Hollywood Has Met the Enemy, and He Is Us

A new storyline is emerging in Hollywood blockbusters: The revolution of the malcontents has replaced the revolution of the idealists. (Spoiler warning: This blog ruins the surprise of the movies mentioned.)

Among the earlier films with this theme was the excellent Arlington Road (1999). With a modest budget but good returns at the box office, it starred Jeff Bridges as a professor raising his son after his FBI agent wife was killed. The widower comes to suspect his neighbors, played by Tim Robbins and Joan Cusack, of being antigovernment militants. Nobody believes his theory, because it aligns too neatly to his teaching a college course on the subject of terrorism. He is right, but the intricate scheme, which includes many background characters who attracted no suspicion in bit roles, ends not only tragically but with a twist: He himself becomes an unintentional suicide bomber framed for their crime.

More recently, both Jody Foster and Liam Neeson appeared in films set on airplanes with hijackers on board. In Flightplan (2005) and Non-Stop (2014), their characters suspect various passengers of wrongdoing. Each of them makes a mistake in accusing someone Arab. The transgressors are, respectively, the air marshal and military veterans.

In other movies, the focus is different and the identity of the guilty parties as average Joes is incidental. In Vantage Point (2008), the same assassination is shown from seven perspectives. The suspense comes from the shifting points of view. The culprit is a Secret Service agent. In Source Code (2011), the protagonist is inside a virtual reality program that allows him to relive a specific eight minutes again and again and again. He makes progress solving the mystery of an explosion on a passenger train through the deja vu. The perpetrator is a zealot who wants the world to start over.

These movies had precursors in paranoia. The meme of "trust no one" has expanded its scope. What has changed is that the new villains are ordinary people: They are working class, not elite -- enlisted soldiers, not officers. They are embittered rather than privileged, motivated to overthrow others in power rather than to protect their own power.

The paranoid thrillers of the 1970s often portrayed government officials and corporate managers as wrongdoers, sometimes in a conspiracy. Parallax View (starring Warren Beatty) and The Conversation (Gene Hackman), both of which were released in 1974, the year President Richard Nixon resigned following the Watergate scandal, depicted heroes unable to stop assassinations carried out by "the establishment." During the recovery from our "long national nightmare," the entertainment industry tried to alert us to the possibility that what is superficially respectable is in fact universally corrupt: Three Days of the Condor (Robert Redford), Marathon Man (Dustin Hoffman), Scorpio (Burt Lancaster), and The Last Embrace (Roy Scheider) repeat the warning against naivete -- always to no avail.

A generation later, the Jason Bourne trilogy, with the amnesiac everyman revealed to be a Renaissance man of espionage, plays out its realistic violence within a similar context of crooked self-interest and uncompromising cover-up. It is no longer possible to express shock.

Before 9/11, when The Siege was forthcoming, activists requested that the producers change the enemy from Muslim extremists to domestic terrorists. The 1998 movie boasted an all-star cast: Denzel Washington as the FBI agent in charge, Bruce Willis as an Army General, Annette Bening as a CIA officer, and Tony Shalhoub as an FBI agent of Middle Eastern extraction. The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee was unable to persuade director Edward Zwick to model the plot on the Oklahoma City bombing by self-styled patriot Timothy McVeigh. Instead, the commercially successful release concludes with a suicide bomber promising that additional cells will continue his cause as protesters try to stop internment camps and interrogation torture; the bad guy also kills Bening's character, an Arabist whom he had duped.

What was sought for in The Siege has become if not the norm at least a sub-genre. The moral is it is a mistake to have confidence in the common person.

Mainstream audience enthusiasm for evildoers who look like them is mixed though. Perhaps the best example of the disapproval is White House Down. The Channing Tatum vehicle, the title of which describes it accurately, featured a crew of domestic terrorists inspired by money (and apparently classical music). Despite grossing more than $200 million, it was regarded as a flop by even its star. By coincidence, the similar Olympus Has Fallen came out just about simultaneously. The Gerard Butler vehicle, which involves the same scenario, had the more conventional adversary of Asians (specifically North Koreans). It did well enough that a sequel has been announced, with London as the target.

The movies are not all that different, as critics did not hesitate to point out. They have African American leaders (Jamie Foxx as President, Morgan Freeman as Speaker of the House, respectively) and women in charge of law enforcement (Maggie Gyllenhaal and Angela Bassett). White House Down scores slightly better on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, measuring 51% approval, while rival Olympus earned 48% approval. The primary distinguishing factor was the choice of adversary. Betrayers of America, the head of Presidential security and the Speaker of the House, are not as appealing as traitors to Asia, a North Korean sleeper agent who has risen in the ranks of the South Koreans.

Yet, we have entered a new era once again. The cinema is a mirror that troubles rather than reassures.