like to believe there’s 8 planes in the air, that the president ordered any non-grounded aircraft to be shot down, they could be shot down above your city and kill you, and what if there’s a ground attack? It depicts what it’s like to be convinced that that day is the day you are going to die. You are 17 years old and you are going to die on a sunny Tuesday morning in the middle of New York City.”
Falling Skies (2011-2016) on TNT, starring Noah Wyle. This is another alien invasion story not unlike War of the Worlds, but this time the occupation sticks and humanity gets to form the resistance army Tim Robbins spoke about. The five seasons follow the human resistance army as they organize and win back humanity’s freedom.
Aside from 9/11 like imagery of destruction, the theme of resistance and insurgency is foregrounded here. The American Revolution is all over Falling Skies and Noah Wyle is a military history professor who uses those lessons to wage war against a vastly superior enemy. He counsels his band of citizen soldiers to remember the Minutemen, partisans throughout history, but not obvious examples like Vietnam or anything suggesting American weakness. Steffen Hantke wrote a great article about Falling Skies as a reflection of Tea Party ideology, a fantasy where citizen militias reise up and destroy the alien occupiers of urban environments. Anti-Obama Sci Fi
In Falling Skies and the USA series Colony, humans are like the Fedayeen fighters in Iraq, attaching machine guns to pick up trucks, planting IEDs at the side of the road. They wear ratty clothes, live hand to mouth, and speak of destroying the foreign invaders and purifying civilization.
Here’s Wyle addressing his battle hardened militia, urging them to be brutal.
What do we make of so many post-9/11 Sci Fi films and series about resistance? None seem self-aware enough to note that by 2003 it is the US that is showing up uninvited and destroying cities and infrastructure, provoking the creation of armed resistance. HG Wells wrote War of the Worlds to critique British imperialism, to highlight how regarding other cultures like they were insects was inhumane. What if it happens to us one day? This lesson seems lost on us.
Battlestar Galactica (2003-2008)
The Sci-Fi Channel’s reimagination of the original Battlestar Galactica (BSG) series (1978-79) in the early 2000s earned critical praise and a passionate fan base by addressing critical issues of the day, specifically terrorism and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.BSG blends elements of the classic space opera with timely commentary on racism, religious intolerance and extremism, and humanity’s fraught relationship with technology. “The Cylons were created by man,” the series’ opening text reads, “They were created to make life easier on the twelve colonies. And then the day came when the Cylons decided to kill their masters.
After a long and bloody struggle an armistice was declared. The Cylons left for another world to call their own.” The armistice abruptly ends when the Cylons infiltrate the colonies’ defense network and launch a coordinated nuclear attack on every human settlement and military installation, leaving only the antiquated Battlestar Galactica and a collection of random ships stranded in space. The 2003 miniseries introduces the characters and their complicated personal relationships with each other during intense and unrelenting stress and trauma. Bill Adama (Edward James Olmos), quietly hoping to end his career with Galactica’s decommissioning ceremony on the day of the attack, is thrust into the position of saving what’s left of the human race while overseeing a cantankerous crew filled with drunks and insubordinate pilots, including his estranged son Lee (Jamie Bamber). Moreover, Adama must defer to the lowly Secretary of Education Laura Roslin (Mary McDonnell), the sole survivor in the cabinet and therefore newly inaugurated President of the Colonies. The two reluctant leaders navigate the hazards of civil-military relations during an unprecedented emergency.
The Cylons, no longer just a clunky race of metal Centurions with roving red eyes and metallic voices, are led by intricate “skin jobs” who appear human, practice monotheism (the humans are polytheists), and rule by consensus. For the next several years the two races will try to destroy each other while seeking the fabled home of the Thirteenth Tribe of Kobol – the planet Earth.
Coming just two years after 9/11, BSG is clearly influenced by the event and the wars that soon followed. The Cylon attack is a 9/11, complete with infiltrators, total surprise, and a government leadership scattered and unclear how to respond. In the first episode, Bill Adama gives a heartfelt speech that is ostensibly about his own guilt for his son’s death in pilot training, but it really winds up being the overall theme of the series:
Many of the films we covered this season ask some of the same questions – why are we the good guys? There are other obvious signs, like the wall of the missing, the blighted urban landscape of New Caprica, the stand-in for New York, and just persistent feelings of dread and anxiety about when and where the next attack will be. Once the Cylons are revealed to be humanoids the colonists descend into paranoia and what might be called speciesism.
BSG’s most controversial storyline concerns the Cylon occupation of New Caprica, a failing colony populated by fleet members exhausted by the failed search for Earth. Critics noted references to the American occupation of Iraq, including a violent insurgency and ruthless counterinsurgency, terrorist attacks, the use of torture, and a puppet government. In other words, the Americans are the Cylons and the Iraqis are the “good guys.” Ronald Moore responded to the outcry:
A lot of people have asked me if the Cylon occupation was our way of addressing the situation in Iraq, but it really wasn’t . . . . There are obvious parallels, but the truth is when we talked about the episodes in the writers’ room we talked more about Vichy France, Vietnam, the West Bank, and various other occupations; we even talked about what happened when the Romans were occupying Gaul.
I can see the wink and the nod here, because, make no mistake, the parallels were explicit and incredibly timely.
We talked about Sci Fi that evoked the imagery of 9/11 and Sci Fi obsessed with resistance and revolution. What about the emotional and psychological fallout? The loss, the grief, the shock, the anger, the sense that nothing could ever be the same. One show we both love does all of this very well. HBO’s The Leftovers (2014-2017), based on the novel by Tom Perrotta, was adapted for HBO by Perotta and Damon Lindelof, creator of Lost and Watchmen among others.
The Leftovers presents a universe in which God is dead. One October 14 in the twenty-first century 140 million people world-wide suddenly disappeared – babies, the elderly, the pope, Gary Busey, four out of the five cast members of Perfect Strangers (1986-93), even fetuses in the womb. The shock, horror and trauma of what became known as the Sudden Departure left no one untouched, sending survivors into their own spiral of guilt, self-incrimination, anger, hedonism, and feckless search for answers. Some believe it was the Rapture, while others, especially the faithful, argue the opposite.
As Sophie Gilbert notes in The Atlantic, “the question that Perotta and Lindelof seem to be occupying themselves with isn’t how it happened so much as what happens next? How does humanity respond to a universe in which everything is meaningless?” Initially set in a fictional New York suburb called Mapelton, The Leftovers revolves around the family of police chief Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux) and Nora Durst (Carrie Coon), a woman who lost her husband and both children in the Sudden Departure. Nora’s brother Matt Jamison (Christopher Eccleston) is a pastor who spends his days revealing the sordid pasts of those who departed to disprove the notion the event was the Rapture.
Garvey’s family is still on Earth, but they are lost to him. His wife Laurie (Amy Brenneman), who lost a pregnancy in the Sudden Departure, joins a cult called The Guilty Remnant (GR) founded by Laurie’s former psychiatric patient Patti Levin (Ann Dowd). Kevin’s son Tom (Chris Zylka) follows a mystic named Holy Wayne (Paterson Joseph) who supposedly takes people’s pain away with a simple embrace. Garvey’s teen-age daughter Jill (Margaret Qualley) lives at home with Kevin, but she’s as cold and distant as the departed. Kevin’s father, Kevin Sr. (Scott Glenn), resides in an insane asylum and pushes Jr. to stop pretending nothing happened and embrace his yet undetermined role in the mystery of the Sudden Departure. Seasons two and three center on Kevin’s path of self-discovery and his relationship with Nora amid the continuing mystery of the Sudden Departure.
Tom Perotta wrote the novel to explore the post-9/11 universe. The Sudden Departure was 9/11 and everything that happens afterwards relates back to this inexplicable trauma. The series expands the universe of the novel, but the themes are preserved. What are some of the obvious nods to 9/11?
First, the date. October 14, the name of the pilot episode, is the date of the Sudden Departure and every season hinges on this anniversary. It’s what everyone talks about.
There is a newly created Department of Sudden Departure akin to DHS, chasing its own tail and never really accomplishing its stated missions. Law enforcement is empowered to take out any and all threats, cults, whomever. The new laws after October 14 were a Patriot Act on steroids.
The series revolves around empty memorials – parades, statues of babies floating up to the sky, the sort of occasions we did not think were so empty after 9/11 because we knew what happened and why. That’s not the case in the Leftovers.
Season one takes place in a suburban NY town like that affected most by 9/11 commuters no longer there. Season one is closest to the novel, so it makes sense.
The Leftovers is about coming to grips with unimaginable grief and processing trauma, and ultimately realizing sometimes you can’t. This is why I chose The Leftovers to write about in my book on Holocaust representation, specifically how Holocaust survivors are portrayed in film. It’s a perfect example of the “before” and “after” idea. The characters in The Leftovers are all just trying to exist.
Two representative clips about this desperate search for salvation from grief.
Welcome to Lies Agreed Upon, the podcast that looks at how film and television use history to talk about today.
I’m Lia Paradis
And I’m Brian Crim.
Every one of us tries to make sense of our current world by telling versions of history that seem to put the puzzle pieces together, or offer the most validation. Our own lies agreed upon. In this first season of our podcast, we’ve explored the many ways that 9/11 influenced writers, directors and producers and how they used history to discuss and process that day and its legacy.
Last week we discussed films about the day itself, September 11, 2001. In this episode we ask how Hollywood reckoned with both its causes and its effects. United 93 and World Trade Center portrayed our lack of preparedness for a disaster the size and scope of 9/11. But why did it happen in the first place? How could we miss it when he have the largest and richest military and intelligence agencies in the world? And what were we justified in doing to bring a reckoning down on the heads of our enemies?
Moments after the planes hit, dozens of CIA and FBI officials had their worst fears confirmed. They each knew separate pieces of the story, but enduring and vicious turf wars over counter-terrorism prevented any meaningful cooperation. Aside from the incredibly detailed 9/11 Commission Final Report, released in 2004, excellent journalists told this part of the story. Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 came out in 2006. It won the Pulitzer Prize in fact. And yet, no film studio or TV network wanted to take it up. It took 17 years and a relative upstart streaming service, Hulu, to finally adapt The Looming Tower for a miniseries. This is our first topic.
Part two of The Reckoning confronts the choices we made in a cloud of fear and shame after 9/11. Dick Cheney casually let it be known that there would be no “tying the hands of our intelligence community” and famously urged the country to welcome a turn to the “dark side” in an unprecedented war on terror.Within months of 9/11, while the CIA was winning praise for dismantling Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, the agency pursued a course of action that would lead to one of its greatest moral and ethical failures – the detention and interrogation program. More specifically, the CIA embraced so-called “enhanced interrogation” techniques that not only violated our own laws and professed values, but simply did not work.
We discuss two films with decidedly different takes on the CIA after 9/11 – Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty (2012) and Scott Burns’s 2019 The Report. Bigelow’s exciting depiction of the decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden valorizes individual CIA officers while, perhaps unintentionally, leaving the audience with the impression that torture provided critical information leading to the 2011 raid on bin Laden. The Report is a methodical reconstruction of the investigation into the CIA’s detention and interrogation program depicted in Zero Dark Thirty, culminating in the 2014 release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s unsparing report detailing a decade of CIA abuses. As you’ll see, these films go together well. In fact, Zero Dark Thirty was so effective in implanting a false narrative in the minds of moviegoers that the Senate investigators of The Report felt the need to challenge it directly and correct the record.
So, what are our Lies Agreed Upon?
First there was the lie that we were somehow ‘surprised’ by the attacks. It was an ‘ambush’ a ‘knife in the back’, or whatever Toby Keith lyric you prefer.
The second lie seems to contradict this, but these lies are along a continuum. For those who DID pay attention to the 9/11 report, what was then required was a new lie that could erase that shame. The new lie was that, while our intelligence agencies had indeed been unprepared, bumbling, and more focused on their bureaucratic rivals than the threats in front of them, suddenly, after 9/11 they turned into a lean, hyper-disciplined force for justice and retribution. They brought the war to Al-Qaeda and the CIA finished the job in 2011, bagging bin Laden in heroic fashion. Why does this myth persist? Both Hollywood and a very effective PR campaign composed of Bush AND Obama veterans are the reason why.
And this lie is in turn connected to our final lie – that torture is effective and justified because it gets results. Thanks to the same combination of bipartisan government officials, CIA employees, and Hollywood, America kept trying to rewrite the historical narrative on torture even as it was still being used, just renamed as “enhanced interrogation” – and this goes on. It might be unseemly and maybe not as effective as we were told, but ultimately a forgivable offense.
As always, we begin with a recap. For the first time, we’re going to be talking about a miniseries – the excellent 10-episode Hulu production. Created by Dan Futterman, an actor and director, Alex Gibney, known for some edgy documentaries about Enron and Scientology for example, and Lawrence Wright, who wrote the award-winning book, the Looming Tower takes inside the CIA and FBI and their fraught relationship between 1998 and September 11, 2001. It stars Jeff Daniels, Tahar Rahim, Peter Sarsgaard, Wrenn Schmidt, Bill Camp, and many other fine actors you’ll likely recognize on some of your favorite quality TV shows.
Looming Tower is a docu-drama and every notable character is based on, or a composite, of real people, including the Al-Qaeda operatives who, refreshingly, are actually given backstories, motivation, and rich internal lives. But the heart of the story pits the FBI’s Counterterrorism office led by John O’Neill, played by Daniels, and the CIA’s Alec Station, the small analytical unit dedicated to Al-Qaeda. This was led by a controversial figure named Michael Scheuer, who currently posts Q-Anon nonsense on his blog. His name is changed to Martin Schmidt and played by Sarsgaard. Schmidt’s unit is comprised exclusively of young women analysts, one of whom, Diane Marsh, is his wife in real life. Marsh, by the way, is a model for Maya in Zero Dark Thirty, which we’ll be discussing later.
These offices despise each other and it is deeply personal. O’Neill calls Alec Station “The Manson Family” and Schmidt and Marsh dismiss the two FBI agents embedded with them as “The Retarded Twins.” Both units are on Al-Qaeda’s trail, but their real war is with each other.
Let’s play this clip introducing the series. It features the three creators, Jeff Daniels, and Tahar Rahim.
If you can identify protagonists in The Looming Tower they are John O’Neill and his young, Muslim protege Ali Soufan – who was one of just eight Arab speakers in the FBI at the time. Soufan also plays a crucial role in The Report – which we will be talking about later – as a fierce opponent of the CIA’s torture program. Soufan and O’Neill approach Al-Qaeda as criminals to be investigated, arrested, and tried in a US court. Alec Station views them as terrorists to be neutralized, no matter the cost or collateral damage. Both perspectives have merit, but the point of the series is to dramatize how this personal and professional animus prevented crucial intelligence sharing that ultimately led to the hijackers slipping into the country unnoticed. We know this because the series also recreates the relevant testimony given before the 9/11 Commission from Soufan, Schmidt (or Scheuer), Richard Clarke, played by Michael Stuhlbarg, and Condoleezza Rice among others.
Looming Tower builds around crucial moments between 1998 and 2001 – the August 1998 African embassy bombings, which was the declaration of war by Al-Qaeda, the failed millenium plot in 2000, the attack on the USS Cole in August 2000, and 9/11. The closer we get to the “flashing red light” the worse the national security bureaucracy performs.
Lawrence Wright, who is a staff writer at the New Yorker, covers an even longer period of time in his book, but even though the miniseries starts later in the narrative, it’s still striking how much goes on before 9/11. The meticulous gumshoe work reinforces that, at the end of the day, terrorists are indeed just another form of criminal, to be wiretapped, followed, interrogated and apprehended. Cheney and others tried to make them out as some modern day bogeymen, warranting a new level of ruthless response.
Over the years of investigation and multiple episodes of The Looming Tower, we get to know our characters in ways not possible in the feature length Zero Dark Thirty and Report. In particular, Jeff Daniels is great as the smart, resourceful, but deeply flawed FBI agent John O’Neill, who juggles multiple women, spends himself into debt, and refuses to play nice with his increasingly annoyed superiors. Facing dismissal and clearly on the losing side of the war with Alec Station, O’Neill takes a lucrative job as director for security at the World Trade Center just before the attack. This sad irony plays out in the final episode as we watch characters react in all the ways we come to expect from each of them, because we’ve gotten to know them intimately – regret, rage, shame, self-preservation, and in the case of some, contrition.
The most famous articulation of contrition, perhaps, came from National Security Advisor Richard Clarke. Let’s end with the actual testimony by Richard Clarke, which is recreated in the Looming Tower. In fact they are the series closing words.
It can’t be overstated how electrifying this testimony was at the time. The entire governmental response to 9/11 had been so mendacious up to this moment, that when Clarke testified, it was declared by many media critics as the most riveting day of television ever.
Now, let’s flash forward to the action-packed and cathartic revenge tale that is Zero Dark Thirty. Directed by Kathyrn Bigelow and written by Mark Boal, the same team that brought you the Academy Award Winning The Hurt Locker in 2008, Zero Dark Thirty methodically reconstructs the hunt for Bin Laden and the successful raid killing him inside his Pakistani compound in May 2011. Originally titled “Kill Bin Laden,” the film was still in production when news broke about the raid, allowing Bigelow to change tack and recreate Seal Team Six’s mission. Zero Dark Thirty stars Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Ehle, Chris Pratt, James Gandolfini in one of his last roles as CIA director Leon Panetta, and a number of other great character actors rounding out the cast.
The film begins with the anguished recordings of 9/11 victims calling their families from the World Trade Center before abruptly shifting to a burly Jason Clarke brutalizing an Al-Qaeda detainee at a CIA black site. The association between 9/11 tragedy and the righteous anger responsible for enhanced interrogation could not be more clear. The marathon sessions with the detainee supposedly leads to a kernel of information that will prove vital to Maya’s relentless hunt for Bin Laden, although it is revealed this information was in the CIA’s possession all along. The Report is more explicit about making this point.
Let’s play a clip of Jason Clarke’s character torturing a member of the Saudi Group, a money man supposedly instrumental in the hunt. Maya is a bystander here. It’s brutal:
“This is what defeat looks like.” We are meant to wince at this scene, but like Maya, who is visibly uncomfortable, we want to hear his answers because the film has set us to believe that they matter.
At the center of it all is our guide through nearly a decade of counterrorism strategy – Maya – a character with only one dimension to her, the single-minded determination to find and kill Bin Laden. She has no life outside of this mission, no loved ones, no personal history, no rich, interior life. Neither do any other characters exhibit complexity beyond the furtherance of the hunt. Consequently, there is no interrogating the question of why killing Bin Laden matters. The film is thrilling and we reflexively root for Maya as the only woman in the room. Here she is in a room as her superiors, all men, hem and haw over whether to commit to raiding the Abbottabad compound. Leon Pannetta, played by Gandolfini, is sounding out opinions:
I love that line. “We’re all smart.” The dramatic conclusion of Zero Dark Thirty is Bigelow at her best. We are embedded with Seal Team Six as they sneak into Pakistan, recover from one helicopter crash, shoot and kill guards and family members inside the compound, and ultimately return with the body of #1 himself. The film ends with a note of pathos and ambiguity as Maya’s final act is to identify the body, almost as if she’s the nearest kin. When its over, what is left for Maya? We don’t know because we don’t know her. Boarding an empty plane reserved just for Maya, the pilot asks her where she wants to go. All she can do is break down. Bigelow is asking all Americans in 2012, what’s next?
The controversy surrounding Zero Dark Thirty, specifically the notion that torture led to the intelligence breakthrough responsible for the successful raid, was rolled into the Senate Intelligence Committee’s ongoing investigation into the detainee program. Senators opposed to the program were appalled by the film and the perception it created in viewers. That investigation is the subject of the 2019 film The Report. Written and directed by Scott Burns, The Report stars Adam Driver as lead investigator Daniel Jones and Annette Benning as committee leader Senator Dianne Feinstein. It also stars John Hamm, Maura Tierney, Michael C. Hall, and Cory Stoll, Mathew Rhys, and Ted Levine.
The film begins in 2003 with the young and idealistic Jones applying for a job in Feinstein’s office, but he is encouraged to get national security experience. In 2007, now working for FBI counterterrorism, Jones begins working for the intelligence committee and leads an investigation into the CIA’s destruction of interrogation tapes in 2009. This snowballs into what will be a more expansive investigation into the entire history of the detention and interrogation program – the black sites, torture, at least one death, and failure to inform Congress over many years. Jones is the primary author of the 2013 final report on the CIA’s detention and interrogation program and the film is as much about how insanely difficult it was to release the report as it is about its content.
Jones is a lot like Maya, single-minded, inclined to clash with authority, and devoted to what he believes is right. They seem to face similar roadblocks when it comes to their respective missions, political equations and aversion to risk. Here’s a clip of Jones briefing Feinstein about the death of detainee Gul Rachman after repeated waterboardings in 2002.
Jones becomes a CIA target by being so good at his job and circumventing their deliberate efforts to sabotage the report. Then CIA director John Brennan, played wonderfully by Ted Levine, is proof that this is not a Bush=Bad, Obama=Good narrative. The CIA takes care of its own regardless of who’s in charge and the Obama administration had no interest in tarring the CIA after they killed Bin Laden and, as Feinstein’s chief of state tells Jones, “they just won the president re-election.”
The ridiculous incompetence on display is very important. Often, in films, institutions are portrayed as failing despite an almost uncanny and thrilling competency that audiences love to watch. In The Report, we’re witness to one of the most bizarre subplots of the entire story, the elevation of a couple of dubiously credentialed psychologists who play the security community like long-con grifters. Douglass Hodge, as always, is great, Dr. James Mitchell, who claimed expertise in how to make detainees comply and talk, methods that are now repudiated.
Years go by and Jones diligently continues to uncover what happened. We feel Jones’ frustration and understand why he comes so tantalizingly close to releasing the report to the press, but ultimately pulls back from being the next Edward Snowden.
He is rewarded when Dianne Feinstein and Senator John McCain, who of course was tortured for years in captivity, release the entire report just before the Senate leadership changed hands in 2014. The film ends with the real floor speech by McCain as Jones, like Maya, wonders what to do next:
You’ll notice that with all of the titles we’re discussing today, there’s a lot of slippage between the dramatizations on the screen, the ‘characters’ played by actors, and the real life events and people that all of it is drawing from. In many ways, this episode isn’t so much about how Hollywood uses history to talk about today. It’s also about how Hollywood versions of events tell the public how to think about our past and, therefore, who we are today.
What’s interesting about these productions is how much (or how little) time passed between the events they depict and their release dates. The Looming Tower takes place in 1998 through 2001, but Hulu releases it in 2017. And it’s not a stretch to imagine that it took a lean and hungry upstart like Hulu to take a chance on a 10-hour production that forced viewers to critically reexamine our first lie today – that we were so shocked that 9/11 happened.
By coincidence, American audiences were provided almost immediately with a fairly high quality depiction of the moment of American fist-pumping victory. if Kathryn Bigelow didn’t already have the hunt for Bin Laden film in production, we would very likely have been subjected to an even less critical and more jingoistic version of events made by someone else. The film picks up months after 9/11 but it’s forward facing – not interested in how 9/11 happened but, rather, what will be done about it – not on the institutional level, or the policy level, but on the level of revenge masquerading as national security.
The Report also begins the same time as Zero Dark Thirty but ends a few years after Bigelow’s film reinvigorated the torture debate. And it asked what should be done about what was done. And yet, even though it was very relevant as one of the major architects of the detainee program, Gina Haspel, had recently been made director of the CIA, and Donald Trump made it clear as both a candidate and president that torture was awesome, The Report barely made a ripple. Perhaps the audience for it was too concerned by outrages being perpetrated at home by the current administration to expend much energy on outrages committed abroad and whitewashing conducted at home by past administrations. The long shadow of 9/11 most certainly extends to Trump’s America, but by 2019 there were so many other things to be disgusted by.
Zero Dark Thirty fed our second and third lies: The systemic and moral failures of the intelligence community laid bare by the 9/11 commission and dramatized in The Looming Tower were solved and redeemed. The daring and dramatically successful raid on bin Laden’s compound, the perfect marriage of intelligence work and special forces execution, is proof. Any excesses along the way can be forgiven because the end result is so satisfying. The Report tried to refute both those lies. Few wanted to listen.
And who could be surprised? The rebuilding of the intelligence community’s reputation in fact began during the 9/11 commission. Let’s listen to CIA director George Tenet testify before the commission in April 2004.
He’s not only saying “we did most things right,” he’s basically asking for more money to get the rest of it right. Popular culture did a lot of heavy lifting as well, and not in the sort of productions we cover on Lies Agreed Upon, but the Jack Bauers of the screen. The avenging elite warrior-spy hybrids that made the job sexy again. Torture? It works every time. The TV show, 24, actually began in 2000 and was already considered “the best new show of the season.” But it exploded in popularity after 9/11, and became must-see revenge torture porn for many Americans.
Here’s Jack barging into the president’s quarters and torturing the chief of staff under the approving eye of the secret service. Why, because, “I’m Jack Bauer.” And by the way, finding this clip was revealing because every comment on Youtube exudes glorious patriotic fervor for torture. This pop culture icon has replaced reality for some people.
While not as over the top, many critics accused Zero Dark Thirty of doing the same thing. Jason Clarke’s character had a lot of Jack Bauer swagger to him.
This is the complicated pop culture legacy of Enhanced Interrogation Techniques. Zero Dark Thirty made a lot of people feel better about torture – the real world for it – by implying torture led to the biggest prize of all – Osama Bin Laden. But we can’t lay it all at the feet of Bigelow. Scores of TV shows and movies since 9/11 have portrayed torture as the method of real men, real patriots, and those who protest against torture’s immorality, or even just ineffectiveness, are characterized as weak and anti-American. We’re expected to somehow forgiven those responsible because they had our best interests at heart, and this then makes it easier to forgive ourselves for tolerating all manner of executive overreach in the name of national security.
Rather than try to describe the layers of controversy generated by the film, which happened to coincide with the final stage of the Senate investigation at the heart the 2019 film The Report, let’s play an interview with the screenwriter Mark Boal and journalist Mark Bowden, whose book The Finish, details the same events. The interviewer is ABC News Global Affairs correspondent Martha Raddatz:
There’s so much to unpack here, starting with one of the issues that helped launch this podcast – the uneasy relationship between truth and fiction. What is Hollywood’s responsibility for “getting it right”? From what you heard, the Senate committee, specifically Feinstein and McCain, thinks the obligation is very real. On the other side, Leon Panetta is tickled pink by any positive depiction of the CIA. He laughs off any embellishments to the story behind the raid because they only make the CIA look intrepid and competent. But it’s Mark Bowden there at the end who I think summarizes our lie agreed upon – The US embraced “stern, very cruel methods in the beginning” that ultimately contributed to this victory. Americans are really good at cognitive dissonance, and we simultaneously think torture is not good policy, and maybe a plurality of us think it is wrong, but we also believe it was forgivable in the wake of 9/11 and wish it was effective., that was just ..like it is in the movies.
Welcome to Lies Agreed Upon, the podcast that looks at how film and television use history to talk about today.
I’m Lia Paradis
And I’m Brian Crim.
Every one of us tries to make sense of our current world by telling versions of history that seem to put the puzzle pieces together, or offer the most validation. Our own lies agreed upon. The writers, directors and producers of films and TV shows are no different. Sometimes the connections they are making between history and the here and now can be fairly obvious. But a lot of it goes unnoticed, misunderstood, or misinterpreted and this is where we come in.
In this episode of Lies Agreed Upon we examine the day everything changed, September 11, 2001. Until now we’ve talked about how the long cultural shadow of 9/11 influenced films about ancient history, the Cold War, and slavery; or institutions like the press, or the CIA. But 9/11 itself was off limits. With the images from that day firmly implanted in all of our brains: the impacts, the falling man, the real-time collapse of the towers – nothing Hollywood could produce approximated what we saw transpire on cable news.
But in 2006 two films came out from directors with reputations for making movies that critically examine historical events. In fact, we’ve looked at both these directors before. Oliver Stone had confronted everything from Vietnam, to American culpability in anti-democratic coups in Central America, to the JFK assassination long before his Alexander bio-pic. And, of course, Paul Greengrass wrote and directed Bloody Sunday, which we discussed last week. And now, five years after 9/11, they both decided to take on the horrific events of that day, each with a different strategy and a different focus.
Stone’s World Trade Center follows the story of a handful of New York Port Authority policemen, first responders with no idea what they were in for that sunny Tuesday morning. Greengrass’ United 93 takes to the air, recreating the terrifying and chaotic experiences of passengers who stormed the cockpit of the fourth hijacked plane heading to the US Capitol building. These two directors dared to go where no others had gone before – 9/11. They also could not be more different in how they chose to tackle this heretofore black hole of representation.
So what are the lies agreed upon that these 2 movies help us examine?
Well, first of all:
That it’s big mistakes, or big heroic acts, that change the course of history. We think of history with a capital H as a series of self-contained events, with a clear beginning and end, hinging on the crucial acts of people who are then destined to become ‘historical figures’. But more often than not, it’s the accumulation of little mistakes, or weaknesses in the system; it’s people diligently doing their jobs, or too set on a path to turn back; or it’s the convergence of a random assortment of all those things that determines the course of history. And secondly,
That lessons are learned and substantial changes made when there is evidence of failure and an obvious need for reform. In fiction, people (and institutions) learn from their mistakes, cataclysmic events produce sharp and purposeful changes. But reality, as our students are always shocked to find out, doesn’t play out that way. Change happens – if it happens – despite the prevailing inertia.
As always, we begin with a recap of the plots. Let’s start with World Trade Center, directed by Oliver Stone and written by Andrea Berloff. Interestingly, this is only the second movie Stone directs that he didn’t also write. It stars Nicolas Cage, Michael Pena, Maria Bello, and Maggie Gyllenhall. You might catch a glimpse of Jon Berenthal at the beginning, and Michael Shannon has a key role, and you’ll recognize a competent cast of New Yorker type character actors who lend the story some added authenticity.
World Trade Center begins with text informing us that “These accounts are based on the surviving participants”. That’s because the heart of the story is the real life ordeal of Transit Authority cops John Mcloughlin and Will Jimeno, played by Cage and Pena, who were first on the scene at Tower One. Preparing to rescue trapped workers on the upper floors, Mcloughlin’s makeshift crew is buried under tons of rubble when the tower collapses.
Let’s play a clip of the Port Authority cops arriving at the scene right before tower one collapses.
As we know, 300 first responders were killed at ground zero. McLoughlin and Jimeno are gravely injured and all but certain to die slowly from internal bleeding. The only things that keep them conscious – and alive – are their comradeship – telling stories about loved ones – and doing anything they can to make noise in the hope that someone will hear them.
The story expands beyond the claustrophobic scenes with Mcloughlin and Jimeno to their wives and families, who can only piece together what has happened to their husbands from confused and contradictory reports on the news, just like the rest of us. Donna McLoughlin, played by Bello, and Allison Jimeno, played by Gyllenhall, play the dutiful and strong wives that are obligatory for cinematic hero narratives, each forced to placate their children and families while suppressing their own emotions. We learn Donna and John’s marriage is going through a rough spot and Allison, seven months pregnant, is in danger of losing the baby from the intense stress. Everyone tries to be useful it seems, but they feel helpless. The viewer is supposed to relate – or even relive their own memories of that day – through the confusion and helplessness of these family members.
Stone attempts to remind the viewer of the bigger story, showing foreigners glued to their TVs in empathy, and the small town Wisconsin firefighters who drive immediately to ground zero to help out in any way they can. But the only additional storyline here is that of Dave Karnes, played by Michael Shannon. Karnes is a recently retired Marine working a boring white collar job. As news of the day’s events unfold, Karnes, a deeply religious man, is compelled to don his uniform and march down to ground zero with his go bag and dive right in. He’s crucial to the story because he’s the one who ultimately discovers McLoughlin and Jimeno clinging to life 12 hours after the towers collapsed.
Thanks to more first responders risking their own lives, and much to the shock of their wives, who by this time assumed their husbands were dead, McLoughlin and Jimeno are rescued, though their roads to recovery are long.
The film ends a few years removed from 9/11 when McLoughlin and Jimeno are honored and celebrated by the community. Their families are intact, and have grown. Mcloughlin’s voice over places their story at the heart of a redemptive narrative about 9/11. Let’s listen to that:
We’ll talk more about what Oliver Stone tried to do here and why, but let’s break down our second film, United 93.
Paul Greengrass’ expertly directed Bloody Sunday, which we discussed last episode, introduced us to his wandering camera and cinema verite style. He brings this approach to the incredibly tense and gut wrenching United 93, using the story of the one plane that did not reach its target, most likely the Capitol, to tell the bigger story of that morning.
There are no identifiable “stars” on the plane, just some recognizable character actors, and back on the ground, in some cases, Greengrass enlisted the actual men and women who participated on the day – air traffic controllers, NORAD officers – whose IMDB entry consists of just this one film. This is by design because, unlike World Trade Center, which needed Cage and Pena to carry the film, United 93 is about the event. None of us want to imagine what it would have been like to be on that plane but Greengrass puts us there. We could have been any one of them.
The film begins with the hijackers praying in their hotel rooms the morning of September 11. The perspective expands to reveal the totally normal routines of all those involved. Pilots chatting about the weather, flight attendants stocking condiments, passengers tending to their family or finishing emails to work. We also see inside various air traffic control hubs, including the FAA in Virginia which will ultimately become the clearing house for all the contradictory reports to come. Like Bloody Sunday, Greengrass just presents people as they are. The methodical narrative structure takes the myriad participants, agencies, locations, and confusion and creates a coherent timeline so that the viewer can appreciate the complexity of the actual day – humans behaving in very human ways.
The first mention of hijacking is met with disbelief. As one controller says, “We haven’t had one of those in 4o years.” As we know, and as he shows, American Airlines Flight 11 is the first to hit the World Trade Center. Greengrass reminds us that everyone – even officials – had to go to CNN for information, not for the first time. The report of a small plane only causes further confusion and lost time.
The FAA rushes to analyze tape and report that a “foreign”voice says “We have some planes.” This portentous line is followed by reports of another plane, United Airlines Flight 175, hitting the second tower. All of this unfolds while United 93 is still on the ground, delayed, and the hijackers are visibly nervous and debate when to make their move.
The film grows more suspenseful minute by minute and it is a true testament to Greengrass that he can generate this mood even though we already know the result. You can’t help but get drawn in as 93 is airborne while the FAA, military, and control towers are scrambling to make sense of what is happening and what to do about it. The absolute disconnect between the civilian FAA and NORAD, a major point in the post mortem of 9/11, is fully on display here.
Let’s listen to a clip taking us inside the military and FAA control rooms. It’s pretty representative of Greengrass’ eavesdropping style:
The moment of truth comes when the hijackers savagely attack and kill a passenger and then brutally murder the pilots and a flight attendant in the same fashion, taking the helm to redirect the plane to what we assume was a Washington DC target. Passengers secretly use the phones to contact family and tell them what’s happening and also learn about the planes that had already reached their targets, including one more at the Pentagon (American Airlines 77).
There is no mistaking what is in store for United 93, and passengers and crew plot together. Interestingly, Greengrass imagines a very human response – they are all clinging to a far-fetched plan to subdue the hijackers and place the one passenger with flight experience in the cockpit. No one proposes intentionally crashing the plane, sacrificing themselves for the sake of potential targets. But the audience, like the passengers, know the real odds. The “Let’s roll” moment is not grand or cathartic, but a bloody slog from one end of the plane to the other. The film ends with the Pennsylvania countryside rushing toward the cockpit. Cut to black and a scroll detailing the timeline of events and the actions, and more significantly, inactions of the government response.
We decided if we are exploring the cultural legacy of 9/11 this season, we needed an episode on the day itself. And in order to fully appreciate the choices made by Stone and Greengrass in depicting that day, it’s worth revisiting the lies agreed upon that we’re addressing today.
Remember the lie that history is made up of big choices, big events, big heroics and big villainy. And remember – in particular as we talk about what might well have been the contextual events that motivated the film makers – the other lie is that people (and institutions) learn from their mistakes, and that we can at least take comfort that huge disasters motivate people in power to make changes for the better.
Normally we devote a segment to setting the scene, providing some historical context for both the events portrayed on screen and what is going on when the films are released. We don’t need to describe 9/11. But it might be useful to remind people of what was going on a few years later when these movies came out.
Both were released in the summer of 2006 – United 93 in June, and World Trade Center in September. It’s odd that such a non-summer blockbuster type movie like United 93 would be released in June. But it’s a safe bet that World Trade Center was seen by the studio, and probably by Stone, as one of the IMPORTANT FILMS that show up in the autumn months angling for Oscar nominations. We’ll be talking a bit more about the genre placement of this movie a little bit later. So I think it’s worth noting that the release date is also part of that package.
It would have been at least a year earlier, however, when these directors decided to pursue these projects, and when they got the green light. 2005 was the first year of Bush’s second term. We can imagine that a critical look at the systemic failures of 9/11 might have galvanized both men – somehow the completion of the 9/11 Commission’s hearings and the publication of their 2-volume Report in 2004 resulted in very little change. The Commission interviewed more than 1,200 witnesses but, at the end of the day, the Chairman’s assessment that the Clinton and Bush administrations had “not been well served” by the FBI, CIA and other agencies, was not much of a revelation.
Paul Greengrass, however, specifically used the Report’s meticulous reconstruction of the timeline for his film. It is apparent from Bloody Sunday that Greengrass has great faith in the dramatic impact of a fact-based narrative, clearly told. And he uses the narrow focus on United 93 to camouflage what is really a movie about the entire response on that day.
Another crucial bit of contextual information might be that the September 11th Victims Compensation Fund, set up in 2001, expired in 2004. But the first responders like McLoughlin and Jimeno continued to get sick and die from all those toxins they’d been exposed to for weeks and months at Ground Zero. Public sympathy and support for efforts to get long-term funding was strong, while Washington dragged its feet. Perhaps that was one reason Stone, and the studio, thought this was the story to tell about 9/11 and that in 2006 it would pull at America’s heartstrings in an Oscar winning kind of way.
Let’s listen to a CNN report from 2012 recounting the long-term health consequences for first responders and their frustration with a government and society no longer paying attention.
So these movies appeared just as it felt that the long shadow of 9/11 was retreating, but not because of healing, reform, or closure, but because of the notoriously short memory of Washington, and without any real resolution to the failings and crises that had either been created or exposed by the attack.
Even with all of that, however, it’s perhap not a stretch to say that the 2 events from the summer of 2005 that were still reverberating in the summer of 2006 weren’t directly related to 9/11 at all. Nevertheless, to a post 9/11 world, Hurricane Katrina and the London bombings that came to be known as 7/7 were like trauma on top of trauma. In the case of Katrina, the American public once again felt that something inexplicable and indescribable had happened, that the government had let them down and that it continued to do so a year later.
Let’s listen to one of Bush’s own policy advisers recalling the Katrina response. This is Dr. Ryan Streeter
In the case of 7/7, the British public felt that the dread and expectation they’d been living with since 9/11 had finally been validated. In 4 bombings, 3 on the London Underground and 1 on a bus, 52 people were killed and more than 700 injured. Here’s a montage of the BBC coverage, incomplete, confused, very similar to what we watched on 9/11 here in the US.
Londoners found their city shattered during the morning commute just as New Yorkers had.
So, by 2006 we lived with a gargantuan national security budget that created layers of new bureaucracy without solving the fundamental problems revealed by 9/11. As Jon Bernthal’s character yells to Mcloughlin as they rush to get PPE for the ill-fated rescue, “The whole freaking world is coming to an end today!”
I think this gets at the point of both films – the whole world as we knew it did end that day. And yest, at the same time, nothing seemed to change. We have two very different directors portraying the paradox of that “end” and it’s worth diving in a little deeper and interrogating some of their choices.
So with all of this in mind…
Let’s talk about Oliver Stone and World Trade Center, which I think you’ll agree is a most unusual film from the man who brought you searing critiques of American exceptionalism like JFK, Platoon, Salvador, Born on the Fourth of July. Need I go on? There is nothing about World Trade Center that screams, “An Oliver Stone film.” We talked about Alexander in our first episode, the film he directed before this one. Let me read you Peter Bradshaw’s review in the Guardian for World Trade Center because I think he might be on to something:
“It’s almost as if Stone wants to ingratiate himself with the mainstream public that rejected his historical blockbuster Alexander and win the approval of his right-wing critics. To please family audiences, he presents a blue-collar men’s world in which nobody utters a swear word. And unlike Paul Greengrass’s picture about the passengers on the hijacked United 93 fighting back against the Islamic terrorists, World Trade Center is a curiously passive affair.”
I don’t want to discount World Trade Center entirely. It is technically accomplished, has a compelling narrative, and a satisfying resolution. What I can’t understand is why Oliver Stone in 2006 tells the story of “the good” to come out of 9/11, the bravery and selflessness of first responders, without commenting on how “the bad” – disastrous wars of choice and government dysfunction – stand in stark contrast to his subjects. In fact, Stone seems to lean into the narrative that everything that came after 9/11 was meant to happen.
Consider the character of David Karnes, who is also a real person by the way, no less heroic than Mcloughlin and Jimeno, and Michael Shannon is brilliant in all things. However, he plays Karnes like his memorable role in Boardwalk Empire as Prohibition agent Nelson van Alden. Nelson was a religious zealot who saw everything as a crusade. When we meet Karnes he is in church, shaken by the day’s events and compelled to serve. Stone films him under an enormous cross as Karnes has an epiphany – he is going to war. Here’s the clip. Karnes is talking with his pastor:
Karnes, who is not active duty, puts on his old uniform and walks straight into ground zero. No one even questions who he is because he’s a Marine. Surely he must belong. Karnes, after laying eyes on the twisted metal, weirds out the firefighter nearby, telling him: “It’s like God made a curtain with the smoke, shielding us from what we’re not yet ready to see.” It is Karnes who hears the metallic pings from McLoughlin and Jimeno and brings help. He saved them, and when the film ends Karnes is ready to crusade further, quitting his job to reenlist and, as he puts it, “avenge this.” Where? Iraq, two tours. Did Oliver Stone, a fierce critic of the war, just endorse it and the false rationale for it – that Saddam Hussain had something to do with it?
Speaking of war, World Trade Center carries all the earmarks of the combat war film. The genre was developed during World War II, and has been a Hollywood mainstay ever since. More recent versions include Saving Private Ryan, the miniseries Band of Brothers, and Fury, which also stars Michael Pena. You know the elements of the war film. There’s always a multiethnic, multiracial unit that face internal and external threats. They have a deadly mission, many don’t return. Sacrifices are made, but seldom questioned. They write letters to wives, who are left home to worry about them in very distinct separate spheres. In World Trade Center, Stone has, in essence, constructed a platoon, and volunteers. Irish, Italian, Hispanic, African-American. They wear a uniform and die in service. The arrival of Dave Karnes reinforces the fact that this is a variation of a combat film.
I think both films are decidedly apolitical, but maybe choosing that route makes them exceptionally political. World Trade Center is strangely conservative and defensive, exemplified by McLoughlin’s passive aggressive coda suggesting we should remember the good things about humanity, how we came together, etc. . . . We did so and promptly waged wars of aggression from which we have yet to extricate ourselves.
And while a war, and 9/11, are decidedly BIG EVENTS, the execution of them, and the outcome of them, are not the result of big actions but, rather, the cumulative small actions of many, many people. So much more is random or piecemeal than we want to acknowledge. Because with lives in the balance, we hold on to the idea that there is some master plan. It’s more comforting.
United 93 is minimalist – there are no grand speeches or weighty symbols like an enormous cross. There is no genre formula here, just a brutal, no frills rendering of a horrible, epoch ending event. I seem to be going to Peter Bradshaw’s reviews a lot, but they’re always substantive. I like this point about how Paul Greengrass doesn’t need to glorify or vilify ordinary people caught in this nightmarish 90 minutes:
“United 93 is growing, in popular legend, into the tragic and redemptive part of the 9/11 story: America’s act of Sobibor defiance. It is a myth-making which is growing in parallel with jabbering conspiracy theories that the plane was shot down by US air-force jets and the whole passenger-action story is a cover-up. On that latter point, Greengrass’s movie shows us that it is easy to be wise after the event; it is a reminder of how unthinkable 9/11 was, of how all too likely it was that the civil and military authorities would not have mobilised in time, and that any action would indeed have to come from the passengers themselves.”
Some read this as a harsh critique of the Bush administration, but maybe it’s just how it went. Institutions fail when tested sometimes. That happened here. When the time came to finally represent the unrepresentable two accomplished directors came at the day from diametrically opposed perspectives. Stone made a big budget Movie of the Week. It feels good, a bright spot in a tragedy, a tale of redemption. Greengrass is unflinching, choosing to memorialize the passengers by eschewing the Hollywood treatment.
I know its a strange line from a strange man, but when Michael Shannon’s Karnes says God “made a curtain with the smoke, shielding us from what we’re not yet ready to see” I thought about how Hollywood depicts atrocity and disaster, or if they ever really come close. Were we ready to see in 2006? Stone pushed us to see things in a certain way. Greengrass just said, “Look.”
Welcome to Lies Agreed Upon, the podcast that looks at how film and television use history to talk about today.
I’m Lia Paradis
And I’m Brian Crim.
We’re historians who watch way too much film and TV. And ever since graduate school whenever we see stuff that is set in the past we can’t help but notice that whatever is going on when the film was made shows up on the screen too. Every one of us tries to make sense of our world by telling versions of history that seem to put the puzzle pieces together, or offer the most comfort. Our own lies agreed upon.
We know there are a lot of people who love TV and movies, and history, just like us, and we’ve created this podcast with those people in mind. Sometimes the connections between history and the here and now can be fairly obvious. But a lot of it goes unnoticed or misunderstood and this is where we come in. We hope to entertain and inform, while we also amuse ourselves.
The Lies Agreed Upon in this episode are tied to both the style of the films we’ve chosen AND their relationship to long-standing stories – whether beloved national myths, as is the case with The Alamo, from 2004; or the abolitionist narrative few moviegoers had heard of, from which 12 Years a Slavewas adapted in 2013; or, less familiar to American audience but very familiar to British and Irish audiences, the immediately repudiated bundle of lies that was the official findings of the Widgery Report, on the tragic massacre of civilians by British forces that ignited the worst years of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Bloody Sunday, released in 2002, effectively reveals the true horrors of that day in January 1972.
Our Lies Agreed Upon are:
First, that a familiar, timeless story that reinforces who we think we are must be true.
Second, that history is there to reassure and uplift, not to challenge, or make us uncomfortable.
And third, that there is only one history – a stable truth that sits outside of time, prejudice, and self-interest.
The first film we’re going to be talking about in this episode isBloody Sunday. Released in 2002, it was filmed in a cold Dublin winter, just months after 9/11. Written and directed by Paul Greengrass, starring James Nesbitt, and with Tim Piggot-Smith and Nicholas Farrell, it’s probably a movie most of our listeners have never heard of. It didn’t even gross $1 million when it was released in the US. But it won the Audience Prize at Sundance and first prize at the Berlin Film Festival.
Greengrass came from a documentary film background and Bloody Sunday, only his second feature film, is shot in that style. It drops us into Derry, a Northern Irish city on the boundary between Northern Ireland and Ireland, in January 1972. The notorious events of that day, immortalized in a U2 song, arguably ignited what have come to be known as the Troubles. Community leaders, like the local Protestant member of Parliament, Ivan Cooper (played by Nesbitt) and Catholic activist Bernadette Devlin (played by Mary Moulds) organized a civil rights march. They had been demanding reform and equal treatment for Catholics in Protestant majority, British occupied Northern Ireland. An overtly discriminatory political system, a lack of economic opportunity, harassment by police and military, and false imprisonment, were leading the poor Catholics of Derry (called Londonderry by the British) and the rest of Northern Ireland, to respond increasingly with violence. This march, attended by thousands of average men, women and children, was a demand for justice.
The first half of the movie is spent mainly with Cooper, as he encourages everyone to come to the march, insistent that it will be peaceful. And trying to insure that outcome by speaking directly to the local IRA leadership, who are dubious that any civil rights appeal will work, or that the British soldiers will respect the march. But they agree it would look bad for the IRA if they instigated anything given the make-up of the crowd.
James Nesbitt is brilliant as Cooper. He’s strung as tight as a violin string. You see in his face his hope and fear. His patience with people as he cajoles and scolds, jokes and lectures, is excruciating to watch. He is desperately trying to will the day to turn out the way he wants.
The second half of the film is a moment by moment immersion into what actually happened – a bloodbath. British soldiers, primed by their leaders to think of every Catholic as a hooligan at best, and a terrorist at worst, started shooting indiscriminately into the crowd. 26 people were shot, some while fleeing, some while trying to help the wounded. 14 died.
At the end of the film, Cooper speaks at a press conference about the ramifications of what happened that day. Let’s listen to that now.
It’s important to tell our listeners that Greengrass does, indeed, show young men lining up in the hallway of an anonymous tenement building, waiting to join the IRA.
Our second movie was released in 2004 and, like Bloody Sunday, was explicitly tied to the events of 9/11 and the West’s response to it. While Bloody Sunday was released in the early days of the assault against the Taliban in Afghanistan, The Alamo was released a year into the war in Iraq. It was directed by John Lee Hancock and produced by Ron Howard, Brian Grazer, and Mark Johnson. Hancock has some pretty good credits to his name as a director and writer, including The Rookie, The Blind Side, and A Perfect World. He also wrote the script for The Alamo with Leslie Bohem. The cast is also not too shabby considering what appears on screen. Dennis Quaid is Sam Houston, Billy Bob Thorton plays Davy Crockett, and Jason Patric is Jim Bowie. Patrick Wilson plays the commanding officer in charge of defending the Alamo, William Barrett Travis, and the great Mexican actor Emilio Echevarria plays General Santa Anna with all the subtlety of Snidely Whiplash. So, there is talent behind The Alamo, but it’s a beautiful disaster.
The plot revolves around the legendary – underline legendary – siege of the Alamo in March of 1836, although there are some flashbacks to the events that lead this band of misfits to their fated end and a postscript depicting Santa Anna’s catastrophic defeat and capture at the hands of a vengeful Sam Houston at the battle of San Jacinto. The film begins with Sam Houston wooing potential settlers to migrate to Texas and rallying the Provisional Texas government to oppose General Santa Anna’s dictatorial rule. Travis is dispatched to the Alamo to fortify it ahead of Santa Anna’s advance, which was faster than anticipated. Travis unsuccessfully pleads for reinforcements, but only a few respond.
In this clip Colonel Travis gives the perfunctory “tomorrow we die speech” in a movie like this, but I think you can detect the post-9/11 rallying cry subtext. Let’s listen:
Outnumbered and surrounded, the garrison holds for several days before succumbing to a costly frontal assault by Santa Anna’s own beleaguered army. Davy Crockett, one of the few survivors captured, embodies the heroic spirit of the defenders and curses Santa Anna before facing the firing squad. A devastated Sam Houston retreats with his army but detects Santa Anna’s miscalculation in dividing his forces and surprises the general at San Jacinto, massacring hundreds and capturing the general. In exchange for his life, Santa Anna grants Texas independence.
The backstory behind the film is pretty interesting, especially since the idea to make it is directly related to 9/11. Screenwriter Leslie Bohem pitched the idea to Ron Howard in 1998, but it stayed on the backburner until Disney’s Michael Eisner fast tracked it in hopes of releasing a super patriotic feature to help Americans feel better in the wake of the trauma. Ron Howard wanted a Saving Private Ryan type of film, one also grounded in historical truth. Failing to see a reliable way to do that, Howard dropped out and the Texan John Lee Hancock filled in. The problem facing all previous Alamo films is separating fact from fiction because most sources are themselves embellishments created after the fact. You know the saying, “when choosing between the history and legend, go with the legend.” The Alamo does that in spades.
For our third film, we jump almost a decade from the period of 9/11 and our military responses to it. As we discussed in the last episode, by 2013, the endless wars, the collateral civilian damage, and the ongoing existence of the Guantanamo Bay prison were in the minds of many filmgoers. In addition, the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin, and the birther movement questioning President Obama’s citizenship, tied together the international and domestic reality that America continued to treat black and brown lives as lesser.
12 Years a Slave, released in 2013, is an adaptation of an 1853 slave narrative by Solomon Northrup, a free black from New York who was kidnapped during a trip to Washington DC and sold into slavery in 1841. Northrup spent his twelve years in Louisiana before smuggling a letter out describing his plight to friends back home. The autobiography was dictated by Northrup to a white state legislator named David Wilson, and it contains all the common literary tropes of the day, including the idea that the abject horrors of a slave society were perpetrated by men and women who were consistently recognizable as ‘evil’ in every aspect of their lives, that poorer white men were brutish out of ignorance while wealthier white men were evil due to mental instability, and the goodness that was inherent in sincerely pious Christians. The film adheres closely to the account in most cases, but the points of departure are significant and controversial, as we’ll discuss.
Directed by Steve McQueen and adapted for the screen by John Ridley, 12 years was a critical and commercial success, winning several Oscars, including best film, Golden Globes, BAFTAs, you name it. The acting was uniformly superb, particularly Chiwitel Ejiofor as Northrup and Lupita Nyong’o as Patsey. Rounding out the cast are Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Fassbender, Alfre Woodward, Paul Giammati, Sarah Poulson, and an appearance by Brad Pitt, a classic white savior, the Canadian Mennonite, Samuel Bass. Pitt was also a producer on the film.
The film begins by depicting Northup’s pleasant life as a middle class free man in Saratoga, NY, blessed with a lovely family and the respect of his neighbors. An accomplished violinist, Northup is tempted by an offer to perform in Washington DC, but the offer is a ploy to drug him and sell him to slavers specializing in entrapping free blacks and smuggling them to slave states. Northup is a stranger in a strange land, thrown into the Kafkaesque nightmare as we watch the casual dehumanization of the degradation of the human spirit through his extremely soulful and expressive eyes. Northup is surrounded by horrors large and small, although the cinematography is gorgeous. This contrast is one of the remarkable accomplishments of the film.
Initially bought by William Ford (Cumberbatch), Northup finds his talents appreciated and even gets to play the violin again. Ford might appear to be the kindly slave owner of historical myth, but he’s all business and outsources the brutality to vicious overseers.
In this clip Solomon lashes out at another slave on the Ford plantation for crying incessantly. She calls him out for thinking somehow his previous life matters, that any of them matter. It’s powerful.
Northup’s inability to fully grasp that in this slave society he is no longer a human being eventually results in him assaulting a white overseer. Unable to resist the inevitable vengeance of the world they are in despite his whiteness, Ford sells Northup to Edwin Epps (Fassbender) to spare his life, but the situation worsens. Northup is now subjected to the full horrors of the plantation and the demented cruelty of both Mr. and Mrs Epps. Patsey, Epps’ prize, is raped, whipped, tortured physically and emotionally at every turn. She even begs Northup to drown her in the swamp.
Salvation comes from a Canadian contractor named Samuel Bass. Of course Brad Pitt casts himself as the only decent white character of note. An abolitionist by nature, Bass agrees to send Northup’s letter. Months later a northern representative arrives and demands the local sheriff intercede, allowing Northrup to return to freedom and reunite with his family. The postscript reveals Northup became active in the abolitionist movement while his kidnappers and everyone associated with his abuse escaped serious consequences.
Setting the Scene
Now that we’ve recapped the films, let’s recap the our lies agreed upon.
First of all, one of the reasons why “history is a set of lies agreed upon” is a quip that has stuck, is because history has been treated, by educational systems, governments, commemorative organizations – all institutions of power, really – as a way to reinforce the established narratives. History is supposedly there to reassure us and uplift us, NOT challenge us, or make us uncomfortable. In other words, the lie is that our historical legends and myths are not myths and legends at all.
And one of the things that has to be believed in order for this to be true is the lie that there is only one history – a stable truth that sits outside of time, prejudice, and self-interest.
And so we’ve chosen three movies this week that all revisit moments in the course of America and Britain’s stories where the lie is laid bare that we do not do evil, that we do not instill terror, that that is what other societies do.
In the case of Bloody Sunday, historical events were – for decades – codified through the authority of a government inquiry. In the case of The Alamo, historical events and actors were shaped into legends that became the fodder for traveling vaudeville shows and 1950s family television. And the story of Solomon Northup was coopted by white abolitionists at the time and then by filmmakers.
In the struggle to understand 9/11, to decide what to do about it, and then to justify what we did, history was used to reassure us, and to challenge that basic story that all societies tell themselves – that they are righteous.
As we already pointed out in our summaries of the movies, each movie’s release date is particularly important this week. Bloody Sunday was shot in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and the subsequent British-American invasion of Afghanistan. In fact, it was released the same month that other NATO member forces arrived in the country and when Kandahar, the Taliban’s capital, was taken. But the supposed “Marshall Plan” for Afghanistan never really materialized. Inadequate funds, inadequate leadership, and a permanent state of threat and conflict, marred any efforts to, as Christopher Hitchins tried to argue at the time, “bomb Afghanistan out of the Stone Age.”
Hitchens is one of many who expressed these kinds of ideas – not a clash of civilizations but, rather, a battle between the civilized and the uncivilized.. But it’s worth listening to the laconic attitude and the tone with which he so comfortably puts himself on the side of the civilization/barbarism struggle:
The equanimity with which the West – particularly the British and Americans – accepted the death toll of civilians in Afghanistan, and the ‘necessity’ for showing no mercy, until the wayward, backward tribal people could be shown the error of their ways, is very reminiscent of the tone that Tim Piggot-Smith and Nicholas Farrell take in the war room in Bloody Sunday. As a historian of the British Empire, I can attest to the authenticity of the easy racial and classed superiority expressed in their prep school and military academy accents.
Paul Greengrass’ wandering camera matter-of-factly capturing the violence, chaos, tears, fear and smoke of Bloody Sunday evokes the now iconic footage of stunned New Yorkers staggering through the streets covered in dust. These city streets are a war zone and civilians involved are truly shocked it’s happening to them. Is Greengrass comparing the two events, suggesting the British government essentially sponsored a terrorist act, or does the 9/11 aesthetic for lack of a better term run so deep that cinematic portrayals of trauma have no choice but to cite it for audiences?
Whatever the answer, the sudden immersion into the events, the confusion it evokes from the audience, definitely speaks to the fragmented reconfiguration of our reality felt by Americans…and Britons, in the aftermath of 9/11. And, filmed at the beginning of what we now know has been an endless period of warfare, Bloody Sunday was also a film about the beginning of another endless conflict, the Troubles, made just as that conflict (thanks to the Good Friday Agreement) seemed to be finally coming to a close.
In 1998, Tony Blair gave a speech in Parliament where he promised to open a new inquiry into Bloody Sunday. By the time the movie was made, there was still no report. In fact, the findings of what is now known as the Saville Inquiry weren’t released until 2010. They concluded the following:
“The firing by soldiers of 1 PARA on Bloody Sunday caused the deaths of 13 people and injury to a similar number, none of whom was posing a threat of causing death or serious injury. What happened on Bloody Sunday strengthened the Provisional IRA, increased nationalist resentment and hostility towards the Army and exacerbated the violent conflict of the years that followed. Bloody Sunday was a tragedy for the bereaved and the wounded, and a catastrophe for the people of Northern Ireland.”
That is, perhaps, finally a moment of closure. But the uncertainty of beginnings, durations, and endings, ties all of our movies together.
This is one of the themes we focus on in this episode – the importance and power of narrative. The Lies Agreed Upon are the narratives that gain currency in part because they are the stories told so well, that satisfy our hunger for the elements of drama – characters, setting, plot, conflict and resolution. In truth, historians will tell you that if a story fulfills those requirements too neatly – particularly resolution – then it may need to be reexamined.
Basically, the reason why The Alamo is such a disaster is that the myths it tries to infuse with realism are beyond rehabilitation. The narrative naiveté of our pre-attack selves can’t withstand the narrative cynicism of our post 9/11 selves. I have to think this is the reason why Ron Howard dropped out of the project. He wanted to make a gritty, realistic account of the siege. He hired historians, walked the grounds, and sought out multiple perspectives but all he found was myth on top of myth and, even more problematic, the values those myths were built on have not aged well. The final product is proof Howard was right to step away.
One crucial element of the Alamo story that must be addressed, particularly because it is central to virtually every novel written with the counterfactual existence of a Republic of Texas, is the fact that the efforts of Bowie, Houston, Crockett and others, were directly motivate by the desire for Texas to be a slaveholding territory. It was NOT a patriotic motivation to ‘restore’ the territory to the white European settlers (although even that is a narrative built on racial assumptions that still ignores the indigenous people whose land it rightfully was.)
The victory of Mexico over the United States was of little importance to the various groups who actually lived there. In most cases, westward expansion didn’t occur because patriots wanted to bring government authority and regulation to these territories. Quite the opposite. Men moved west out of the United States because they wanted to be free of the US government. But in 1829, the Guerrero decree outlawed slavery in the Mexican territory. And suddenly, it mattered very much what government controlled Texas. The Republic of Texas was, in essence, an attempt to thread the needle – to not be under the US government, but be allowed to own slaves. As recently as June of this year, the Alamo has been the site of racist and anti-racist actions as the “This is Texas Freedom Force” vowed to guard the “sacred” Alamo Cenotaph (only erected in 1933) after someone graffitied “down with white supremacy” on its base.
And the reason why 12 Years a Slave seems so strangely brutal and unrealistic at the same time is that it was still a story drawn from an antebellum, abolitionist race narrative structure, even though it was released to a post-Trayvon Martin, Obama presidency America that was ready to see harsher truths. Obama drew a direct connection between the legacy of slavery and the Martin murder in a way that today seems rather polite but that, at the time, was referred to as a ‘seismic’ speech.
So in 12 Years a Slave, demonic whites populate the narrative and on screen, and while there is no shortage of those in any time period the film leaves the impression that these bad apples sustained slavery for centuries, not the entire infrastructure of the South, not the inherent racial hiearchy in place since 1619 from which we have yet to escape, and not the craven indifference of the vast majority of Americans north or south, in an America that found Martin’s killer not guilty.
The Alamo told a myth about a righteous cause that patriots died for at a moment when American men and women were being sent to die for a questionable cause whose critics were labeled unpatriotic. 12 Years a Slave was made at a moment when the original flaw in America’s character once more threatened to break through the national myths that disguised it. But Bloody Sunday was made in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and it’s important to think about its message in that context. Greengrass is offering a cautionary tale to his audience. He’s showing a tragic event that led to an even greater decades long tragedy. And the cause of that, Greengrass is clearly saying, is that those with the power to control the narrative refused to tell a truthful one or to confront their lies later.
Throughout the movie, we see the British lying to themselves about being the good guys. And in this alternate reality, the enemy is everyone who challenges the myth that they are always on the side of righteousness. Some comfort can be taken, perhaps, in the fact that The Alamo is so irredeemable as a movie, that even in the hyper-patriotic moment when it was made, its message fell on deaf ears. And the fact that 12 Years a Slave – in all its horror – feels inadequate in its treatment of the systemic racism whose legacy provided no justice for Trayvon Martin, suggests that the layers of mythology continue to be peeled away, although never fast enough.
Welcome to Lies Agreed Upon, the podcast that looks at how film and television use history to talk about today.
My name is Lia Paradis
And my name is Brian Crim.
We’re historians who watch way too much film and television. And whenever stuff is set in the past we can’t help but notice that whatever is going on when the film was made shows up on the screen too. People are trying to make sense of our world by telling versions of history that seem to put the puzzle pieces together or offer the most comfort. Our own lies agreed upon.
We know there are a lot of people who love tv and movies, and history, just like us, and we’ve created this podcast with those people in mind. Sometimes the connections between the history and the here and now can be fairly obvious. But a lot of it goes unnoticed or misunderstood and this is where we come in. We hope to entertain and inform, while we also amuse ourselves.
All our major institutions fell under intense scrutiny after 9/11. Later in this season, we’ll look at movies and TV series that take on how an antiquated and incompetent government was implicated in the failure to stop the attack. But in the aftermath, and the Bush government’s efforts to pivot away from the domestic failures surrounding 9/11 and towards a new enemy – Iraq – another institution long seen as part of the foundation of a healthy democracy – the press – was both co opted and, when the journalists wouldn’t cooperated, demonized.
In the wake of Watergate, when Nixon flouted the Constitution and denigrated the press, Alan Pakula’s 1976 classic All the President’s Men made journalism sexy and heroic again (not surprising as the book it was based on was written by the journalists who broke the Watergate story). This episode looks at three movies that celebrate what might be called “heroic journalism” in response to the direct attacks of two administrations. George Clooney’s Good Night, And Good Luck (2005), Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight (2015) and Steven Spielberg’s The Post (2017) go a long way towards rehabilitating the fifth estate in light of post-911 failures.
So what are the lies agreed upon that we’re going to explore through these movies?
These three films reassure us that there actually is a heroic fifth estate acting as a watchdog against powerful institutions. Maybe these directors are showing us historical case studies because the fifth estate is just that – history. Or maybe the noble search for truth with no regard for the financial bottom line was never a reality when a handful of corporations own the vast majority of media.
While the enemy in these stories is usually presented as Republican presidents or a conservative institution like the Catholic Church, the reality is far more bipartisan. The outrage in Hollywood that prompts these movies is definitely liberal outrage. But the culprits always encompass bastions of left-leaning power as well.
Let’s start, as always, with a short recap of the plots.
2005’s Good Night, And Good Luckis the second movie we’re looking at from the writing/producing team of Grant Heslov and George Clooney. This was also Clooney’s first directorial effort. It stars the always wonderful David Straitharn, as Edward R. Murrow; Clooney as his producer, Fred Friendly; Frank Langella as the head of the CBS network, William Paley, and Jeff Daniels as Sig Mickelson, head of CBS News. It also stars Patricia Clarkson and Robert Downey Jr., Tate Donovan, Alex Borstein, Reed Diamond, and Ray Wise turns in a heartbreaking performance as Don Hollenbeck.
The film recounts one of the most storied events in the history of journalism – CBS News’ decision to challenge Senator Joseph McCarthy, who has, of course, become synonymous with the Red Scare hysteria of the early Cold War, resulting in blacklists, careers and lives ruined, and a culture of paranoia, self-censorship, and disregard for the Constitution.
The film opens and closes with Murrow giving a Cassandra-esque speech about the decline of independent, responsible journalism and the dire consequences to the health of democracy and civil society as he accepts an award for his lifetime of work.
The central plot of the movie is the first critical investigation of McCarthy’s tactics, evidence, and conclusions, as the head of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. Using footage from the actual hearings, McCarthy speaks for himself.
But the other plot thread that is woven through the film is the tension between Murrow and Friendly’s team’s desire to do investigative journalism as the watchdogs of civil liberties, and the commercial interests of the network. Their show, See it Now, was juxtaposed with the light entertainment of the celebrity interview show Murrow was forced to host in order to help pay CBS’s bills, Person to Person. And in the end, Paley turns See it Now into a once a week show on Sundays. The message is clear – investigative journalism gets us in trouble with our sponsors. And so we won’t abandon you all together but we won’t champion you either.
At one point, Murrow, who was incredibly eloquent and played so well by Straitharn, states that “we must not confuse dissent with disloyalty.” This is at the heart of both his personal and professional defense against McCarthy. Let’s listen to that speech with an ear for how it might have gone over with Americans worried about the excesses of the Bush administration in the wake of the Iraq fiasco.
A decade passes before our next two movies are released.
Spotlight (2015)takes us back to the original investigation launched by the Boston Globe’s “Spotlight” team, into allegations that the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston had, for decades, hidden the fact that priests had been sexually abusing children and moved those priests to other parishes when accusations were made, allowing them to prey on more children. This investigation was the start of what we now know as a global crime and cover up by members of the Catholic clergy.
The film was directed by Tom McCarthy, who also wrote the film with Josh Singer. Interestingly, McCarthy – also an actor – played one of Murrow’s team in Good Night and Good Luck. Spotlight stars Michael Keaton, Liev Shreiber, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, a particularly slimy Billy Crudup, a wonderfully frumpy Stanley Tucci, and John Slattery (who was also in Charlie Wilson’s War, and this time is playing the Globe’s editor, Ben Bradlee Jr., son of the famed Washington Post editor-in-chief, who is played by Tom Hanks in the 3rd movie we’re looking at, The Post – got all that?).
The implaccable attitude of the people in power – namely the city, church, and institutional leaders of Boston – as the Spotlight team, led by Keaton and pursued mainly by McAdams and Ruffalo demand answers – is a central component to the movie.
There has been a cover-up, perpetrated by Cardinal Dolan and the rest of the Church leadership, but also aided by the heads of the Catholic schools, white shoe law firms (personified by Crudup), and even the newspaper itself. There is a moment when Michael Keaton’s character is forced to confront his own complicity because he didn’t pursue the story years earlier when he had a chance.
Ruffalo as Mike Rezendes is a lot like Dustin Hoffmann’s Bernstein, angry, self-righteous to the point of exhaustion, but the moral center of the film. Where Keaton urges caution, Ruffalo sees the scandal for what it is. Let’s play a clip:
The Fifth Estate is critiqued as well as championed in Spotlight.
Finally, we have The Post, a film from 2017 whose origin story is as interesting as the movie plot itself. First time screenwriter Liz Hannah graduated from the American Film Institute Conservatory before Donald Trump became president in 2016. She fell in love with the biography of Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham, who died in 2011, and wrote The Post to give voice to her experience. Stephen Spielberg was impressed with the script and wanted a quick turnaround, making the film in less than 10 months. Interestingly, Josh Singer, who wrote Spotlight, co-wrote the final version of The Post. Hannah and Singer were nominated for the Golden Globe for Best Original Screenplay. The cast is typically wonderful for a Spielberg film – Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Mathew Rhys, Carrie Coon, Sarah Poulson, Bob Odenkirk, Bradley Whitford, Jesse Plemons and on and on and on.
Set in 1971, The Post chronicles Katharine Graham’s struggle to turn the small family owned Washington Post into one of the premier newspapers amid editor Ben Bradlee’s frantic campaign to publish the infamous Pentagon Papers, a cache of documents compiled former Department of Defense official Daniel Ellsberg detailing over two decades of lies and missteps responsible for America’s disastrous war in Vietnam. Always considered a socialite, Graham inherited the paper after her husband’s death and immediately faced the harsh reality of being a woman in a man’s world. Graham has to convince the profit obsessed board of directors she is a viable publisher while also winning over the crusty and somewhat chauvinistic Bradlee along with the hard boiled, almost exclusively male newsroom. What you have in The Post is a #MeToo storyline folded into the heroic journalism narrative Spielberg was also focused on.
The film begins with Ellsberg’s fact finding mission to Vietnam in 1966 and his realization that then Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, a close personal friend of Graham, was committed to the lie about Vietnam despite knowing the truth – America is in the war to not lose, costing countless lives and treasure. Ellsberg is outraged and copies the 47 volume secret history of the war. He first leaks it first to the New York Times, which is forced to cease and desist by the Nixon white house in court. This gives the Washington Post a window to fill the void and begin publishing its own copy provided by Ellsberg. Both Graham and Bradley have to come to terms with the fact that for decades they befriended their journalistic subjects, often protecting them rather than reporting honestly about their misdeeds. Here is a clip of Bradlee raising this issue with Graham as she debates taking the monumental step of publishing the Pentagon Papers.
Graham also must navigate the hazards of taking the Post public with the full weight of the vengeful Nixon White House bearing down on her. Let’s listen to McNamara warning her friend Graham about crossing this particular president.
McNamara was right because Attorney General John Mitchell threatened to imprison everyone associated with the Pentagon Papers story under the Espionage Act of 1917. The New York Times and Washington Post sued for the right to publish claiming Nixon could not prove doing so would cause “grave and irreparable” danger. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the papers 6-3 on June 30, 1971. The film ends with Graham emerging triumphant from the Supreme Court and wading through a sea of admiring young women. And Spielberg can’t resist a nod to round two of Richard Nixon versus the Washington Post, the Watergate break-in.
Setting the Scene
So what was going on when these movies were made? Well, as with previous episodes, we’re going to be highlighting multiple moments in order to understand what these writers and directors were responding to. But these moments are connected because what was allowed and encouraged in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 sent the fifth estate and the society that should value it, down a slippery slope.
The first lie agreed upon we mentioned at the beginning of the episode is that there is a heroic fifth estate acting as a watchdog against powerful institutions. These three films reassure us this can still happen, but it is not the norm in the age of corporate media and the amazing popularity of Fox News.
Fox News was launched in 1996, As a result – and because their brand of hyper partisan narrative shaping disguised as news was such a new thing – after 9/11 the journalism ecosystem was still trying to incorporate Fox News by taking them at their word, that they were intending to do serious journalism. Their tag line – “fair and balanced” – hadn’t been abandoned yet. The 2000 election cycle, including the highly contested presidential results, had shown where things were headed with Fox News, but deference to established institutions, the inbred interchangeable world of political, corporate and media leadership, ensured that – rather than pressuring Fox News to change, the rest of the media and the press were encouraged to take up the same practices.
Within days of 9/11, the Bush-Cheney administration was capitalizing on fear, paranoia, and patriotic fervor to push for the creation of a new national security state. As we discussed in episode two, terrorism has always been about spectacle, and 9/11 – as well as the subsequent two wars (until the public got tired of them) were unending sources of fodder for 24 hour news coverage. Real journalism took a back seat to simply capturing the trauma and sorrow of the event while news media organizations often served as an unwitting mouthpiece for the Bush administration’s response.
Between the Patriot Act, passed just 45 days after 9/11, and the fabrication of intelligence linking Al Qaeda to Saddam Hussein, the need for honest journalism was paramount, but with few exceptions, the fifth estate failed us. Some, like the venerable New York Times, aided and abetted a march to war by reporting uncorroborated or unnamed sources as fact or uncritically examining data fed to them by the administration. Meanwhile, Bush-Cheney succeeded in equating criticism of its national security efforts with disloyalty, or even treason.
In short, the fifth estate failed us when we needed them most, but in the aftermath of the Iraq fiasco journalists came back strong – if too late for the thousands killed. The papers of record began to investigate again, and brought some well-deserved skepticism back into the equation.
Good Night, and Good Luck was made in the middle of the Iraq fiasco and it is clear the film is about reminding us of what happens when the press rolls over for tyrants and bullies. Bill Moyer’s PBS documentary on the subject – Buying the War from 2007 includes this clip about two Knight Ridder journalists who challenged the conventional wisdom about the Iraq War coming out of the major papers. Sadly, their reporting went ignored. Here’s a clip.
It’s worth noting that Knight Ridder was a newspaper syndicate that was bought out by McClatchy in 2006. By the time Spotlight was released in 2015, Newspapers around the country were dying. The Boston Globe, once a premier newspaper, was sold to the New York Times in 1993 and resold in 2013 to the owner of the Red Sox. The paper lost 94% of its value in that time, a trend leading to the death of hundreds of papers and the absorption of once proud independent papers into massive media conglomerates.
The movie shows reporters successfully taking on the millenia old institution of the Catholic Church, but investigative journalism’s true nemesis is corporate media centralization and the death of print. The era of heroic journalism portrayed in The Post and Good Night, And Good Luck seems a million miles away not because there are no more brave journalists, but because there are fewer venues to read them.
The other thing that was happening ties together Spotlight and The Post: there had been a series of whistleblower events in the decade between the start of the Iraq War and when Spotlight was released: In particular, Chelsea Manning released classified military files to Wikileaks in 2010, and in 2013, Edward Snowden – through intermediaries – gave classified material to The Guardian, the Washington Post, and later Der Spiegel and the New York Times.
The papers were vilified by the Republicans, accused of treason, and the Obama Administration relied on the 1917 Espionage Act to repeatedly go after anyone in the press seen to be cooperating with whistleblowers. In just one instance in 2013, the Obama administration seized AP phone records without notice, because they had disclosed information about a foiled Al- Qaeda terrorist plot.
And if the press are the ones that these whistleblowers are leaking too, then they are traitors too.
So, by the time Trump arrived at the White House, his total, undisguised, frontal assault on the fifth estate was really only the natural end point of a long process. And as soon as he took office his war against the press took off. So the 10-month timeline for Spielberg from decision to make the movie to the release date – December 5th 2017 – was a direct retort to Trump’s attempts to bar critical press from the White House and a direct challenge to news media that still thought it was more important to cultivate relationships with the Trump Administration than it was to critique it.
The second lie agreed upon is that those who abuse power are Republican presidents or inherently conservative institutions like the Catholic Church. Not so. The reality is far more bipartisan, even if our films don’t necessarily show that. We have some great Hollywood liberal stuff going on here. It’s all fine and good to harp on Joe McCarthy and the House of Un-American Activities, but – as Newt reminds us in that clip – HUAC was created in 1938 during FDR’s second administration and run by Texas Democratic Congressman Martin Dies.
HUAC investigated disloyalty and subversive activities among private citizens, civil service employees, and prevented Hollywood from making any political statement against fascism while rooting out suspected communists. Also, it was Harry Truman who pushed for loyalty oaths like the sort the CBS newsroom complained about in Good Night, And Good Luck. The Hollywood Blacklist amid the second red scare in the late 1940s represented another Truman era stain on American history. Mr. Moderate himself Dwight Eisenhower, a Republican officially, was happy to let McCarthy do his thing before he just became unbearable and predictably turned on his own president’s bureaucracy.
CNN’s excellent Cold War documentary produced in the late 1990s covered the blacklist. Here’s a clip featuring some audio of the HUAC hearings held between 1947 and 1949.
The Post pits the free press versus Richard Nixon, but the Pentagon Papers is the story of endless lies propagated by every president since Ike, especially liberal icons JFK and of course Lyndon Johnson. Nixon was just the last in a series of presidents executing the Containment doctrine. Ben Bradlee has to atone for his close relationship with the Kennedys and Katharine Graham befriended the power elite no matter who they were. Just look how close she was with McNamara, Kennedy and Johnson’s Secretary of Defense and truly the primary architect of the Vietnam war strategy. What we have here is what journalist and historian called The Best and the Brightest – all these men from a certain era, socio-economic group, and a handful of Ivy League universities gliding into enormously powerful positions not because it was their right, but because it was expected of them. Political affiliation meant nothing. The national security state thrived on continuity and I think The Post and Good Night, And Good Luck show that very well.
Welcome to Lies Agreed Upon, the podcast that looks at how film and television use history to talk about today.
My name is Lia Paradis
And my name is Brian Crim.
We’re historians who watch a lot of movies and TV. And whenever stuff is set in the past, we can’t help but notice that whatever is going on when the film was made seems to show up on the screen too. That’s why we borrowed a line from Napoleon for the title of our podcast – he complained that the world wouldn’t really know his story because his enemies would tell lies about him. But we’re always trying to make sense of our world by telling versions of history that make the most sense or offer the most comfort. Our own lies agreed upon.
So Napoleon was right, but also a narcissist. (He wasn’t short, by the way. That was also one of those lies.)
We assume that there are a lot of people who love TV and movies, and history, just like us, and we’ve created this podcast with those people in mind. Sometimes the connections between the history and the here and now can be fairly obvious. But a lot of it goes unnoticed or misunderstood and this is where we come in. We hope to entertain and inform, while we also amuse ourselves.
In the aftermath of 9/11, many Americans were asking – how did we get here? Why did so many people, particularly in the Middle East, think of America as the evil empire? Did ‘we’ deserve this? Many people couldn’t understand where the hatred of America came from. And the methods of the terrorists seemed to come out of nowhere. Into the breach step Steven Spielberg, Mike Nichols, and Ben Affleck. Spielberg’s Munich (2005), Mike Nichols’s Charlie Wilson’s War (2007), and Ben Affleck’s Argo (2012) all take up these questions, in one form or another.
All three of these movies challenged two established stories that Americans told themselves after 9/11 – that the United States was an innocent victim of terrorist violence that really came out of nowhere, and that revenge for the attacks would be a productive use of American might.
We’ll start, as always, with a short recap of the plots:
Munich is directed by Spielberg and written by long-time collaborator Tony Kushner along with Eric Roth and George Jonas, author of Vengeance, the book inspiring the story. The cast is impressive, international. Eric Bana, Daniel Craig, Ciarian Hinds, Geoffrey Rush,and Mathieu Almeric, among others.
Munich is the story of the secret Israeli operation targeting eleven PLO operatives linked to the 1972 massacre of Israeli athletes. It opens with the events of the hostage taking, but cuts away before the tragic end point, which Spielberg returns to later in the film.
We are then introduced to Eric Bana’s character, Avner Kaufman, whose book the movie is based on. Mossad asks him to quit so that they can have deniability while joins a shadow group of assassins brought together from the Jewish diaspora – one is Belgian, another South African, and so on. Their handler, played by Jeffrey Rush, gives them the targets.
The mission takes them all over Europe and even Lebanon, drawing them into the shadowy world of Euroterrorism and Cold War shenanigans. Each of the increasingly gruesome assassinations also cause increasing civilian collateral damage. In between these hits, Avner and his colleagues debate the morality and perhaps more importantly, the effectiveness of their actions. Every PLO casualty seems to result in an even more extreme replacement. Over time, other members of the group are killed. It also becomes clear that various governments have their own agendas, in some cases thwarting the assassination attempts – a Mossad target might also be a CIA asset.
Avner starts to wonder if he’s being used to kill targets that have nothing to do with Munich. If so, does that make him just a cold-blooded assassin instead of a righteous avenger?
After a series of setbacks, Avner abandons the mission to be with his family in Brooklyn, seemingly turning his back on the “eye for an eye” mentality of fighting terrorism. The final exchange between Avner and his handler on a park bench in New York is set against the backdrop of the World Trade towers.
Let’s listen to a clip of Avner, when the Israeli is on the job, pretending to be a German radical to get close to his target. He is exchanging perspectives on the Arab-Israeli conflict with an unsuspecting PLO member named Ali.
Ali is preaching national liberation ideology, mocking the “Reds international revolution” as a luxury only those with a home can affort. It is a good distillation of the Palestinian perspective and a reminder that Jews in the British Mandate of Palestine believed similar things during their quest for national liberation.
Argo is directed by Ben Affleck and written by Chris Terrio and based on the book The Master of Disguise by Tony Mendez, the CIA officer portrayed by Affleck. It’s produced by Affleck, Grant Heslov and George Clooney and The cast also includes some wonderful performances by Alan Arkin, John Goodman, Victor Garber, Bryan Cranston and a host of other notable faces and names. Set in the chaotic months of the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the subsequent storming of the US embassy, Argo is the story of the daring and improbable rescue of six American embassy officials forced to hide in the Canadian ambassador’s residence.
Like Spielberg, Affleck feels the need to provide a quick review of the historical background. Affleck is very explicit about the causes of the events his audience is about to see unfold. Let’s take a listen to that now.
The live action then begins with the day that the student protesters breach the outer walls of the American Embassy compound and take it over, starting the 444 days of the the American Hostage Crisis. A few lowly functionaries, working in the passport and visa building, are able to escape out a door to the street because their building has exterior access for Iranians who come applying for visas. They eventually take shelter in the residence of the Canadian Ambassador
In Washington, government and intelligence officials start trying to figure out how to get them out. After a lot of back and forth, trying to figure out the least worst idea, Mendez manages to convince his superiors that the only viable plan is to pose as the a Canadian production team for a fake science fiction film called Argo and fly out of Tehran International Airport.
John Goodman, playing a special effects guy who’s worked with Mendez before, recruits Alan Arkin, a director, to pretend he’s making the movie. The rest of the film flips back and forth between Hollywood where the set-up is underway, and Tehran, where Mendez tries to get buy in from the humble office workers who suddenly have to learn cover stories and are scared to death.
Meanwhile, the radical, paranoid phase of the revolution is raging outside the Canadian Residence gates. And the ineffectual officials in Washington keep wanting to throw in the towel and just abandon the whole thing.
The uncertainty – of course – goes down to the wire, as Mendez forces his superiors’ hand by going ahead with the exfiltration and the final pieces of the cover story come through just as he is leading the six embassy workers through Tehran airport. The plane takes off despite revolutionary guards speeding down the runway trying to overtake the plane. The captain announces when they clear Iranian airspace and they are free.
The film ends with comparison photos of the real events and people so that the audience can appreciate Affleck’s attention to detail and accuracy and be reminded that, however improbable it seems, this caper really happened.
Among other things, Munich and Argo both grapple with the legacy of past events, but neither do it as explicitly as our third movie, Charlie Wilson’s War.
Charlie Wilson’s War is loaded with big names and talent. Directed by Mike Nichols and written by Aaron Sorkin, CWW is based on the book of the same name by veteran CBS journalist George Crile. The cast is amazing – Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Emily Blunt, Ned Beatty, Rizwan Manji, Om Puri as Zia, and even John Slattery, who plays a Roger Sterling type of character, but not nearly as likeable. The film is the story of how an obscure Texas congressman spearheaded the now famous, or infamous effort to arm Afghan rebels in their bloody war with the Soviet Union. The film has Sorkin’s familiar blend of humor, idealism, and optimism about what government can accomplish. However, CWW is also pretty direct about America’s standard operation procedure of breaking things without cleaning them up.
It opens with Hanks, as Wilson, naked in a hot tub with a friend and a few buxom ‘starlets’. Wilson, sees coverage of the Afghan War on a bar TV and is distracted. This movie doesn’t start with a history lesson for its viewers. We start out as ignorant as Wilson. He becomes intrigued by what is developing in Afghanistan. A wealthy, rabidly anti-Communist, evangelical, Texas socialite, and sometimes lover of Good Time Charlie, named Joanne Herring, seizes on his interest because she wants to help the Afghans eject the godless communists.
And Charlie has the luck to get a tenacious, effective, and unorthodox CIA agent answer his request for an intelligence briefing on the matter. Played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, Gust Avracotos is as much an outsider to this CIA as Tony Mendez is to Argo’s.
The rest of the movie follows Wilson, Herring, and Avracotos, as they quietly procure the funding for a covert war. This is enabled by Wilson’s committee memberships on the kinds of classified, military defense sub-committees that don’t have to disclose their budgets or their appropriation decisions. Once in possession of the funds, Wilson and Avracotos find the appropriately apolitical arms dealers who will provide the weapons that the Afghans need to shoot down Soviet air power.
The US aid budget for Afghanistan goes from 5 million dollars to 2 billion dollars. But once the war is won, the USSR retreats and collapses, and the US loses interest fast. Wilson can’t even get those same committees to keep enough funding to build the Afghans some schools. But all those weapons are still there – left behind for another fight. The audience knows that Usama Bin Laden will find refuge in the failed state, and now also knows that the mujahadeen Wilson helped arm will eventually become both the Taliban and the Northern Alliance who resisted them.
For all its humor and feel good moments, CWW is best summed up by Charlie Wilson’s own quote ending the film: “These things happened. They were glorious and they changed the world . . . and then we fucked up the end game.”
Let’s listen to Gust warning Charlie about what’s to come. We know because we are living with the consequences of abandoning Afghanistan and always finding military solutions to humanitarian problems.
In each episode, we’ll remind listeners what was going on when these writers, directors and producers decided to make these movies. Again, the way we’ve summarized the films has probably provided some of that review already.
For this episode, we have two different moments to describe, although they are definitely related. In 2004, CBS news got a hold of photos that showed evidence that US soldiers were torturing Iraqis in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Soon after, the first of a series of ‘torture memos’s was leaked showing that as early as 2002 the administration was seeking legal justification for the use of torture. Although Abu Ghraib was treated as an outlier event, it turned attention to ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ – a euphemism for torture – and the existence of black ops sites around the world where US operatives acted outside US and international law.
Let’s play a CBS news clip detailing the controversy surrounding the revelation Abu Ghraib was actually the result of US policy
The prison at Guantanamo Bay was also under increasing scrutiny, as was the civilian kill rate in both Iraq and Afghanistan. All in all, in Bush’s second term, there was a lot of discussion about, and discomfort with, America’s abandonment of its own principles – and the law – in the name of national security.
Here’s a clip from Al Jazeera about the Kafkaesque nightmare that is Gitmo
Meanwhile, the war in Afghanistan raged on. And the weapons used against American forces were often American weapons, given to the Afghans two decades earlier when the USSR occupied the country. It never went well when foreigners invaded Afghanistan. And by 2007, when Charlie Wilson’s War came out, more and more people were asking why Afghanistan had been under the control of the Taliban to begin with, and why the Taliban was shooting American soldiers with American guns.
Aaron Sorkin was his usual precise self in the script for Charlie Wilson’s War when he had the CIA Aghan desk highlight the contributions of Ahmad Massoud and the forces later known as the Northern Alliance. Massoud was the most effective mujahideen leader against the Soviets and later opposed the Taliban. Al Qaeda, with Taliban support, assassinated Massoud two days before 9/11 to prepare for the storm to come after the attack. Let’s get some background on Massoud:
So you can see how Sorkin is drawing a direct link between what the US did then, what happened on 9/11, and what the situation was in Afghanistan when the movie was made.
Jumping forward a few years, a crisis in the already bad relationship between the US, Europe, and Iran could seen to be out of the blue for someone who wasn’t around and aware during the Carter/ Reagan years. And by 2011, tensions between the US and Iran were very high. Populist hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was president from 2005-2013, consolidated his power by stoking anti-American, anti-Israel sentiment and ramping up Iran’s nuclear program. Iran Hawks in the US were advocating an invasion, and, if you look at a map, you can see why Iran would not be paranoid to consider that a strong possibility. But the US and Israel’s most effective operation was non-military – releasing a worm into Iran’s nuclear computer system. So a non-violent solution to a violent threat was yet another opportunity for the West to tsk tsk the emotional Other. And, while Argo would have been in production long before this happened, in November 2011, Iranian student protesters stormed the British Embassy in Tehran in retaliation for sanctions tied to Iran nuclear program.
So again, what are those stories that Americans told themselves after 9/11 that these three movies are challenging?
Well, the first is that the United States was an innocent victim of terrorist violence that really came out of nowhere. Tied to that was the public perception that this was a uniquely violent moment.
That story then led to another one: that revenge for the attacks would be a productive use of American might – that a “war on terror” one might call it – was warranted and would be successful.
In their own way the three films suggest that American ignorance about other cultures leads to bad policy. Munich is about an Israeli operation, but the audience is American and while Spielberg gives a nod to the Palestinian perspective it certainly falls short of acknoweding decades of dehumanization just as Affleck can’t possibly explain the brutality of the Shah’s regime. I think Charlie Wilson’s War is pretty good at showing the Afghans were nothing more than pawns in the Cold War, however.
Steven Spielberg did a lot of press for Munich in which he distinguished between the PLO and Euroterrorism of the 70s with the mass casualty apocalyptic ends of Al Qaeda. There is no equivalence, but Spielberg understands that the essence of terrorism in the modern age is spectacle. The 1972 olympic massacre and 9/11 were designed to achieve maximum terror in a global audience. Terrorism is symbolic political violence, and even if the motives and methods have changed, the visual component is the same.
The 1979 Iranian revolution and the storming of the US embassy cannot be classified as terrorism, but the spectacle was equally momentous. Both Argo and Munich want to remind us of the power of the moving image to instill fear, prompt action and counteraction.
Charlie Wilson’s War reminds American audiences that Afghanistan was once synonymous with a celebrated Cold War victory, perhaps the death blow to the Soviet Union in the late 1980s. This same victory laid the groundwork for the Taliban’s control over the country and Al Qaeda’s safe haven in the same mountains the mujahadeen used to torment Soviet occupiers.
The three films are produced in the wake of 9/11 and the eternal wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They were commercial and critical successes, but beneath the A-list casts and directors is a warning – actions have consequences, sometimes lasting decades. I think all three movies critique the cycle of violence a terrorist act and the counter-terrorist response perpetuates.
Argo and Charlie Wilson’s War highlight the long legacy of covert operations that reinforce hatred of US. Argo reveals how one covert action, the 1953 coup empowering the Shah of Iran, requires the wacky rescue mission at the heart of the film.
One thing we’ve noticed is how all three movies are weirdly pro-clandestine services and even off the books clandestine actions. These liberal directors, writers and producers still love a good caper, even though the caper is covert, unsanctioned, and unconstitutional.
But in another way, these movies portray establishment agency functionaries as either incompetent or elitist, or both – with the elitism causing the incompetence.
In Argo and Charlie Wilson’s War we have working class outsiders taking on the old elite in the CIA, proving they more than belong there. Here’s Affleck’s Mendez trying to convince his charges to trust him.
And here’s Gus chewing out his boss, who doesn’t even think he’s really an American.
Let’s end with a quote from Spielberg from a press interview about Munich. Whatever you think of Spielberg perhaps being safe, predictable, technically accomplished but often not necessarily deep or reflective, Munich is interesting for its moral ambiguity. I recommend watching it with his remake of War of the Worlds, which also came out in 2005 and honestly has more 9/11 imagery in than even Munich. Unlike all his other science fiction films, it is darker, choppy, jarring at times. As Spielberg says, ‘In the shadow of 9/11 there is a relevance to how we are all so unsettled in our feelings about our collective futures.’
Lia Paradis and Brian Crim met at Rutgers University in the late ’90s as graduate students in the History Ph.D. program. She studied all things British Empire and Brian went even darker by focusing on 20th century Germany and the Holocaust. While they loved talking history and politics, Lia and Brian discovered a shared love of pop culture – film, good television, sometimes bad television. Unsurprisingly, their favorites tackled historical subjects. Is the representation accurate? Does it need to be? What does said film or TV show tell us about our own period, ourselves? These conversations were pleasant distractions from the grind of grad school. But, duty called and pop culture took a back seat to dissertations, careers, etc . . .
Twenty years later Lia had the bright idea to revisit this shared love and make a podcast just about history and pop culture. Why can’t two established historians with decades of teaching and research experience speak confidently about the intersection of history and cultural representation? That’s for you to decide, but we are having fun.
Hollywood has probably never made a movie or TV show with a historic setting that wasn’t really talking about the time when it was made. MASH – the movie and the TV show – was set in the Korean War, which was history by then, so that they could talk about the Vietnam War – which was a current event.
So we decided that in this first season of Lies Agreed Upon, we would look at how another event that had a huge impact on the American psyche – 9/11 – was processed through film and TV. Even two decades later, the influence of 9/11 can be found on screens big and small. It might seem as if it’s about the Spartans and the Persians, but 300 is really about 9/11. It might seem like Steven Spielberg is telling the story of how Israel avenged the murder of their athletes at the 1972 Olympics, but Munich is really about – you guessed it – 9/11.
It makes a lot of sense that writers and directors would want to steer clear of directly taking on 9/11. For a long time, the industry didn’t really know how to deal with it.
The truth is, history is seldom anything people agree upon and that is certainly the case with 9/11. For years, anything explicitly about 9/11 was criticized for being “too soon”, so that was one reason to try and find an indirect way to talk about it. Also, some writers and directors wanted to criticize American society and the government whose behavior and policies contributed to the event, but they didn’t want to be criticized as un-American, or ‘providing aid and comfort to the enemy’. And of course, other creative types wanted to capitalize on the huge box office potential of post-9/11 flagwaving, but they didn’t want to be branded as racists and militarists.
All of the movies and tv shows that we’re going to look at fit into these categories somehow. So let’s get started.