Post 9/11 Cinema: Through a Lens Darkly

Author: John Markert.

The problem with writing about recent history or recent cinema is that it’s ever evolving. History is forever in flux and events move all the time. Although this book was published in 2011, events have superseded it: Osama Bin Laden has been killed (this event is mentioned in passing just the once) and the US military has withdrawn from Iraq leaving an uncertain future.

There are a number of negatives and minuses with regards this book. Author John Markert is a professor of Sociology and although he’s written on the media before (along with a book on sexual harassment), his lack of writing on cinema comes through in places (such as where he namedrops films in brackets as reminders as if this were necessary). But this isn’t the point of the book. This is a social media history of now. And this becomes more apparent as Markert’s study focuses on documentary film rather than fictive cinema.

As a cineaste perhaps one of the biggest let downs of the book is that the title is somewhat misleading. The focus of the first two thirds of the book is almost exclusively on documentary film studying the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the war on terror. It ostensibly studies films made in the USA, although he does cover both sides of the political spectrum. This where Markert’s study is at its strongest in that his political views are moderate, neither coming from the left nor the right; he exposes both the populist left wing agendas of the likes of Michael Moore as well as those films that are pro-Bush and represent an arrogant isolationist America.

Only in the last third of the book does Markert focus on cinema and unfortunately his choices aren’t complete. Many commentators and political thinkers or the likes of Jean Baudrillard and Noam Chomsky overlook the fact that American cinema and the American people are from a country of great contrasts. Makert does not, and as a result this is a much more moderate book than many written on the subject. In the midst of the documentaries he studies the 2003 Iranian film Osama and why it’s included earlier in the book rather than later is not altogether clear – perhaps because the divide between documentary and fictive cinema in Iran is a very grey area. He splits the titles (or rather films) he chooses to study into sections. Most glaringly though he makes no mention of (among others) the 2005 film Syriana which, as mainstream cinema, is an important addition to the canon of films that are mentioned which even includes puppet animation comedies such as the highly satirical Team America (2004).

Markert begins with a lengthy introduction that spells out the purpose of the book, the political and historical background of its subject in both broad and intellectual terms and how cinema has responded to contemporary wars in the past (the Second World War, the Korean War, the Cold War and of course the Vietnam War). For the next two thirds of the book the author focuses on documentaries and alternates between studying those concerned with Iraq and Saddam Hussein, war in Afghanistan, 9/11 itself, the search for Bin Laden and the Al Qaida network. A pattern emerges on the polarised views of supporting these conflicts and being critical of Bush and Cheney’s project for America. What also emerges is that many other documentaries and unfolding events have superseded this book. For example the recent Channel Four documentary To Hell and Back is another addition to the canon on how returning marines in the US military have to face recovery, normalisation and a return to civilian life; an expertly made and crafted documentary that was only made recently. Markert also neglects to talk about how other forms of media, such as the news, have responded to the conflicts (both in the USA and in the rest of the world) and how they represent these different, but in many ways similar, conflicts.

As mentioned, the title of the book is something of a misnomer and misleading. It’s only in the last 100 pages that the author turns his attention to cinema releases. But this did open my eyes to a bunch of films I wasn’t aware of and wanted to seek out. He doesn’t only focus on Hollywood films, but also films like the Danish film Brothers (2005) and its Hollywood remake about a man returning home after being traumatised by events in Afghanistan. It’s a shame that the focus is largely on American films. British films such as the successful terrorist satirical comedy Four Lions (2008) aren’t mentioned.

There are also many typos and mispronunciations in the book. For example Iran is misspelled as Iraq on more than one occasion and when he’s writing about Brian De Palma’s Redacted and Casualties of War Markert says that the title of the latter film is Courage Under Fire – the wrong film entirely. Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker (2008) is mentioned (and also features on the cover) but isn’t given the space in the analysis it deserves. All that said, this is a fascinating read throughout and uses its source materials to good effect, even if at times it is somewhat repetitive. And I’m sure that this period or sub-genre of cinema will be looked at again many times in future.

Chris Hick

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