Blockbuster n., slang, 1.) a 500-lb
bomb, so designated in World War II for its ability to reduce
an entire city block to rubble. 2.) a Hollywood movie that is
a "hit" in terms of producing large box-office receipts.
e swore we were watching a movie.
Everyone thought it, said it, or agreed to it during the entire
week since the September 11 World Trade Center massacre. And not
just the spectatorseven one professional newscameraman confessed,
"I felt like I was shooting a film."
The question that remains unanswered of course, is, which movie
we were watching. In New York, a lot of folks thought they were
watching Die Hard, Independence Day, or maybe even
Armageddon. Still others claimed it was more like the ending
of Fight Club. Older moviegoers
remembered seeing The Towering Inferno. The really old
thought they were witnessing the attack on Pearl Harbor, while
the really young thought they were witnessing the attack on audiences
known as Pearl Harbor. In
Washington, a few thought they were watching Air Force One.
The event struck one observer as a cynical but failsafe marketing
campaign to resurrect Arnold Schwarzeneggers flagging career
as Americas symbolic superman. His next film, now postponed,
was to be Collateral Damage, a rendition of American bombing
victims at Oklahoma City and an unwitting requiem for Timothy
Unfortunately, the tragic reality of the World Trade Center attack
was not portrayed in any one of these movies. The movie you were
watching all week long was, in fact, the 1998 action-adventure
drama, The Siege. Underrated at the time for having a lackluster
script and competing against such tyrants as Jerry Bruckheimers
Enemy of the State, The Siege suffered from a dense
script, which, in retrospect, turns out be merely an accurately
detailed assessment of the geopolitical situation.
Heres the plot summary: After the abduction by the U.S.
military of a Muslim leader, New York City becomes the target
of escalating terrorist attacks. Anthony Hubbard, the head of
the FBI/NYPD Terrorism Task Force, teams up with CIA operative
Elise Kraft to capture the organization responsible for the terror
in NYC. As bomb attacks go on, the U.S. government decides to
send the army into the NYC streets, led by the General Devereaux,
who declares martial law.
But throughout the film, eerily familiar details come out that
make you wonder, as one imdb.com
writer did, whether this isnt another Wag the Dog
scenario: a U.S. military operation scripted along the lines of
a movie. Wag the Dog was actually based on Larry Beinhardts
novel American Hero, in which the hero was George Bush,
Sr. Now, as Neal Gabler points out in the Sunday New York Times,
Americans are almost incapable of seeing reality through any
frame of reference other than cinema, so why shouldnt the
U.S. military package our political conflicts as high-stakes entertainment?
In one sense, its really the only way they can get us to
believe any of it is real.
Here are just a few of the eerily familiar details.
- An early shot of the Khobar tower devastation, in which the
chief suspect and the contractor hired to rebuild the tower
was Osama Bin Laden.
- A terrorist cell leader who comes to the U.S. via Germany
on a student visa three days prior to an attack, very much how
Mohammed Atta came into the U.S.
- A discussion of posse comitatas, complete with the
justification of military in U.S. streets based on the precedent
of Somalia and Haiti.
- A rendering of the spiritual war from the Muslim fanatics
point of view: "You Americans believe that money is power
. . . belief is power."
- An ongoing debate about treating Arab-Americans decently while
simultaneously rounding them up for interrogation. As of September
24, one-third of New Yorkers favored internment camps for "individuals
who authorities identify as being sympathetic to terrorist causes,"
according to Newsday.
- The image of the U.S. military patrolling its own citizens
in Brooklyn. Currently in Battery Park, Manhattan, the National
Guard is checking the I.D.s of NYPD officers as they come onto
ground zero, a reversal of the roles traditionally assigned
to the two groupsthe militarys job is to defend
our shores while the policemans job is to patrol our streets.
- A redneck southern senator who says we should "Bomb the
shit out of them," almost the exact sentence expressed
by Georgia Senator Zell Miller in response to the attacks. (Miller
used the expletive "hell" instead of "shit.")
- A fascinating contrast between the ultimate meaninglessness
of movies and the perverse meaningfulness of suicide terrorism
made in a speech by Samir, the professor who turns out to be
the last cell group leader: "My brother couldnt live
in the [refugee] camps. For him it was already a kind of death.
The only thing he lived for was the movies. Then some sheikh
comes to him and says, To die for Allah is beautiful
. . . and my brother, he very much needs to believe that."
- The cinema-as-ultimate-reality motif is played up even further
in a key scene in which FBI stormtroopers blast away at three
terrorists in a squalid Brooklyn apartment, destroying everything
in the room except the television, which is still yammering
away as the body count is added up.
- The little known fact that The Siege has a sequel being
produced that was to be called Athens. It opens with
Muslim terrorists bombing, you guessed it, the World Trade Center.
Frantic rewriting is now the top order of the day.
- Annette Bening as the quintessential psychosis of American
foreign policy: ambivalence or split personalityyou
make the call! Bening plays a character who goes by both Elise
Kraft (National Security Agency) and Sharon Bridger (top know-it-all
on terrorists), manifesting Americas love/hate relationship
with the Mid-East for reasons ranging from genuine humanitarian
love to cynical political expediency and economic interests.
- Phrases from the film that could be coming straight from CNN,
as pointed out by Anthony Lane in the September 24, 2001 New
- "The worst terrorist bombing in America since Oklahoma
- "Make no mistakewe will hunt down the enemy,
we will find the enemy, and we will kill the enemy."
- "You cant fight a war against an enemy you
- "This is a time of war. The fact that its
inside our borders means its a new kind of war."
If The Siege is a Hollywood prescription
that the American military pharmacy is now dispensing, then we
are currently swallowing a brand name war whose target marketing
was delivered three years ago. Whether The Siege is the
template for Americas reaction or whether its the inspiration
for bored fanatics who decide to commit copycat terrorism instead
of something truly original, is anyones guess. First, a
random series of attacks. Then, a crackdown on Muslims and a declaration
of war. Finally, the presidents invocation of the War Powers
Act to declare martial law in the streets.
If the conspiracy theorists are right in their insistence on
the numerology of eleven in this whole thing, then this should
happen on November 5, because it would follow the pattern of something
significant happening every eleven days after 9/11. Please dont
freak out. I say this not because I espouse any conspiracy
theory, but because all conspiracy theories are easily dismissed
that only have retroactive explanatory power. A good conspiracy
theory is one that has some predictive power, and I want to give
these guys a chance before I start laughing at them.
The irony of some tragedy on November 5 that would trigger a
declaration of martial law the day after, is twofold: First, its
the day before election day. Second, if martial law (or some simulacrum
thereof) is instituted on election day, then the tagline of The
Siege will be more than a little chilling in its prophecy:
"On November 6, our freedom is history."
Among those currently in favor of destroying our liberties in
the name of defending them are those who are not bothered by the,
um, law, so long as they can have the comfort of continuity in
keeping Rudy Giuliani as Mayor of New York. As Denzel Washington
says in the film, "Maybe what they really want is for us to bend
the law a little, shred the Constitution, and if that happens,
then theyve already won." So, if this does happen, you saw it
here first. If it doesnt happen, well, thank God it didnt.
Of course, it wouldnt be the first time the Constitutions
been temporarily suspended in our history. As of September 27,
2001, the National Guard has the job of policing American airports,
and you can bet your student ID that after October 3, when the
Croatian man in Tennessee slashed the drivers throat with
a boxcutter (copycat? coincidence?), anonymous travel in this
country is officially over. Bring your passport next time you
want to ride the new improved Blue-and-Greyhound bus line. (So
what if fewer than 10 percent of Americans even have a passport?
Just bring your Social Security card. Its not supposed to
be used for identification, but we wont tell.)
And conspiracy theory or not, the government is now, as of October
terrorist scenarios from top Hollywood directors and writers
to come up with possible clues as to what they might expect next.
To make a really long story a little bit shorter, the point is
this: now that two-and-a-half out of three of the films
prophecies have come true, perhaps The Siege really is
the best text you can see to catch yourself up on everything you
may have been able to ignore for the last thirty years. In fact,
in the wake of September 11, The Siege is so strange and
yet so familiar youll swear youre watching television.
As to why watching television has become so much like reading
a tabloid in recent weeks, well, thats another story altogether.