The Return of the Paranoid Style

How the Iraq War and George W. Bush sent the movie industry back to its favorite era—the 1970s

Illustration by Steve Brodner

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Video: "Hollywood's Vietnam Moment"
Ross Douthat looks critically at the film industry's response to the Iraq War.

Less than two weeks before the United States and its allies invaded Iraq, in March of 2003, Sony Pictures released a war movie called Tears of the Sun. The director was Antoine Fuqua, fresh off the success of 2001’s Training Day; the star was Bruce Willis, playing a Navy SEAL lieutenant whose platoon is assigned to extricate an American caught up in a Nigerian civil war. The plot was a straightforward brief for moralistic interventionism: Willis and his men flout the orders of their caution-minded superiors and take on an army of Muslim rebels who are raping and pillaging their way through the African countryside. “For all the years that we have been told to stand down and stand by,” one of the soldiers says as they lock and load. “For our sins,” Willis’s lieutenant agrees. Then they sweep in, guns blazing.

Tears of the Sun was a relatively modest film, budgeted in the tens rather than the hundreds of millions, but it was significant even so for being precisely the sort of movie 9/11 was supposed to spawn: righteously patriotic, confident in American might, and freighted with old-fashioned archetypes, with the rugged Willis saving the helpless Africans (and the lissome Monica Bellucci) from a horde of machete-wielding savages. It represented the kind of culture-industry sea change anticipated by the Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter’s famous remark that 9/11 had slain irony. It seemed to vindicate the conservative columnist Peggy Noonan’s prediction that the attacks would resurrect the spirit of John Wayne. And it was the sort of movie the left-wing critic Susan Faludi presumably had in mind when she lamented, in her recent book, The Terror Dream: Fear and Fantasy in Post-9/11 America, that “the cultural troika of media, entertainment and advertising declared the post-9/11 age an era of … redomesticated femininity, and reconstituted Cold War manhood.”

Nothing in this commentary, however, bears much resemblance to the way American popular culture actually has evolved since 9/11. The latter-day cowboys have conspicuously failed to materialize: in the past six years, the movie industry has produced exactly zero major motion pictures dedicated to lionizing American soldiers fighting on the ground in Iraq or Afghanistan. Tears of the Sun proved to be an outlier; more typical of our cultural moment are the movies that its director and star turned out early last year. In Fuqua’s Shooter, a redneck sniper goes up against a conspiracy that’s headed by a villainous right-wing Montana senator (who happens to be a Dick Cheney look-alike) and aimed at covering up an oil company’s human-rights abuses. In Robert Rodriguez’s B-movie homage, Planet Terror, Willis plays another military man, but this time the plot, such as it is, turns on a zombie-creating nerve agent that may have been tested on Willis and his soldiers, the movie hints, as punishment for their having killed Osama bin Laden when the government wanted him kept alive and at large.

Such self-conscious nods to contemporary controversies should be taken, in part, as proof that our popular culture is more impervious to real-world tragedy than most critics would care to admit. The machine that churns out Hollywood blockbusters grinds on remorselessly, and nothing so minor as a terrorist attack is going to keep the next Pirates of the Caribbean from its date with box-office destiny.

But it wasn’t just the reassertion of America’s usual frivolity that caused the 9/11 moment to be stillborn; it was the swiftness with which the Iraq War replaced the fall of the Twin Towers as this decade’s cultural touchstone. It’s Halliburton, Abu Ghraib, and the missing WMDs that have summoned up a cultural moment in which bin Laden is a tongue-in-cheek punch line for a zombie movie and the film industry’s typical take on geopolitics traces all the world’s evils to the machinations of a White Male enemy at home.

Conservatives such as Noonan hoped that 9/11 would bring back the best of the 1940s and ’50s, playing Pearl Harbor to a new era of patriotism and solidarity. Many on the left feared that it would restore the worst of the same era, returning us to the shackles of censorship and conformism, jingoism and Joe McCarthy. But as far as Hollywood is concerned, another decade entirely seems to have slouched round again: the paranoid, cynical, end-of-empire 1970s.

We expected John Wayne; we got Jason Bourne instead.

The Bourne movies are the first major action franchise of the new millennium; they’re also the highest-grossing example of the revival of the paranoid style in American cinema. Matt Damon’s Bourne marries the efficiency of James Bond to the politics of Noam Chomsky. He’s imperial overreach and blowback personified—the carefully brainwashed product of a covert CIA program who goes off the reservation and starts taking down his superiors, a succession of jowly, corrupt agents of the American empire. The Bourne saga’s anti-government paranoia reached its peak in last year’s $227 million-grossing Bourne Ultimatum, which exposes the CIA as an all-powerful bureaucracy that can track anybody, anywhere, and is comfortable wiping out journalists, innocent bystanders, and even its own agents in the service of dubious war-on-terrorism aims. “Where does it end?” the lone free-thinking spook, Joan Allen, demands of her superior. “It ends when we’ve won,” he snaps, before ordering up another execution.

Such “fear thy government” anxieties are always laced throughout American pop culture. But they belong most of all to the 1970s, when the one-two punch of Vietnam and Watergate sparked recurring visions of isolated Americans trapped in the gears of an irreducibly complex conspiracy: Gene Hackman’s surveillance expert in The Conversation (1974), tearing up his apartment in search of proof that his every move is being watched; Robert Redford’s CIA agent in Three Days of the Condor (1975), forced to go on the run from shadowy forces within his own government; Warren Beatty’s reporter in The Parallax View (1974), manipulated by a sinister corporation to become the “lone gunman” patsy in its latest bought-and-paid-for assassination.

Now they belong to us as well. Hollywood’s highest-profile conspiracy theorist is, of course, Michael Moore. But the more telling figure is Stephen Gaghan, the screenwriter for Steven Soderbergh’s Oscar winner, Traffic (2000), who moved on to script and direct Syriana (2005), the first major Middle East movie released after the invasion of Iraq. Traffic and Syriana are superficially similar, offering kaleidoscopic visions of American policy that rove across borders and multiple points of view. But whereas the former takes care to present the architects of our failed drug policy as decent (if misguided) people struggling with the moral compromises required in a fallen world, Syriana eschews nuance entirely, tracing all the ills of Mesopotamia to a malign nexus of Texas oilmen, neocons, and a trigger-happy CIA, and culminating with the agency ordering a missile strike on an inconveniently liberal Arab leader to preserve an American oil company’s bargaining position.

The same paranoia about sinister forces behind government conduct pervades Hollywood’s recent backward glances, from the McCarthy era of George Clooney’s Good Night and Good Luck (2005) to the secret history of the CIA unveiled in Robert De Niro’s The Good Shepherd (2006) to the bleak, wilderness-of-mirrors portrayal of Israel’s 1970s war on terrorism in Steven Spielberg’s Munich (2005). It’s been woven into futuristic dystopias (2006’s Children of Men and V for Vendetta) and into anti-corporate thrillers (last fall’s Michael Clayton, 2005’s The Constant Gardener). And although the paranoid style is most prevalent in prestige movies, it’s shown up in more-escapist fare as well, from the hit TV show Prison Break, which cross-pollinates Escape From Alcatraz with The Parallax View, to J. J. Abrams’s Mission: Impossible III (2006), whose villain is an overzealous neoconservative bent on provoking a terrorist attack.

Even what seems to be the great exception to this pattern, the TV thriller 24, turns out not to be so exceptional after all. Yes, the show’s Jack Bauer is in certain respects the anti–Jason Bourne, with his unyielding, torture-happy pursuit of America’s enemies. But Bauer’s ass-kicking takes place in a landscape straight out of the ’70s, in which America’s terrorist enemies are enabled by (in no particular order) a cabal of businessmen hoping to foment a Middle Eastern war and benefit from skyrocketing oil prices; a group of hawkish Cabinet officials who plot to remove from office (or assassinate) their dovish superiors; a Nixonian chief executive who permits terrorist attacks on American soil as a pretext for U.S. military intervention in Central Asia; and an endless host of traitors inside America’s antiterrorism outfit.

24 is unusual, in the current pop-culture context, in that it allows that America does face terrorist enemies. But because it intimates, again and again, that the terrorists are creations of our own corrupt elites, it’s actually typical of our neo-’70s moment.

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Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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