Firestorm: American Film in the Age of Terrorism

November 5, 2009

Within a week of the Twin Towers falling I saw, at a sparsely attended cinema, the beautiful future-set AI: Artificial Intelligence. Late in the film, its frail robotic heroes approach a flooded and collapsed Manhattan. The image, rendered before the events of 9/11, would surely have stung its audience. Film scholar Stephen Prince's Firestorm explores the moving-image expression of that awful stinging feeling and the tangle of unease and complication prompted by the tragedy.

New York has often been the site of apocalyptic images. Think of King Kong atop the Empire State Building; of UFOs moving in above Manhattan and of Arctic storm fronts engulfing the grid of the city. If the mainstream American cinema of the 1970s had Vietnam to explore, in the first decade of the new millennium it has had 9/11. Firestorm embraces the interest and relevance ("intended" or otherwise) of many well-known titles and moves widely and confidently over less familiar ones. Prince makes the point that "mainstream commercial film (also) seized upon terrorism as a kind of godsend, as a trope capable of animating popular genres for the foreseeable future because the issues posed by terrorism presently show no end coming".

The book is structured around a number of themed chapters, the first of which provides a context for the films that have emerged more recently around terrorism and varied reactions to it. Prince then considers the mainstream dramatic film and subsequently the documentary, and responses to the campaign in Iraq and elsewhere. He reminds the reader that Hollywood has a long-running history of representing and re-imagining terrorism in films such as The Informer (1935) and Black Sunday (1977), for example.

Through his initial exploration of feature-film genres, and also the work of individual directors, Prince moves to investigations of the role that US TV drama and US documentary post 9/11 have had in navigating the event. He acknowledges the effort to understand how movies express trauma and cultural memory and the culture of anxiety, and a timeline appendix crystallises the relationship between events and cinema's representations of them.

Prince writes usefully of the complications around "terrorism as action adventure". He also offers insights into terrorism's appropriation by the world of cinema and explores how contemporary US TV dramas such as 24 "domesticate the anxiety". I was pleased, also, to see a case study of several Steven Spielberg films that explore, with varying degrees of subtlety, the post-9/11 Zeitgeist. The "controversial" thriller Munich (2005) receives due consideration. Prince also discusses lesser-known documentaries such as Occupation: Dreamland and Gunner Palace (both 2005), which explore the engagement in Iraq, post 9/11, and notes that "the proliferation of portable digital cameras revolutionised documentary coverage of the war".

My sense is that Firestorm, which covers both formal-aesthetic and socio-ideological bases with clarity, will be a popular resource for film students. Certainly, many of the films it cites could be investigated as titles in their own right, and the possibility of due care and attention being paid to them would be welcome.

Ultimately, Prince evidences ways that popular culture, and film especially, matters very much more than we expect it to - or perhaps even want it to.

Firestorm: American Film in the Age of Terrorism

By Stephen Prince. Columbia University Press. 400pp, £60.50 and £19.00. ISBN 9780231148702 and 8719. Published 22 September 2009

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