It's a good time to be a bad guy in Hollywood. Movie villains are as old as the movies themselves, of course. In the early days of silent movies, villains were usually criminals of one sort or another: gunslingers, highway robbers, meanies who humiliated Charlie Chaplin's little tramp, gangsters toting sawed-off shotguns, Snidely Whiplash-type landlords who demanded exorbitant rents from chaste but poverty-stricken lasses, white slavers and what were then called "Indians." But things have changed. Now, the villain's weapon of choice is likely to be a bomb, not a bullet. And that villain's last words will probably be "Allahu Akhbar,"
rather than "Take that!"
Movie villains go in cycles and there's no doubt about the one we are in now, and have been in since 9/11. Muslim terrorists are the new generic bad guys, and they are especially useful when a big-budget movie requires an utterly evil figure for a star hero to fight. But this scenario at times presents a problem for liberal Hollywood filmmakers, since they aren't comfortable with the idea of stereotyping a particular group, so in a number of films with more serious aspirations, the problem is solved by including a positive Arab character, much as movies with a black villain will often have a good black to balance it out. And, quite often, there will be an American double agent or corrupt official who is responsible for as much mayhem as the terrorists themselves.
While the tragic killings carried out in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001, brought great sorrow to America and its allies across the world, afterward Hollywood screenwriters seized the chance to find a new (or, at least, a new-ish) bad guy. The bizarre improbability of the attacks, their senselessness and their sheer brutality were so shocking that while the post 9/11-era has brought turmoil and confusion to much of the world, it brought great clarity to Hollywood. Finally, the long struggle to find worthy movie enemies that began at the end of the Cold War was over.
It used to be easy to find enemies. While criminals were the big menace in the silent and early sound era, by the late 1930s, Hollywood turned to Europe to find villains. The Nazis were right there to strike fear into American hearts. Long before America entered World War II, its cinematic surrogates were fighting against Germans. Casablanca
, perhaps the most celebrated film classic, was in production before the attack on Pearl Harbor and portrayed the Nazis as vicious and bloodthirsty persecutors of innocent European Jews and other refugees, and representatives of the Vichy government as spineless collaborators.
Once the US entered the war, so did Hollywood. Nearly 60 feature films about the war were made as it played out and the kindest adjective that can be applied to the Nazis and Japanese soldiers in these films is "ruthless." Unlike in today's Hollywood, a significant number of bona-fide stars enlisted in the various branches of the service. Many others supported the war effort actively, selling war bonds (Carole Lombard died in a plane crash while on a war-bonds trip) and entertaining the troops.
THAT WAS then. When World War II ended, another threat immediately stepped in to replace the Axis powers: the communists. It was mostly the Russians who were the bad guys to be feared, but even more frightening than the commies overseas was the threat of their sympathizers secretly overrunning the US. In movie after movie, such as I Was a Communist for the FBI
and The Woman on Pier 13
(a.k.a. I Married a Communist
), the communist threat at home was front and center. Asian communists, too, got their due from Hollywood in such films as The Manchurian Candidate
, in which North Koreans used sophisticated brainwashing techniques to manipulate American soldiers.
Commies became the default villain. One barometer of their shock value is that many of the early James Bond films relied on communist villains. Think of ugly, sadistic Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya) in From Russia with Love
(1963). Even much later in the Bond series, the Soviets were still the No. 1 enemy. In the first Bond film starring Timothy Dalton, The Living Daylights
(1987), James Bond goes to Afghanistan, enlisting help from Muslim freedom fighters to trounce the Soviet invaders. The recent Mike Nichols film Charlie Wilson's War
also focuses on the Afghan-Soviet conflict (and a US congressman's efforts to help the Afghans), which may seem ironic in light of the rise of the Taliban and the US military presence there following 9/11. But in the late '80s, the bad guy was still usually a commie.
Then the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, signaling the end of communist domination in Europe. What was a screenwriter to do? There were a few half-hearted attempts to focus on the drug cartels, in such films as Clear and Present Danger
(1994), but it was hard for filmmakers to really pump up for a fight against a group of businessmen who were providing a substance that so many in Hollywood enjoyed. There had always been a liberal distrust of big business, and so now, in film after film, evil corporations were the enemy. But since big-budget movies were financed by these corporations, this approach was also a problem.
WHEN THE 9/11 attacks took place, Hollywood reeled with shock and grief. Not surprisingly, perhaps, it took years before feature films were made about the actual events of the day (although a number of documentaries came out in the year following 9/11). Oliver Stone, a director well known for his leftist politics, made the patriotic World Trade Center
in 2006, which starred Nicolas Cage and told the story of two New York Transit Authority cops who were among a handful of people pulled alive from the rubble. While it celebrates their courage (and that of a US marine who volunteers to shift through the wreckage and vows revenge), it focuses on the events only as a vehicle to show heroism. The who-what-why of the attack is never discussed, not even by the cops' families, as they watch it all play out on television.
The same year, Paul Greengrass's United 93
took a very different approach to the same events. It tells the story of the hijacking of the fourth plane, the one that went down in Pennsylvania as the passengers, who had learned of the other three hijackings by talking on their cellphones, tried to seize control. The movie shifts back and forth between the plane and the federal aviation headquarters and military control towers in the US. The dialogue is based on transcripts of what was said in those control towers as it gradually became clear that something had happened to four planes, as well as imagined dialogue aboard the plane and real conversations that the victims had with their loved ones (via cellphone) after the plane was hijacked. The hijackers are shown praying before they board the plane, but there is no backstory or dialogue among them to do with anything but the mechanics of the hijacking. Their actions are not explained or embellished, which makes them all the more sinister and frightening.
World Trade Center
and United 93
were serious films. But popcorn movies just need a bad guy, and now, after years of foundering in quest of the perfect villain, screenwriters could turn to terrorists. Even in movies based on comic books, such as the Robert Downey Jr. vehicle Iron Man
(2008), which is a simple superhero tale, the enemy is a group of brutal Middle Eastern terrorists (although the hero is also opposed by a corporate rival). In movies like Live Free or Die Hard
, which, again, is just a vehicle for Bruce Willis as John McClane to best the baddies and utter his trademark line, the baddies are now terrorists. In Vantage Point
(2008), about a shadowy conspiracy to kill the president of the United States, a group of dark-skinned terrorists of unknown origin are behind it (helped by a few double-crossing US Secret Service agents).
SOME RECENT films have combined action-packed stories with an attempt to examine the terror phenomenon, with uneven results. In The Kingdom
(2007), terrorists attack a community housing US citizens in Saudi Arabia. But the evil of the Muslim terrorists is balanced by a good Saudi cop (Ashraf Barhoum), who works with the American A-list actors (Jennifer Garner, Jamie Foxx and Jason Bateman) who come to apprehend the terrorists. That the cop is Muslim is never in doubt: He is shown praying with his family, who are dressed in traditional garb. The message is clear: The bad guys may be Muslim, but there are good Muslims too. This same dynamic holds true in the recent Leonardo DiCaprio/ Russell Crowe hi-tech espionage thriller, Body of Lies
. While the most menacing characters are Arab Muslims, a beautiful, observant Muslim Arab doctor becomes the improbable love interest for DiCaprio's character.
The war in Iraq and the war on terror has been the basis for a number of feature films (although far more documentaries have examined it), and more often than not, the US government is criticized in them. In Rendition
(2007), starring Reese Witherspoon, the practice of detaining terror suspects in foreign countries, torturing them and holding them without a trial is understandably portrayed in a negative light. The evil chief of police in the unnamed country to which Witherspoon's Arab-American husband is taken is also an Arab of course, but her husband is so totally innocent, he balances out the story (he doesn't even have a casual friendship with someone who turns out to be a terrorist, it is all simply a mistake). The true villains in most Hollywood movies to do with the war are the Americans.
TELEVISION JUMPED in even more quickly to address the new world order. 24, starring Kiefer Sutherland as antiterror agent Jack Bauer, was conceived and begun just before 9/11, but incorporated plotlines clearly inspired by the tragedy into later seasons. Some have described Bauer, once quick to torture suspects, as a hero of the post-9/11 era.
The post 9/11 era inspired another show, Sleeper Cell
, about an American Muslim who is an FBI agent and infiltrates a terror cell in the US. It is run by a Middle Eastern man of undisclosed origin who is brutal and calculating. But the FBI agent often finds himself in sympathy with the other members of the cell, who are naÃ¯ve but passionate.
More recently, Saving Grace
, starring Holly Hunter, portrays an Oklahoma City police detective, whose self-destructive lifestyle is explained partly by the fact that she is still grieving over the death of her sister in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombings. While this incident took place long before 9/11, its inclusion in a television series indicates an increased awareness of terrorism as a fact of American life.
Even The Sopranos
got into the 9/11 aftermath a little. In the last season, Tony was able to make a deal with federal agents by giving them information about two Middle Eastern guys who were hanging out at the Bada Bing, which interested the feds far more than Tony and his crew.
While political commentators can discuss the value of turning players in a complex international drama into one-dimensional movie villains, for actors who have a Middle Eastern look, this trend has brought more work. Many Israeli actors have been front and center in these new films and television shows. Oded Fehr plays the leader of the terror cell in Sleeper Cell
and Alon Aboutboul and Uri Gavriel played terror leaders in Body of Lies
and The Kingdom
respectively. Israeli Arab actors have been working steadily in such films as well, with Galilee-born Ashraf Barhoum and Nazareth native Ali Suliman raising their profiles in Hollywood.
For Arabs working in these movies, it's sometimes a mixed blessing. While they welcome the work, it can be uncomfortable to portray terrorists. One young aspiring Arab-American actor, Vermont-born Saleem "Sal" Hassan Erakat, admits that the increase in roles has worked in his favor - although it has given him a few uneasy moments. "I played a worker at the bomb disposal site in The Kingdom
. I had the chance to appear in the bomb-making scene [as one of the terrorists] but I decided not to take it."
The inclusion of the brave and trustworthy Muslim police official in the movie did make Erakat feel better about appearing in the film. Erakat, who remembers visiting the World Trade Center with his father on his 11th birthday, admits that the boom in Arab on-screen villains "has sometimes worked in my favor."
Are terrorist villains here to stay in Hollywood? It certainly looks that way. As Erakat says, philosophically, "What's going on in the world has always influenced the movies."