The Blockbuster Effect

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.

“We have a visual on Geronimo,” says the CIA director. Face-to-face with the supervillain, a Team 6 man shoots him twice: one in the chest, one through the forehead.

“We got him,” the president says.

There are no American casualties. Also? None of the children were harmed.

As he prepares to address the nation, America’s first black ­commander-in-chief is briefed on the body’s disposal—cut to a shot of a weighted bag being dropped into the Arabian Sea from the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier, with a title card: CARL VINSON, SEGREGATIONIST CONGRESSMAN, 1883–1981. From outside the White House, he hears a gathering crowd break into song. And among the jubilant youngsters we see an 18-year-old girl we recognize from the beginning of the movie, when she was 8 and sobbing on September 11.

Tom Clancy–preposterous, right? Complete with an exceptionally long (and thus finally all the more gratifying) Joseph Campbell–esque “road of trials” on our hero’s journey. Which is why 24’s wish-­fulfillment counterterrorist Jack Bauer was immediately trending on Twitter, and why the little Kathryn Bigelow movie in development about SEAL Team 6’s pursuit of Osama is suddenly a ­superhot property. And why the press coverage quickly devolved to determining how much Hollywoodish dramatic license the administration initially took in describing the “firefight,” which actually consisted of one guy firing on the two dozen arriving super-SEALS.

Niggles and quibbles. The story is true and, because the totally familiar fictional archetypes clicked in for the final act, deeply satisfying.

And I don’t think it’s crazy to think that those pop-­cultural archetypes not only frame the public understanding of the events but actually shaped the events themselves. Days after 9/11, we all remember Bush saying, “There’s an old poster out West, as I recall, that said, ‘Wanted: Dead or Alive.’ ”He surely never saw such a poster in real life: Like the rest of us, he knew it from old movies and shows. And the yearning for a satisfying finale after 9/11 helped drive the U.S. to invade a country that had nothing to do with the attacks.

President Obama obviously gets the power of storytelling. After publishing his first book but before recommitting to politics, I’m reliably told, he thought of changing careers to become a novelist, a writer of Scott Turovian thrillers. Minimizing civilian casualties and harvesting intelligence aside, he knew that a commando raid, if it worked, would make for a far, far better last chapter.

The stories we tell and retell—­fictional, nonfictional, hybrids of the two—really do inform important choices we make. They matter.

Americans think that bin ­Laden’s execution will make Americans more vulnerable to a terrorist attack, but they’re nevertheless thrilled it happened—happy, in other words, to slightly increase their odds of being murdered in order to experience a gratifying symbolic charge.

Bin Laden’s Al Qaeda role for the last nine years and eight months, it turns out, was not merely symbolic, but the lunatic fantasies he encouraged—9/11 worked liked a dream, and the superpower couldn’t catch him because his success had been divinely ordained—gave him tremendous symbolic power. And now, maybe, the craziest Islamist dreams of inevitability will lose some of their crazy appeal.

None of the wars we’ve fought since World War II—Korea, Vietnam, Iraq—concluded triumphantly or unambiguously. The endgame in Afghanistan will surely be no different. As stories, as symbols, earlier wars’ most salient themes are very unsatisfying: wishful hubris, stupidity, bad luck, muddles. And ever since Vietnam and the rise of the Reaganist trope that “government is the problem,” Americans have defaulted to the idea that Washington is irredeemably feckless, incompetent, unable to stick with important projects for the long haul. The successful Javertism of bin Laden’s apprehension could help reduce people’s dangerous overinvestment in that idea.

The staying power of this story’s last chapter will never equal that of the first. But to the degree 9/11 “changed everything,” it did so not in some rational cost-benefit fashion. We coolly write off thousands of unnecessary American deaths and destroyed buildings every year. The trauma of that attack, for most of us, was the result of a symbolic assault. Which does not diminish its enduring historical significance. And to the degree that finally finding and killing Osama bin Laden is a symbolic victory, that just might prove to have enduring historical significance as well.

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The Blockbuster Effect