5. Paradise Now (Hany Abu-Assad, 2005)
This controversial film from Palestine depicts the lives of two childhood friends,Khaled and Said, who are chosen for an important suicide bombing mission to blow up an Israeli military outpost. They disguise themselves as Israelis attending a wedding but are somehow found out by the police causing them to go on the run.
Khaled returns to the bosses who remove his belt but Said is still dedicated to the cause. Khaled must hurry to try and reason with his friend whose history with the Israeli people has driven him to revenge.
Taking the point of view of the terrorist is always a risky move, and a suicide bomber especially is bound to cause some controversy. Many found the close portrait of such people to be disconcerting at first, but the film offers an invaluable look inside the motivations and personal lives of terrorists that are usually never shown. The humanization of those who are usually marginalized is extremely important in order to form a well rounded perspective on the entirety of the subject.
Despite being critically acclaimed and winning the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film, Paradise Now still had several detractors. The Israeli government naturally had complaints with the questionable heroism displayed by the terrorists, saying the act of killing innocent civilians was somewhat glorified. While the protagonist Said is romanticized, maybe a bit too much, the point of the film is to open the world’s eyes to the causes, struggles and drive behind terrorism, showing why some feel the actions are necessary.
4. The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008)
Probably the least typical example of terrorism of this list, Nolan’s superhero masterpiece transcends the boundaries usually set for comic book movies, commenting on real life society as well.
Following up on Batman Begins, Christian Bale stars again as Bruce Wayne, heir to a large tech corporation who spends his nights as Batman, a caped vigilante who fights crime in his home town of Gotham City. Things become more complicated when a crazed terrorist called The Joker, played by Heath Ledger in a career defining role, comes to town and starts raising hell.
From blowing up hospitals to creating feuds in crime families and trying to kill city officials, The Joker, despite being labeled a supervillain, does exactly what terrorist organizations set out to do. He is more despicable than most, however, because he has no cause to fight for, instead inflicting terror for the sake of seeing others in fear. The fact that neither he nor Batman possesses any actual superpowers helps relate the film to real life easier also.
One of the most acclaimed movies of the 2000s, The Dark Knight revolutionized the superhero genre of film with its success being a main cause of the Marvel cinematic universe. Its more gritty approach to the base content inspired a similar method of popularizing past franchises, for instance in Man of Steel, which a gritty Superman reboot. While not based on real terrorist groups like most on this list, The Dark Knight, led by Ledger’s frightening performance, conveys an equally disturbing view of the subject.
3. The Battle for Algiers (Gillo Pontecorvo, 1966)
This critically acclaimed war drama of the Algerian-French war is another later film that was heavily influenced by the Neorealism movement. Adopting the documentary-like style of Rosselini’s World War II films, and similarly showed the tyranny of the oppressive, but it also showed the cruelty that the Algerians were capable of.
The film follows the armed conflicts between the Algerian revolutionary force against the French colonizing forces. Although there are several distinct characters on either side, the film focuses more on the war overall, and specifically the guerilla warfare and brutal methods used by both sides.
The Battle of Algiers was quite controversial when it was released due to its focus on urban uprisings and, although it did not romanticize these rebellions, groups like the IRA were influenced by the radicalism in the film.
The gritty realism in the movie was also so convincing as a documentary that it needed a disclaimer in America to explain that it in fact as fiction. Not only is the film successful as a moving depiction of violence and war, but it is also notable due to its political neutrality, providing an objective glimpse into a violent and controversial conflict.
Like another film on this list, Paradise Now, the film’s close focus on the terrorist Algerian forces can be extremely disturbing, especially when they bomb dozens of innocent French civilians. The ease in which the terrorists were able to execute their bombings was also somewhat disconcerting.
Pontecorvo, however, manages to avoid crossing the line into terrorist sympathizer by maintaining a distant, realist style, showing the characters but not siding with them. A breakthrough in unbiased historical storytelling, The Battle of Algiers is an important and gripping war film.
2. Munich (Steven Spielberg, 2005)
One Steven Spielberg’s greatest films in the 21st century, this gripping political thriller follows an unofficial Israeli counter-terrorism team who are hunting down the Palestinians responsible for the massacre at the 1972 Munich Olympics.
Eric Bana stars as the head of the team, which also includes Daniel Craig and Ciaran Hinds, is commanded to leave the Mossad forces and become unaffiliated agents so that they can assassinate the suspected terrorists without any backlash for the agency. The team tracks the suspects across Europe, but soon find that there are other killers to kill them.
Based on a real life story, this political thriller evolves from simply providing excitement into exploring deeper themes of humanity and cultural differences.
The motives of both the Israeli forces and the Palestinians are analyzed and weighed against each other. This shows that while the culture are always pitted against each other, they are both fighting for the good of their people and that they are not so different after all. Throughout the events, the morality of what the team is doing is frequently questioned because of this.
Although Munich did not reach the popularity of most of Spielberg’s films, the critical response was overwhelmingly positive and the film was nominated for five Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Director. Despite its renown, there was no shortage of controversy surrounding the film.
Many Israelis criticized the film’s historical accuracy and others thought that Spielberg equated counterterrorism to the same level as terrorism. Whether you agree with the message or not, Munich is a masterfully created thriller with a lot of thematic content hiding below the surface.
1. United 93 (Paul Greengrass, 2006)
Coming out only five years after the events of the 9/11 terrorist hijackings, Greengrass’s account of one of the flights was very powerful, but extremely controversial, hitting too close to home for some. The story follows a cast of relatively unknown actors and real life military personnel as terrorists take control of a plane with a knife and a bomb.
Then, almost in real time, the film captures the emotions and actions of the passengers on board, first terrified, then united against the terrorists, where they attempt to recapture the plane.
The film also tracks the story of the head of the FAA (Ben Sliney playing himself) during September 11th, 2001, showing the helplessness that the country felt while thousands of their fellow citizens as well as some of their most precious landmarks were being destroyed. While officials knew that there were other hijacked planes in the sky, they had to face the dilemma of whether they should shoot down American planes full of innocent citizens or try and find an alternative way to safety.
Based on the black-box records and the phone calls that the passengers aboard flight United 93 made to their loved ones, the film tries to be as accurate as possible to the events of real life.
The factual content, in addition to the non-famous actors and handheld camera footage make the experience on board the plane extremely disturbing, placing the audience in the middle of the action. Both an expertly made thriller and an important film in American culture, United 93 is the most realistic depiction of a terrorist attack created in a film.
Author Bio: Matthew Benbenek is an undergraduate Mechanical Engineering student at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. He has a passion for film, music and literature and, when not watching movies, is an amateur director and violin player.