The ‘WoT’ through the eyes of Hollywood
Jeffrey Nachmanoff, the writer-director of “Traitor” is tired ofÂ Hollywood‘s evasiveness when it comes to international terrorism. “If you’re trying to make an ambitious movie that’s for adults to talk about and start a discussion, [and] no one gets upset about it, then you haven’t really dealt with the subject at all,” he says.
Employing that calculus, very few directors have really dealt with the war on terror.
There has been no shortage in recent years of projects ready to condemn the American presence in the Middle East – and the American military in general: “Syriana,” “Redacted,” “Stop Loss” and more all have hit screens. (That’s not even counting the never-ending stream of anti-Iraq War documentaries.)
However, just a few have faced up to the heart of the problem: radical Islam. (just Islam. Not ‘radical, fundamentalist, militant or whatever: just Islam…)
Fox’s “24,” arguably the most visible project to do so, went so far last season as to show a cell of Muslim terrorists detonating a nuclear bomb outside of Los Angeles. “The Kingdom,” “United 93” and “Vantage Point” are among the handful of major offerings before “Traitor” to feature present-day Islamic radicals as antagonists.
The movie industry has gone out of its way to avoid portraying Muslims as terrorists; consider “The Sum of All Fears,” Ben Affleck’s first (and probably only) turn as CIA superagent Jack Ryan. In the original Tom Clancy novel, Baltimore is destroyed in a nuclear blast by a Muslim terrorist network.
By the time the movie adaptation came to fruition, however, Hollywood had been scared straight by the PC police. Writing in “Slate,” Reihan Salam noted that “director Phil Alden Robinson settled on neo-Nazis [as the villains], a perennial favorite, at which point he wrote the following in a letter to [the Council on American-Islamic Relations]: ‘I hope you will be reassured that I have no intention of promoting negative images of Muslims or Arabs, and I wish you the best in your continuing efforts to combat discrimination.'”
Of course, the movie industry wasn’t always so squeamish about portraying America’s enemies on the big screen. In the lead-up to World War II, Frank Capra’s “Why We Fight” series lampooned Italians, Germans and the Japanese. “FDR just loved it,” says Peter Rollins, editor of the Columbia Companion to American History on Film and Regents Professor Emeritus at Oklahoma State University.
When the Cold War was in full swing, Russians were the go-to bad guy; as fears of the Asian Tigers’ economic dominance in the 1980s and early 1990s flooded the airwaves, baddies from the East flooded the big screen.
In contrast, radical Islamic terrorism has, for the most part, been off-limits. Why risk ticking off a group like the CAIR – and its backers in the media – when there is such an enticing array of politically “safe” screen villains from which to choose: the U.S. military-industrial complex, environmentally insensitive corporate cabals or sexually repressed Bible-thumpers, to name just a few.
A movie need not be a chest-thumping exercise in patriotism to deal with the problem of Islamic terrorism in a satisfying way. Consider Mr. Nachmanoff’s “Traitor”: The Islamic radicals here are not stereotypes. As the audience follows Mr. Cheadle’s character into the heart of a terrorist cell operating out of Europe, it’s easy to understand the motivation of the men he’s trying to stop. That doesn’t mean their behavior is excused; it is simply examined.
“Certainly any movie that you make that deals with radical Islam and terrorism is going to be uncomfortable for some people,” Mr. Nachmanoff says. “That was the subject of the movie; there’s no getting around that. So then it becomes a question of ‘How do you do that in a way that doesn’t treat the religion unfairly?'”
By accommodating such nuance, Mr. Nachmanoff risks offending not just the usual suspects on the identity-politics left, but also conservatives, some of whom will accuse the movie of devolving into moral equivalence between terrorists and their American pursuers.
“Too often, people only want their films to be escapist entertainment or serious, thoughtful films,” Mr. Nachmanoff says.
He and the “Traitor” production company, Overture Films, are betting that audiences are waiting for a ripped-from-the-headlines tale of international terror that’s unafraid to be both.