The souped-up action spectacles that dominate the summer movie season invariably center around timeless battles between good and evil. As someone who makes a living as a film critic, I’m often asked to name which upcoming blockbuster release earns the price of admission. This year, I find no summer movie more enthralling than the decisive final chapter in the hunt for Osama bin Laden.
This one has it all, from the apocalyptic threat that was actualized by the harrowing images of the Twin Towers to the uncertain leaders tasked with the roles of striking back. Before May 1, it was an open-ended saga, but bin Laden’s death is the event that a lot of screenwriters would seize as the opportunity to place two immovable words: “The End.” Neither “Thor” nor the latest entries in the “Transformers” and “Pirates of the Caribbean” series aspire to provide that depth of satisfaction.
The media’s framing of bin Laden’s downfall originates from a traditional revenge fantasy, with precedents that shifted from John Ford’s patriotic western spirit (with the squinting John Wayne projected by George W. Bush) and moved to the cool intelligence and globe-spanning antics of “The Bourne Identity” franchise, with Barack Obama comporting himself as a statesmanlike Jason Bourne.
The third author to this decade-long epic is the late bin Laden himself. Having engineered his global notoriety to the point where younger Americans viewed him more like Ghostface rather than a real-world murderer, bin Laden forced the world to watch him indulge his delusions of grandeur. American hatred for bin Laden has been compared with national sentiments toward Adolf Hitler near the end of World War II, but bin Laden’s media prowess bears a closer resemblance to Hitler’s image-crazed propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels. Like the odious anti-Semitic films that Goebbels aggressively commissioned, bin Laden’s vision was eventually subjected to game-changing rewrites.
By killing bin Laden, the United States snatches authorship of the 9/11 legacy out of Al-Qaeda’s weary hands. Celebrations following the president’s historic announcement demonstrated the euphoria that often follows a fantasy made real, akin to winning the lottery. The giddiness at the late night Ground Zero gathering called to mind the cathartic ending of Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds,” which imagined Hitler’s assassination at the hands of Jewish mercenaries. The promising development of the Arab Spring may prove that bin Laden’s violent theatrics no longer have a leg to stand on.
Of course, these scenarios are not written by screenwriters but by journalists, and they are now faced with making this engaging twist believable. As a result, reporting on the Abbottabad incident contains a mixture of otherworldly mythological aspects (like a vampire, he hid in his lair) and banal details that dismantle the monster and make him human. Videos released from the compound show an allegedly indefatigable man stumbling over his words while attempting to record a terrorist threat, much as the slapstick characters did in last year’s British terrorist farce “Four Lions.” This is a far more compelling approach to deconstructing bin Laden’s phantom-like presence than any gory image of his corpse could provide. After all, if the White House released photos of bin Laden buried in brain tissue, this would become an R-rated affair, rather than the all-American seal of approval guaranteed by a PG-13.
With the measured takedown of bin Laden and the shrewd handling of its aftermath, the Obama Administration both delivered national uplift and made itself hip again, not unlike the progress of Hollywood action movies over the last few years. Bush’s classic showmanship has given way to Obama’s smooth restraint, a transition akin to the evolution of mass-market entertainment: From wild-eyed cowboys to the swift marksmen in the “Call of Duty” games, from jaded terrorist hunter Jack Bauer in “24” to the Apollonian overseer of island castaways on ABC’s existential thriller “Lost.”
Our heroes are now smart and calculated; our villains shadowy and complex. Katherine Bigelow’s Oscar-winning “The Hurt Locker” made significant waves for its naturalistic portrayal of wartime suspense. Unsurprisingly, she has been planning to turn her camera on the attempts to capture bin Laden for quite some time. That’s not pure serendipity. It’s the Zeitgeist.