The threat of al-Qaida terrorist attacks is currently scaring America stiff. But you’d be hard-pressed to find Muslim terrorists in any of today’s blockbuster action movies, which instead offer such uncontroversial bad guys as killer aliens and abusive husbands. Why is Hollywood shying away from al-Qaida-like villains?
Movies have always relied on politically relevant villains, from Russian spies to South African apartheidniks to Serbian ethnic cleansers. Tom Clancy’s much-loved Jack Ryan series is the gold standard. Based on Clancy’s best-selling novels, the movies featured hero Jack Ryan tackling the decaying Soviet empire in The Hunt for Red October, Irish nationalists in Patriot Games, and Colombian drug lords in Clear and Present Danger. Recently, Clancy has been credited by everyone from former CIA Director R. James Woolsey to Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly with foreseeing the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
But in the about-to-be-released film version of The Sum of All Fears, based loosely on Clancy’s 1991 novel of the same name, Paramount pulled a switcheroo. Clancy’s original baddies were a motley crew of unreconstructed German Communists, a Sioux convict, and—the stumbling block—Hamas-like Palestinian terrorists opposed to the peace process. Long before Sept. 11, these were replaced with slickly dressed, easy-to-hate European neo-Nazis. While the basic plot remains the same (terrorists try to spark armed conflict between Russia and America by detonating a nuclear device at the Super Bowl, and Ryan saves the day) the movie is, for obvious reasons, far less relevant than the novel. It is also far more acceptable both to Hollywood sensibilities and the Arab ethnic lobby.
Though a staple of political thrillers since the days of the Ayatollah Khomeini, Muslim terrorists on-screen have been dwindling in numbers since the mid-1990s. Since then, groups like the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and the Council on American-Islamic Relations have condemned movies like 1994’s True Lies and 2000’s Rules of Engagement, both of which featured violent, fanatical Muslims (as opposed to 1996’s The Rock, which featured violent, fanatical Gulf War veterans or 2001’s AntiTrust, which featured violent, fanatical software executives). They even protested 1998’s critically acclaimed The Siege, a searing critique of anti-Arab hysteria. According to CAIR Executive Director Nihad Awad, “The barrage of negative or stereotypical portrayals of Muslims in this film,” which presumably refers to the movie’s all-too-realistic anti-American cabal, “will overpower any positive message.”
By the time The Sum of All Fears movie was being developed, CAIR launched a pre-emptive campaign to rid the adaptation of the novel’s Muslim terrorists (“Before we had typed a word on paper,” producer Mace Neufeld has said, “I was getting complaints.”) Harrison Ford, then slated for the lead, reportedly felt much the same way. Early script treatments cast Timothy McVeigh-style “superpatriots” as the heavies behind the bomb plot, not Muslims—a PC move par excellence. Later, director Phil Alden Robinson settled on neo-Nazis, a perennial favorite, at which point he wrote the following in a letter to CAIR: “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.” Ben Affleck, the new Jack Ryan, has applauded the decision, arguing that “the Arab terrorist thing has been done a million times in the movies.” (As opposed to the neo-Nazi thing?) And the terror attacks only heightened concerns over ethnic insensitivity. In late September, Paramount chairman Sherry Lansing expressed sympathy for “these Afghan or Arab children in high schools who are getting picked on,” suggesting that she’d steer clear of movies with Muslim villains.
But Americans have demonstrated that they can separate a small, violent minority from the vast majority of peace-loving Arabs and Muslims, and a little realism in the movies wouldn’t change that. This kind of ostentatious nonracial profiling can make action movies feel clueless and irrelevant. Besides, the real victims here may be the chills that are supposed to run down your spine during one of these films. With al-Qaida threatening more attacks on U.S. cities, moviegoers may not quiver at the sight of a few more imaginary neo-Nazis.