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The Blockbuster Effect

Some finale, huh? Kurt Andersen on the arc of Osama bin Laden, and how our need to see the world through stories shapes the way those stories end.

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Illustration by Ian Wright  

From the beginning it was like fiction, the shocking and implausible opening scenes of an overwrought movie or novel—rich charismatic supervillain in his foreign lair dispatching hijacked jetliners to vaporize the most famous skyscrapers on Earth. And then it was like fiction at the end, the shocking and implausible last chapter—having provoked two wars, having almost supernaturally disappeared and escaped capture for a decade, the supervillain is found at last, and a secret super-elite team of American commandos swoop in and shoot him dead. The end.

It’s not the end, of course. His protégés and imitators will carry on, and the isms of which he was the superstar global embodiment—­jihadism, terrorism, Islamo-Fascism, nihilism—won’t suddenly disappear. In real life, every seemingly ultimate scene turns out to be perpetually penultimate.

But still, as a narrative, it was an over-the-top one-day conclusion to what had started as a whacked-out, over-the-top potboiler and had then turned into a different fictional genre, modern and artier, like the TV series and movies that riveted us during the decade Osama went missing, ­fictions that seemed realistic and great because they were dark and unsettling, without the bad guys necessarily getting their just deserts: The Sopranos, The Wire, The Dark Knight, No Country for Old Men. Finally, shockingly, the bin Laden story snapped back into familiar, tidy, old-fashioned storytelling mode à la James Bond and 24. And was all the more gratifying because we’d discounted this scenario almost to zero. The extreme sense of awesomeness was so potent and irresistible because this real-life story ended in the not necessarily realistic way most people like their make-believe stories to end.

How much like a too unbelievably perfect fictional story was the actual tale of America versus ­Osama bin Laden? Imagine the pitch to a studio executive.

Act One.

After the towers go down, the president, a Texan, swears he’ll “smoke” the “evildoers” “out of their holes.” The Muslim mastermind, who looks like a cartoon evildoer, is cornered—but then miraculously slips away. The villain is a screwup rich kid turned religious warrior (whose father died in a plane crash apparently caused by an American pilot) who thinks he’s doing Allah’s will—and the president ­pursuing him is also a screwup rich kid, whose own father survived the crash of a plane he was piloting and who also believes he’s doing God’s will. And who then invades a second country partly out of frustration over his inability to capture the supervillain.

Act Two.

A long montage of inconclusive battles, American interrogations, exasperating leads, and dead ends, as the supervillain records Joker-ish video taunts to send back to civilization. The next, antiwar president has a first name nearly identical to the supervillain’s, and a middle name the same as the dictator whose country was invaded. Also, he’s the first black president. Also, many millions of Americans come to believe that this new president is secretly a foreigner and/or a Muslim.

Act Three.

A pretty, well-to-do mountain town—title card: ­NORTHERN ­PAKISTAN—followed by an (ironic) shot of the nearby Pakistani military academy, then a scene of boys kicking a ball in a field. The ball accidentally flies over a twelve-foot wall—which (crane shot) we now see surrounds a three-story house on an acre of land. Cut to a scene of a stern man at the gate, declining to let the boys come in to retrieve their lost ball but handing one of them, to his delight, 50 rupees.

Back in Washington, the ­eureka moment comes at last: They believe they’ve tracked down the super­villain—only two hours from the Pakistani capital. In a mansion, not a cave. And with five computers and ten extra hard drives—and also flash drives, which barely existed when the story started, to show how much time has passed. Also? Four women and nine children live with him.

The president decides against the safer option—B-2s bombing the place to smithereens—in favor of the dramatic strike: Team 6, the most elite of the SEAL units, will land right in the supervillain’s backyard. Along with their dog. The operation is scheduled for a night of “low loom,” a cool piece of military jargon that we learn in dialogue is short for “little moon luminosity,” the time around a new moon. When the date arrives, the president’s aides brief him one last time, but he cuts them off: “It’s a go.”

In the White House situation room, the president and his team—including his female secretary of State whom he fought bitterly for the nomination—are staring, rapt, as they listen to the CIA director narrate the raid. Suddenly, as the choppers are landing, one breaks down.

And now a firefight has broken out.


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