I like the 1996 movie “Executive Decision.” I try to catch at least some of the terrorism thriller every time it airs on TNT as part of the cable channel’s regular film rotation.
By no means does the movie come remotely close to making my all-time top 10 list. It’s a solid flick with a good cast, led by Kurt Russell, but it wasn’t nominated for any Oscars. The film played to mostly decent reviews and did fine at the box office back in the day.
No, my fondness for “Executive Decision” is rooted in the fact that Hollywood won’t dare make another film like it ever again. In an age of terrorism, when Islamic radicals are plotting horrible acts of violence against Americans even as I write this, Islamic radicals are off limits as movie bad guys. It’s one of many troubling legacies worth considering as we mark today’s 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.
If you haven’t seen it, “Executive Decision” is about Islamic terrorists who hijack a 747 they’ve loaded with stolen Russian nerve gas. It’s up to an intelligence officer (Russell), a flight attendant (Halle Berry), an engineer (Oliver Platt) and a handful of commandos to prevent the fanatics from wiping out the population of Washington, D.C., and much of the East Coast.
The terrorists are especially merciless in taking over the jetliner and keeping passengers in line. Some of the violence came across as a bit over the top when I saw it in 1996 — that was escapist fare back then. But I realized, upon watching the movie for the first time after the 9/11 attacks, that the film suddenly had become a lot more relevant.
Arab villains were pretty common in movies of the 1980s and 1990s because of various terrible acts by Islamic groups and governments, including the 1979 takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran; the 1985 hijacking of the Achille Lauro cruise ship, during which a disabled American hostage was executed; and the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, just to name three.
Remember Chuck Norris taking down Iranians in the 1986 movie “Delta Force”? How about “Iron Eagle”? The 1994 Arnold Schwarzenegger film “True Lies” also took great liberty to portray Middle Eastern terrorists as bloodthirsty fiends. They were cliched, to say the least, but at least these bad guys aspired to survive and escape.
What set “Executive Decision” apart — what was most prescient — was its portrayal of terrorists as suicidal zealots eager to give their own lives to commit mass murder.
On 9/11, life had imitated art.
By then, however, Hollywood already was capitulating to pressure from Islamic groups to stop making movies featuring Muslim villains. The Council on American-Islamic Relations, which has been accused of being a front group for the Muslim Brotherhood, was at the forefront of this campaign starting in the late 1990s, and it still harasses studios and the media relentlessly to sanitize portrayals of Muslims.
But the biggest chills on expression here originated overseas. In 2004, Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh was brutally murdered by an Islamic militant because he made a movie that addressed the abuse of Muslim women. Then, in 2005, a Danish newspaper published 12 editorial cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad as a protest against self-censorship and Islamic intolerance for Western free speech. As news of the cartoons spread, protests and riots swept across the Muslim world, and the lives of the cartoonists and the newspaper’s management were threatened.
All of a sudden, insulting Muslims became a matter of life and death.
Indeed, when Trey Parker and Matt Stone tried to use their long-running Comedy Central cartoon “South Park” to satirize the Muhammad cartoon controversy in 2006, the cable TV channel blacked out and bleeped out parts of the cartoon that might have offended Muslims. Jihadists issued death threats against Parker and Stone anyway.
No one in the industry rushed to the defense of Parker and Stone, and no one aired the cartoon uncensored.
Cheesy action movies are one thing. Satire is another. But surely someone in Hollywood has the courage to produce an intelligent, well-conceived work of fiction depicting America’s extensive, expensive fight against Islamic terrorists?
Alas, not even Fox’s long-running TV series “24,” which was created in response to 9/11 and chronicled the heroics of anti-terror agent Jack Bauer (played by Kiefer Sutherland), had the protagonist take on Osama bin Laden or al-Qaida. Over eight seasons, there were a handful of Muslim characters. In the final season, when Bauer was tangling with nationalists from the fictional country of Kamistan, the Russians were pulling the strings behind the scenes.
In previous seasons, Bauer dealt with terrorist threats from the Balkans, Mexican drug cartels and even African despots. All terrorist plots eventually led to the neocon American industrial-military complex.
Plans to make a “24” movie apparently are on hold because no one can agree on a non-Muslim villain to build the plot around. A script involving Eastern Europe was scrapped.
(How squeamish has Hollywood become? The 1984 movie “Red Dawn,” which depicted the Soviet-Cuban invasion of a small American town during World War III, was remade to depict a Chinese coalition attack on Spokane, Wash. But it was edited in post-production this year to change our primary invaders to North Koreans to avoid blowback from the Chinese politicians who decide what movies can be shown there. North Korea invading Spokane? That’s realistic.)
Such concerns haven’t spread to books, thank goodness. There’s no shortage of terrorism novels at the local library.
Perhaps “SEAL Team Six,” to be released just before the 2012 elections, will change the equation for movies. Even so, that film will be based on actual events.
Who knew 9/11 would change our entertainment? If art can’t imitate life, we’re nowhere near as free as we used to be.
Glenn Cook (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Review-Journal editorial writer.