“The 15:17 to Paris” is a movie about the heroic actions of several people who stopped a lone-wolf terrorist from killing people aboard a high-speed train heading to Paris on Aug. 21, 2015. This is the newest in a series of movies that has depicted heroic actions of Americans in the face of real terrorist threats, which includes movies like “Patriots Day,” “American Sniper,” “Zero Dark Thirty” and “Lone Survivor.”
In real life, these were enormous acts of courage and dedication and I have the utmost respect for the people depicted in these movies. However, the movies’ depictions of these events select only a few biased stories about the people who have lived through traumatic acts of terrorism and the people causing these traumatic acts of terrorism.
The first problem is that the people depicted in these movies as heroes and survivors are predominantly white, male and heterosexual, even though these qualities are not emblematic of real life. A movie could easily be made about the 2017 Charleston church massacre, in which a white supremacist murdered nine people after attending bible study with them. Another movie could also depict the Orlando Pulse shooting, in which an Islamic extremist massacred 49 people in a gay nightclub — one of the worst shootings in U.S. history.
However, the movies don’t depict this — instead, they predominantly feature a heterosexual white male protagonist; such is the reasoning behind criticism of “Patriots Day,” which focuses on Mark Wahlberg’s character, who never existed in real life. Ty Burr of the Boston Globe wrote, “We don’t really want to see people who weren’t there.” He believes the real heroes were the members of the community: the men and women of all ethnicities, genders and sexual orientations who lived through the event and participated in the manhunt, not some made-up heterosexual white male character.
Secondly, who are the enemies in these movies? Terrorists, of course, but more specifically, Islamic extremists. From January 2008 to the end of 2016, there were 201 terrorist incidents in the United States. Because of all the depictions of terrorists in these movies, we would suppose that the majority of the attacks were carried out by Islamic extremists. However, the majority, 115 of the cases, were right-wing extremists, while left-wing extremists had 19 cases and Islamic extremists only made up 63 cases. Yet in all the movies, the bad people are always depicted as Muslim — a biased display of the people involved in terrorist activities.
These movies also add more drama to the event than what really happened in order to heighten the visual experience and be more appealing to audiences. For instance, when the final shootout is happening in “Patriots Day,” there are explosions in what seems to resemble an old Hollywood cowboy shootout, although this directly contradicts the actual report. This happens in “American Sniper” and “Zero Dark Thirty” as well.
In the United States, Hollywood has a history of making movies like these about the United States’ enemies. During the world wars, Hollywood made movies that depicted the Germans, and later the Japanese, as horrific and terrible — not always in ways that resembled the truly terrible atrocities they did commit. During the Cold War, the Soviets were constantly depicted as bad. In both cases, it is easy to point the finger at a common enemy.
Increasing the amount of drama misleads us to either feel things or come to skewed conclusions — we feel exceptional sadness that turns into anger. We direct this anger toward an enemy. From there, people begin to treat anyone who resembles the enemy in a cruel way, like the treatment of German Americans during World War I, Germans and Japanese during World War II and, most recently, Muslims living in the United States, even if all the previously mentioned peoples had lived in the United States for generations.
In the case of terrorism, Hollywood is trying to do what it has done before and point the finger at a sole enemy — in this case, Islamic extremists. Terrorism is not the act of a single group or country; it consists of the acts of many individuals from many groups and countries. There isn’t one sole group to point the finger at. Instead of continuing to do what it has always done, Hollywood should change the enemy to be more emblematic of our time. Instead of targeting one form of terrorism, it should target all forms of extremism that lead to terrorism.
Joshua Hummell is a senior double-majoring in classical and Near Eastern studies and history.