September 13, 2013

Laughing Through 9/11 With Terrorist Comedy FOUR LIONS


"You're gonna die in that gear, lads."
"More than likely, but it's for a good cause."
September 11th, 2001 was my second day of college.  I had followed up my single Monday class with an 8 AM stage lighting course that morning.  Since it was the first class and it was early as shit, the instructor essentially handed out the syllabus, gave us a quick overview on the class and sent us on our way, so I was headed to the dining hall to grab a quick breakfast when I passed one of the very few students I had known from high school.  She said that there had been some kind of bombing at the World Trade Center, to which I replied, "Another one?"  I had vaguely remembered the car bombing in 1993, two days before my 10th birthday, but that had been a relatively small affair, killing about a half dozen people.  For whatever reason I had assumed that something similar had happened again and I had no appreciation for the scale of what was unfolding until I walked into the dining hall and saw the entire room sitting silent, staring at the TV screens in horror.  A few minutes later I watched as the two towers collapsed and that's when I realized that this was going to be one of those moments, like JFK's assassination or the first time we walked on the moon.  For the rest of my life I was going to remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when I learned about the attacks on September 11th.

I remember walking back to my dorm and seeing the entire financial district evacuating, an ocean of suits streaming across the Boston Common.  I remember arguing with myself about whether or not to leave the city; the flights had left out of Logan Airport, so the idea of terrorists still lurking in the city of Boston seemed not just possible but likely.  The only reason I stayed put was because if there was more violence to come, the subway seemed like a very probably target.  Most of all I remember calling my mother and making her pull out a matriculation list of my high school's senior class and trying to get in touch with as many people as possible who were either from New York or going to school there.  School was canceled for the remainder of the day and from that point on, everything changed.

The 9/11 attack is easily the most influential major world event of my lifetime*, barely edging out the election of the first African-American President of the United States.  I remember the Oklahoma City Bombing and I was even at the memorial there the day before they executed Timothy McVeigh, but I didn't have a proper grasp on the scope of that attack when it happened.  Oklahoma seemed very far away, and at the time I couldn't figure out why it was such a major news story.  Sure, I intellectually understood that that such an attack could happen anywhere at anytime, but it didn't really sink in on an emotional level until after 9/11.  Luckily I didn't personally know anyone who died that day, a fact that still astounds me to this day, but watching it play out in real time and seeing the far-reaching impact over the years to come made it all the more real.

Since I was in theater school at the time, I instantly became fascinated with the artistic impact.  I devoured every new monologue, play and film I could find that was directly about or influenced by the September 11th attacks.  It felt like the easiest way for me to resolve my own feelings about the incident.  (I even spent a few years writing a script of my own about a kid who intentionally goes missing after the attack.)  There are just as many misses as there are hits when it comes to 9/11 movies; for every World Trade Center or Loose Change, there's a Zero Dark Thirty or United 93, the latter being a film so powerful it made me literally tremble in the theater.  I've never watched the movie since, despite having purchased it the moment it hit DVD.  I'm even fond of some of the more minor works, like Reign Over Me with Adam Sandler and Don Cheadle or The Guys with Sigourney Weaver and Anthony LaPaglia.  And I've been meaning to revisit September Tapes, a found footage movie about a journalist who travels to Afghanistan that really threw me for a loop when I saw it in theaters back in 2002.  I'm curious to see if it still holds up over ten years later.

For whatever reason, September 11th kind of snuck up on me this year.  I don't know why, but for whatever reason I just didn't realize the date was coming up until it was already on top of me, and suddenly my Facebook feed was filled with everyone's personal remembrance of that day.  I really wanted to watch something that was related somehow, but I'd seen most of the 9/11 films years ago.  I started looking into some documentaries on Netflix, but nothing was really jumping out at me.  And then I suddenly remembered that I still hadn't gotten around to watching Chris Morris's black comedy Four Lions, about a group of inept, wannabe British Muslim terrorists.

As I said on Twitter, if you're going to watch a satire about suicide bombers, you might as well watch it on September 11th.

I've never been offended by a joke.  When it comes to comedy, the only thing that really matters is whether or not it makes people laugh.  Sure there are difficult subjects out there, and some people are just never going to find certain topics to be amusing.  For instance, my wife can't get on board with any kind of rape joke.  She finds the act itself to be so abhorrent that trying to make light of it in any way feels disrespectful to the countless victims across the globe and trivializes a morally reprehensible crime.  She's certainly not wrong and her reaction is just as valid as the next person's, but that's what makes comedy so damn difficult to master; it's incredible subjective and the success of a joke lies just as much in the hands of the audience as it does in the performer.  A single joke can land a dozen different ways depending on who's telling it and who's listening, but I'm a firm believer that no subject matter should be off limits.  Comedy is often a vital indicator for how we deal with tragedy, so in that light everything feels like it should be fair game, especially the things we fear the most.

Four Lions is nothing short of brilliant, portraying five would-be jihadists who desperately try to plan a suicide bombing in downtown London despite their complete lack of competence and/or guile.  Omar, Waj, Hassan, Faisal and Barry all have an earnest enthusiasm to prove themselves as potential martyrs for the cause, even if they clearly have absolutely no idea how to go about doing it.  They can't settle on a target (Barry has his heart set on bombing a mosque in order to motivate the moderates) because they're all too focused on making videos and taking pictures with (replica) guns.  They drape themselves in the trappings of terrorists, but for the most part they seem more concerned with looking like badasses than actually following though on all their talk.  It's an amusing collection of characters: there's the meek chemist who wants to strap explosives to trained crows, the blustering bully, the enthusiastic simpleton, the hip-hop loving adolescent and the level-headed ring leader trying to keep it all together. Director Chris Morris is a veteran of British television; he played Denholm on The IT Crowd, a character who, appropriately enough, is best remembered for abruptly committing suicide in the opening scene of the second episode of the show's second season. The easy way to describe Four Lions would be to call it Al Qaeda by way of The Office, but in truth it's so much more than that. 

The smartest thing the film does is to portray the leads as ordinary dudes - Omar has a wife and child who he speaks openly with about his plans for martyrdom, even editing the group's hilariously bad suicide videos in his kitchen over breakfast.  Hell, he tells his son bedtime stories using The Lion King to illustrate his radical Muslim ideals, portraying himself as the noble Simba railing against Skar the Western imperialist.  Despite their violent agenda, they're all sort of...sweet.  You can't help but love these guys even while they're planning the murder of innocent civilians and that's no easy feat.  After a while you get the distinct feeling that they're never actually going to get around to attacking anyone, or if they do that the whole thing will end in an light-hearted comedy of errors.  Luckily for us, Morris is smarter and more ambitious than that and the film's final moments are simultaneously violent, funny and heartbreaking.  And as the cherry on top, we get a few quick, clever glimpses of the British authorities constantly going after innocent Muslims who better fit the stereotypical terrorist image.  It gives the film a much needed sense of balance.

I'm sure there are plenty out there who would consider terrorism and suicide bombers nothing to joke about and it's hardly my place to tell them they're wrong.  But I get nervous when anything becomes so sacred that you're not allowed to make jokes about it.  We need comedy, it's an essential part of our humanity.  Frankly, without it, we're fucked.  Besides, in the face of a tragedy as devastating as September 11th, laughing is the best way to push through the anger and the grief to a place of true understanding.  That understanding leads to compassion and ultimately to forgiveness.  And make no mistake, the only way to eradicate the hate and fear that motivates a person to kill themselves and thousands of innocents is to put aside our differences and come together as fellow human beings.  

And what better way to bring people together than with laughter?


*One could very easily make the argument that the Bush v. Gore Supreme Court decision is actually more influential, since it was so completely nonsensical that the ruling literally stated that it could never be used as precedent in any future cases.  If Gore gets sworn in as President (since, ya know, he won the election) it's certainly possible that his administration actually pays attention to the memos describing Bin Laden's plans to attack the U.S. using commercial airliners and perhaps the 9/11 attacks are not (as) successful.  Either way, Gore certainly wouldn't have gone after Saddam Hussein.

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Title: Four Lions
Director: Chris Morris
Starring: Riz Ahmed, Kayvan Novak, Nigel Lindsay, Adeel Akhtar, Arsher Ali, Preeya Kalidas
Year Of Release: 2010
Viewing Method: Netflix Instant (TV)