Hard to miss Amazon’s heavy promotion of its new series starring John Krasinski. One version of the promo photos shows him with with an uneasy look, and a fiery explosion fills the frame behind him. He looked to me as vulnerable and off-balance as a grade school kid posing for a yearbook photo. A strange man would be telling him to smile. The explosion’s attention grab combined with Krasinski’s harried look struck a weird chord. I was willing to see where this went, but not with high expectations.
I watched the pilot episode, and kind of liked it. I’ve always liked Krasinski. But I have some discomfort with how Hollywood today approaches the Middle East and extremist Islam. Interestingly, “Jack Ryan” didn’t seem to have any Islam. In the opening scene, we see a couple kids in Lebanon in the early 80s. One is dancing to that famous Men Without Hats song I can’t remember the name of. The statement here is they are secular, not religious. Then, an airstrike happens (from aircraft I couldn’t identify — I’m usually very good with that, and I think the ambiguity was deliberate here). The children are hurt, one badly, and barely survive. The rest of their family apparently didn’t. We learn later these kids grow up to become the villains of the show that, in the modern day, Ryan must pursue.
If modeled after a real incident, I figured it would’ve related to the Beirut barracks bombing in 1983 (wikipedia). I’ve spent a while reading about this incident — I have a very dim memory of it happening when I was a kid. The bombing happened in the context of the ongoing Lebanese Civil War of the time. I tried reading about that, and found it hopelessly complicated. In real life I don’t believe there was a retaliatory US airstrike for the barrack’s bombing, but I don’t think that really matters to the show. Modern audiences are aware of the reality of bombings, drone strikes, and the horror of collateral damage. (That is, even if not historically accurate, such bombings and their effects have and do happen elsewhere.) My discomfort here is that big-budget entertainment demands some cynical compromises in how we approach the problem of extremist Islam. This show, and “Homeland” before it, sets up every Middle Eastern or putatively Muslim bad guy as a victim of US foreign policy who seeks vengeance. Bad ideas hiding in plain sight within Muslim doctrine — jihad, martyrdom, theocracy — go unexamined.
“Zero Dark Thirty” is an interesting case here. Writing for New Yorker, Richard Brody refers to that movie’s “deceptive emptiness“:
Compare the opening of “Zero Dark Thirty” to that of “Argo,” a visual montage of archival footage, with voice-over commentary, that offers a historical sketch of the troubled relations of Iran with the U.S. and Great Britain that contributed to the Islamic Revolution and Iran’s hostility to the West (the U.S. in particular), and thus gave rise to the events that the movie dramatizes. Even the hostage-takers have their reasons. By contrast, “Zero Dark Thirty” offers no ideological context for Al Qaeda’s attacks—no statement of principles from jihadi sites, no religious exhortations, no practical demands or litany of complaints.
Brody goes into a very long discussion on what he means by “deceptive emptiness” in this movie, but in fact I had a hard time following what entirely what he meant. Nonetheless, I had some discomforts with ZD30 that echo his tagline. I’ve always felt that the “war on terror” mistook a war on select bad people for what should be a war on certain bad ideas. The “emptiness” I feel watching ZD30 is knowing that killing bin Laden really did nothing against the bad ideas of jihad, martyrdom, honor killing, theocracy, etc.
I don’t have a good solution for how to frame these kinds of entertainments, since nor do I want to give into anti-Muslim sentiment. Some corners of Christian conservative America have shown a real or imagined fear of Sharia, for example. I don’t know if they’re serious or not. The heck of it is sane people anywhere would be right to fear Sharia law. But the Christians most (apparently) worried about it I imagine have no qualms about imposing their version of theocracy.
The best I can come up with is a skepticism of this kind of entertainment more generally. I love a good story about courage and justice as much as anyone, but when connected to (or conspicuously tangential to) Islam and the Middle East, political compromises and selective detailing really muddies how we think about these real and recent events.
It remains a pressing concern, for example, how to criticize bad parts of Islamic doctrine without the false charge of Islamophobia. And it remains a pressing concern how to sort out what is right and wrong about our foreign policy and use of force. The moment I say that, however, it sounds like work. I think I’d rather watch a movie.