Illustration by Steve Brodner
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.”