Copyright 1995 Boston Herald Inc.
The Boston Herald
May 28, 1995 Sunday SECOND EDITION
SECTION: ENTERTAINMENT; Pg. 054
LENGTH: 1291 words
HEADLINE: Mad bombers at the movies;The current explosion of terrorist films mirrors our crazy reality
BYLINE: By James Verniere
The bombings of the World Trade Center and the Federal building in Oklahoma City had an eerie familiarity for filmgoers. Suddenly and horribly, something that had happened almost routinely in the pulp-fictional world of movies had come true in real life. It was a new dawn. An America ravaged and held hostage by a lunatic fringe was no longer some action filmmaker's pop nightmare. It was our deadly reality.
"Die Hard With a Vengeance," "True Lies," "Speed," "The Specialist" and "Blown Away" are just a few of the recent mainstream films in which characters use explosives to try to settle scores on American soil. Indeed, one film, "True Lies," uses the atomic vaporization of a Florida key by Arab terrorists as a backdrop for a kiss. While it is true Alfred Hitchcock often used terrorist activities as the basis for his films, the recent proliferation of bomb-tossing loonies on our screens seems symptomatic of a haunted nation.
We're haunted because, although we were once spared such things, acts of terrorism have occurred here and seem likely to occur in the future. Murders at abortion clinics and U.S. post offices have stripped us of our national innocence. The events in Oklahoma City uncovered a network of self-styled Rambos spreading hate, paranoia and gun craziness on the airwaves and the information highway.
The sarin nerve gas attacks attributed to the Aum Shinri Kyo sect in Tokyo indictate America is not the only nation facing a threat from within, but that's scant comfort. Recent reports of "pilgrimages" to Waco, Texas, suggest the home of the Branch Davidian sect has become the Graceland of right-wing crazies. Suddenly, the land of the free and the home of the brave seems like nutcase central.
Adding to the tense atmosphere, the disintegration of the former Soviet Union and the rise there of such hate-mongering ultranationalists as Vladimir Zhirinovsky has raised concerns about abandoned and unguarded nuclear missile silos and black-market, weapons-grade plutonium. Indeed, the current trial of three men for attempting to smuggle such plutonium into Munich, perhaps with the aid of the Munich secret police, tells us that such fears are well-grounded. Thus, it doesn't take much of a leap of faith to believe the plot of the current, Tom Clancy-style techno-thriller "Crimson Tide," in which an ultranationalist Russian leader takes control of a missile site and threatens to fire his deadly "birds" at the United States and Japan.
Similarly, in "True Lies," Arab terrorists in America are the recipients of nuclear arms smuggled out of the former Soviet Union. In "Under Seige," well-trained American malcontents hijack a battleship armed with nuclear missiles and hold the country ransom. Such films, together with the bio-thrillers "Outbreak" and the upcoming "Twelve Monkeys," suggest a mood of paranoia and doom has descended upon us.
Although we recently celebrated the end of the Cold War, we still suffer from the paranoia that war spawned because it is apparently grounded in a terrible reality.
Certainly, mad bombers have been a staple of action films and B-movies for decades. The idea of a deranged person getting his hands on a nuclear weapon goes as far back as the Cold War classic "Dr. Strangelove" (1964). The racist caricature, Fu Manchu, star of a film series in the '30s and '60s, constantly threatened to destroy the West with the equivalent of an atomic bomb (and to ravish its women). Similarly, at least half the James Bond villains have been global terrorists. Indeed, four letters in the acronym SPECTER - the name of the organization Bond often battles - stand for "counterespionage, terrorism, extortion and revenge." A terrorist bomb goes off in a London department store killing and maiming several children in the opening scene in the 1981 thriller "Nighthawks."
Recent events have given many such movie scenarios a frightening resonance. In "Blown Away," Tommy Lee Jones plays a terrorist bomber seeking revenge against a former colleague by blowing up his friends and associates, Unabomber-style. The character Dennis Hopper plays in "Speed" is the plastique-armed equivalent of a disgruntled postal worker. In light of the emerging details about suspected Oklahoma City bomber Timothy J. McVeigh, these films now seem all too plausible.
Do these films titilate or incite the mentally unstable? Maybe to alarmists clamoring for new government controls and a stronger FBI in the wake of the Oklahoma tragedy. But I don't think you'll find a tape of Alfred Hitchock's classic "Sabotage" (1937) among Timothy McVeigh's personal effects.
In that film, an adaptation of Joseph Conrad's novel "The Secret Agent," a saboteur (Oscar Homolka) working for a nameless organization plants bombs all over London using a movie theater as a front (no doubt a mordant joke about so-called detrimental effects of Hitchock's medium). The film features a bomb going off in a bus and killing innocent bystanders. Reportedly, some countries subsequently refused to show "Sabotage." Brazil banned it outright, claiming it was "a handbook for terrorists on the building and planting of bombs." Sound familiar?
Hitchock returned to the subject of terrorism in "Saboteur" (1942), a World War II era thriller based on a screenplay by Peter Viertel ("The African Queen"), Joan Harrison, Dorothy Parker and Hitchcock. In it, an innocent man (Robert Cummings) is implicated in an act of arson at a military plant and must track down and stop the real culprits while eluding a nationwide police net. The film, which features an unforgettable climax staged atop the Statue of Liberty, suggests a wartime plan to destroy Boulder Dam and wreak havoc at the Brooklyn Navy Yards. Notably, Hitchcock was criticized by the Navy for inserting into the film a newsreel shot of the S.S. Normandie, which had been sunk by a mysterious fire, suggesting it had been sabotaged. Later, Hitchock was allegedly kept under surveillance by the FBI when the plot of his 1946 film, "Notorious," suggested correctly that uranium was the prime ingredient in a new, catastrophic form of explosive.
Hitchcock was renowned for using monuments and historical landmarks to create a sense of both America's grandeur and its vulnerability. Taking a cue from the master, Thomas Harris, author of "The Silence of the Lambs," used the Super Bowl game as a backdrop for the climax to his novel, "Black Sunday." In John Frankenheimer's film version, a blimp laden with explosives dives into the stadium as the Super Bowl is being played.
Although Washington likes to point the finger of blame at Hollywood at times of national crisis, it might be argued that films sometimes alert us to danger long before the government does. Such a claim might now be made by director Constantin Costa-Gavras, whose 1988 box-office failure "Betrayed" seems prophetic. The film begins with the assassination of a Chicago radio personality (an allusion to the 1984 killing of Denver talk show host Alan Berg) and includes a scene in which an undercover FBI agent attends a "family picnic" in the heartland where members of the KKK, neo-Nazis, survivalists and other right-wing nuts spout racist slogans and rail against ZOG (the Zionist Occupation Goverment) and the federal authorities.
Although the film, which was written by Joe Eszterhas ("Basic Instinct") is seriously flawed, its portrait of the heartland as a breeding ground of right-wing paranoia seems timely indeed. In fact, a trail of pyschic DNA seems to link Timothy McVeigh and his ilk to "Betrayed" and other films in which malcontents threaten our nation's security. Perhaps it's proof that at the movies we felt their presence long before we knew their names.