David Thomson: The disaster movie made flesh and blood

The IoS film writer David Thomson was at home in San Francisco with his young sons when he turned on the television on Tuesday morning. What they watched was horrifically familiar...
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It was breakfast time in our house: a time too close to chaos to be under control. So the television was on – because I had seen something unbelievable on the internet that demanded confirmation. So our six-year-old and 11-year-old sons saw the live footage of a jet liner slicing into one tower of the World Trade Centre. They were not surprised, let alone astonished. Here were people close to the camera in New York crying out, "My God!" But our sons looked at it with a kind of expertise, for they have seen such things before in the movies.

The disaster that struck America last week was familiar. After all, we had made those images for ourselves first – as entertainment. We made ourselves more vulnerable in the process by projecting targets on cinema screens around the world. Instinctively, the film industry knows this. Many American theatres have stayed closed, while alarmed studios are uncertain when – or whether – to release pictures, such as Arnold Schwarzenegger's Collateral Damage and Edward Burns's Sidewalks of New York, that deal with terrorism or urban mayhem, or which merely refer to New York.

Entertainment culture pre-empted the real thing, and made us all the more vulnerable. In this culture, "disaster" has been box office. This is not an attempt to vilify particular films. As long ago as King Kong, in 1933, the beast that terrorised the city climbed up the Empire State Building and was then shot down by fighter planes. But it is all part of a culture of looming palaces of commerce or symbolic might. The World Trade Centre was Manhattan's latest giant. It was as obvious a target, as emblematic and as visually potent, as the White House, the Golden Gate Bridge or Mount Rushmore. And the movies have always had a point, and a sardonic wit, in staging big action scenes at such locations.

But in King Kong it was Kong who died; and in North by Northwest it is only James Mason and Martin Landau who go tumbling down the rocky faces of dead presidents. I am more concerned with a genre and an age of movies in which there has been a profound glee at blowing up our landmarks and our established monuments. Think of the Rambo adventures, the Die Hard films, the Lethal Weapon series, Independence Day, Con Air, Enemy of the State, and so on. This is a hugely successful vein of picture-making that let my sons reflect on the relative "coolness" of the wild coverage on 11 September. And I mean the truly disastrous assumption that someone like Bruce Willis or Mel Gibson could sort it all out. For in that way, complex political realities have been reduced to a video-game of us against them and the urge to punch out their lights. The terrorist was a bogeyman, an outlandish villain, an insane figure. That is no training for dealing with him.

In the past 20 years Hollywood has made a transforming "magic" the dynamic force in American films. And it has bred a strange contempt for reality. They build models and structures in order to demolish them, they marry computer-generated imagery to shots of the real thing. They have the technology. You know the rest. You can hear the studio technocrats talking: "A Boeing going into World Trade Centre? Oh, that's neat." The indifference begins in the unquestioning reliance on technology.

On Tuesday, American television ran the key pieces of footage back and forth, over and over again to fill up the endless airtime. So we had the fireball shrinking to a pinpoint and vanishing, the ruffled glass and steel smoothed like a coverlet and the plane backing away. Most awesome of all, we even had the ragged towers reassembling and standing up, inhaling the puffs of their own debris. The footage was run back in front of our eyes so that it could be forwarded again for maximum visual impact. There is such beauty in seeing time go backwards, and in this case such inadvertent wistfulness.

The explosion came over and over again, and you can say that that was because there were always newcomers turning on the set. (And it was apparent, early on, that the networks were forsaking all the little explosions of their advertisements: for taste's sake.) But something else prompted the re-runs, I think, and it ignored the protests about young children being captive viewers. We have been trained to love these big bangs, to cheer at them, to feel the amazing, liberating beauty of all that pink and amber and orange. We have come to feel, in that absolute safety that is a theatre's dark, the fun, the abandon, the passion in the destruction of things we have to take such neurotic care of all the time in real life.

This is a society carried away by the fun and the spectacular dispersal of unreality. It is a culture that has been encouraged to separate such things from the damage that goes with them. And it has seemed like a flourish of American supremacy that it can so flirt with disaster, and turn it into an entertainment.

Today, on television, I heard New York's mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, speak of his city as "the greatest in the world". I am not picking on him. He has behaved admirably as a leader so far, better than our president. New York is a great, turbulent place. But it does not need to be the greatest, just as it does not need to claim worse damage or more hurt than Dresden, Sarajevo, Hiroshima or any of the other cities that have been put to the torch in the past hundred years. America has found an occasion now to be old enough, or mature enough, not to boast about being the greatest of countries.

That is as important as anything else in what is happening. For America is having a crash course in what it is to be bombed, attacked, occupied or intimidated. And maybe the country can realise how far its over-assertions and its capacity to play with reality are part of what has attracted the zealous hostility of terrorists. I do not mean to excuse those people from their cruel crimes. Nor will they be spared in the days and years to come. America will punish them, with who knows how much accuracy or effect.

But if the world is to endure, then the terrorists' reality has to be recognised. The terrorists who attacked America are the detritus of American superiority. As illustration, one last example: on 11 September, the wonders of American TV could cut away, live, to Kabul, where a CNN camera on a hotel balcony saw lavish explosions on the horizon. Was this America's first response? As we wondered, the camera zoomed in to get close-ups of that fireball, and the commentator was trying to make it seem grand. Then the reality came in: it was "only" Afghan guerrillas fighting their government. And in a moment the coverage gave up on that trivial show of force.

There has been one fiction film, The Siege, that really got the realities now being experienced. Here was a film that attempted to explore the varieties of Muslim attitudes, and to show that "fanaticism" always has its roots in the wrongs of history – the wrongs that agitated Americans once upon a time and so encouraged revolution. Our movies have eclipsed history and stressed sensationalism. This week, the consequences came home.