Terror, Torture, and Empire
on the Silver Screen

I was having brunch with my good friend Michael Vlahos (who, by the way, has a new book, Fighting Identity: Sacred War and World Change, that I recommend reading), and, inevitably, the conversation touched on movies. He and I both share a love of movies and feel that movies are more than just escapism and entertainment – they can also tell us a lot about ourselves and our times. (I share a similar love of movies with Bill Esposito, former deputy director of the FBI in the Clinton administration, who teaches a terrorism class at Wilmington University in Delaware and has invited me to guest lecture on several occasions.)

So here are a few movies to watch (in alphabetical order) because the themes and messages help us understand the world today (although what I take away from the movies may not necessarily be what their directors intended).

Blackhawk Down

Perhaps the most obvious pick and one of three movies on my list directed by Ridley Scott (who also directed two other favorite movies, Alien and Blade Runner). In many ways, Blackhawk Down captures the essence of what it means to be a soldier – epitomized by the special forces operator Hoot (Eric Bana):

"When I go home people’ll ask me, ‘Hey Hoot, why do you do it man? What, you some kinda war junkie?’ You know what I’ll say? I won’t say a goddamn word. Why? They won’t understand. They won’t understand why we do it. They won’t understand that it’s about the men next to you, and that’s it. That’s all it is.”

The closing scene invokes the soldier’s credo about never leaving a fallen comrade behind on the battlefield. But that credo is valued for its own sake, not because the particular mission represented sound U.S. policy, so more than any other movie Blackhawk Down captures the failure of humanitarian intervention unrelated to national security.


Another Ridley Scott film and winner of five Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Actor (Russell Crowe as Roman general turned gladiator Maximus). Rome is a metaphor for America. The misrule of Emperor Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) is a warning against placing too much power and faith in the presidency as the center of our government. Clearly a timely message during the Bush administration in the wake of 9/11 (Gladiator was released before the November 2000 election), but still important as Barrack Obama assumes the mantle of 44th president of the United States. Not that we need a Maximus; rather, we need to remember what it means to be citizens of a republic lest we lose our republic.

The Kingdom

Kind of like Jack Bauer and 24 on steroids on the big screen, or High Noon in Saudi Arabia. Captures the "good vs. evil" mentality of the Bush administration (and that because we are good everything we do in the name of good must also be good) – even when it’s a Saudi (Col. Faris al-Ghazi, portrayed by Ashraf Barhom) speaking:

"I’m 42 years old. I have two daughters and a son. Beautiful son. And I find myself in a place where I no longer care about why we are attacked. I only care that one hundred people woke up a few mornings ago, and had no idea it was their last. When we catch the man who murdered these people, I don’t care to ask even one question. I want to kill him."

But the reason it’s on my list is because it’s one of the few movies that dare to speak the truth about why America has become a target for terrorism. Ellis Leach (Kelly AuCoin), assistant secretary of state, Bureau of Middle East Affairs: "I advised withholding additional U.S. personnel, because a large part of the religious justification for these bombs is the presence of current U.S. personnel. More boots on Saudi soil is only gonna make an already combustible situation that much more so." Of course, it wouldn’t be much of a movie if it was about the United States staying out of Saudi Arabia.

Kingdom of Heaven

The third of three Ridley Scott movies, and probably my favorite of the bunch. Perhaps one of the most beautiful and lush movies ever filmed (I think it surpasses Gladiator in terms of "epic-ness"). Although it takes places during the Crusades in the Middle Ages, it’s timeless because it captures the elusive conundrum of Middle East peace. Balian de Ibelin’s (Orlando Bloom) speech to the people of Jerusalem says it all:

"It has fallen to us, to defend Jerusalem, and we have made our preparations as well as they can be made. None of us took this city from Muslims. No Muslim of the great army now coming against us was born when this city was lost. We fight over an offense we did not give, against those who were not alive to be offended. What is Jerusalem? Your holy places lie over the Jewish temple that the Romans pulled down. The Muslim places of worship lie over yours. Which is more holy? The wall? The Mosque? The Sepulcher? Who has claim? No one has claim. All have claim!"

As does Saladin’s (Ghassan Massoud) response to Balian, after Jerusalem is surrendered and Balian has negotiated terms for safe passage for all its inhabitants, when asked, "What is Jerusalem worth?": "Nothing. Everything!"

Lord of War

A movie about a serious subject that still manages to interject some levity. Some of the wit and wisdom of Yuri Orlov (Nicholas Cage, one of my favorite actors):

  • "The first and most important rule of gun-running is: Never get shot with your own merchandise."
  • "I sell to leftists and rightists. I sell to pacifists, but they’re not the most regular customers."
  • "Selling a gun for the first time is a lot like having sex for the first time. You’re excited, but you don’t really know what the hell you’re doing. And one way or another, it’s over too fast."
  • "I sell guns to every army but the Salvation Army."
  • "Back then, I didn’t sell to Osama bin Laden. Not because of moral reasons, but because he was always bouncing checks."

But it’s Yuri’s parting shot to his archnemesis, Interpol agent Jack Valentine (Ethan Hawke), that sums up how Lord of War helps us understand the perils of an interventionist U.S. foreign policy:

"The reason I’ll be released is the same reason you think I’ll be convicted. I do rub shoulders with some of the most vile, sadistic men calling themselves leaders today. But some of these men are the enemies of your enemies. And while the biggest arms dealer in the world is your boss – the president of the United States, who ships more merchandise in a day than I do in a year – sometimes it’s embarrassing to have his fingerprints on the guns. Sometimes he needs a freelancer like me to supply forces he can’t be seen supplying. So you call me evil, but unfortunately for you, I’m a necessary evil."


Probably the most "Hollywood lefty" movie on my list and, as the title implies, a criticism of the Bush administration’s extraordinary-rendition program. But that’s probably what’s least important about Rendition. The better plotline is about interrogator Abasi Fawal (Yigal Naor), who uses torture in his prison on Egyptian-born Anwar El-Ibrahimi (Omar Metwally), an American citizen detained and rendered on suspicion of terrorism. CIA analyst Douglas Freeman (Jake Gyllenhaal) quotes Shakespeare questioning the value of intelligence gathered by torture: "I fear you speak upon the rack, where men enforced do speak anything." Driving the point home, it turns out that the suicide attack that opens the movie (intended to kill Fawal) actually kills his daughter Fatima (a fact not known to him and not revealed until the end of the movie), whose boyfriend’s brother died in Fawal’s prison. The boyfriend, Khalid, is the trigger man for the suicide attack. Just as he is set to carry out the attack, he is confronted by Fatima, who begs him not to do it, arguing that the target is her father. After removing the pin on the detonator, he hesitates and is killed by snipers. As a result, he releases the trigger of the detonator and the bomb explodes, killing Fatima. Thus, Fawal’s acts of torture ultimately lead to his daughter’s death. It’s a powerful indictment of the claim that harsh interrogation saves lives.


I’ve previously written about Syriana, so I won’t repeat myself here. But it’s hard to think of another movie that better captures the complexity of the terrorist threat that afflicts us and how our own actions are intertwined with what happens to us.


300 is based on a graphic novel, i.e., comic book, and shot largely in green screen with everything but the actors rendered via CGI (computer generated imagery). Many will mistake 300 as a celebration of the mythic status and heroism of the 300 Spartans led by King Leonidas (Gerard Butler) against Xerxes’ army at Thermopylae, which eventually led to the Greeks uniting against Xerxes and defeating him at the Battle of Plataea. But 300 is really about the overextension of empire and the folly of trying to impose one’s will on different cultures in faraway lands. We might want to believe that the 300 Spartans are supposed to represent us because they are portrayed as brave and virtuous, but the truth is that we are more embodied by Xerxes and his ambitions. And the 300 Spartans are really all those nations, peoples, and cultures who would resist us. Ultimately, 300 is a movie about what will happen if U.S. foreign policy continues to follow the path it’s been on since at least the end of the Cold War.


The most recent addition to my movie list (I watched it for the first time this past weekend, thanks to FiOS On Demand). I can’t remember a movie that Don Cheadle has been in that I didn’t like, and Traitor is no exception. Samir (Cheadle) is a devout American Muslim and former special operations explosives expert who has gone deep undercover to penetrate a terrorist organization. A large part of the movie explores the moral dilemma of trying to infiltrate al-Qaeda and its ilk by proving that you are one of them by doing the very thing you are seeking to prevent – the killing of innocent people. Samir is chased by FBI agent Roy Clayton (Guy Pearce), and one can’t help but think about the similar relationship between Joseph Cotten’s Holly Martins and Orson Welles’ Harry Lime in The Third Man. But Traitor is also about the underlying reason Muslims resent the West and why some are willing to become terrorists: not that the United States hasn’t resolved the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but because U.S. "crusaders" remain in Muslim countries. The fact that U.S. actions have consequences and that all too often we are blind to those consequences (or rationalize them on the basis that we are good and, therefore, what we do must be good) is apparent in this scene:

Samir Horn: "Oh, I’m a terrorist?"
Roy Clayton: "I don’t know, you tell me. You’ve been selling them explosives."
Samir Horn: "Oh, I sell to who can afford to buy it … like the U.S. government."
Max Archer: "Only ours don’t kill innocent people."
Samir Horn: "Oh yeah they do, genius, the people just usually have darker skin."

Traitor is also a double entendre. Is Samir a traitor to the United States because he’s gone too far and has innocent blood on his hands? Or is Omar a traitor to Islam for being a terrorist? As in The Third Man, there’s no clear-cut yes and no, black and white, good and evil – only shades of gray. Finally, believe it or not, Traitor was co-written by Steve Martin (yes, that wild and crazy guy). So, not surprisingly, there’s some subtle humor in the movie. For example, Samir tells a bin Laden wannabe, "Not only will I sell you the explosives and triggers, but I will show you how to not blow yourself up. By mistake, that is." But my favorite line is this by FBI agent Clayton, who, while watching a TV news story about DHS checking the visas of all foreign students to find suspected terrorists, says, "Homeland security. A waste of time and resources. We’ll never find them this way. There are 1.2 billion Muslims in this world. Only 20 percent of them are Arabs. These people could look like anybody."

Author: Charles V. Peña

Charles V. Peña is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute, a senior fellow with the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, a former senior fellow with the George Washington University Homeland Security
Policy Institute
, an adviser to the Straus Military Reform Project, and an analyst for MSNBC television. Peña is the co-author of Exiting Iraq: Why the U.S. Must End the Military Occupation and Renew the War Against al-Qaeda and author of Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism.