Arnold Schwarzenegger, in his long and painful dotage, has stopped looking like a cross between a robot and a moldy beefsteak. It’s difficult, these days, to say what exactly it is that he resembles, though we can exclude species that dwell in the realm of the human. He has become an odd amalgam of collagen, hair gel, and lingering–and by no means flattering–effects of a lifetime’s intake of steroids, and a little residual testosterone. This Paleolithic bundle has, pulled tightly around it, a leathery substance on the order of skin. Never mind Greta Van Susteren–it’s Arnold who’s the Queen of the Facelifts, as surely as Zsa Zsa Gabor was the Queen of Outer Space. He’s turned into (or was he always?) a hypertrophied troll. His next role should be Rumpelstiltskin.
His current role, however, is that of a heroic firefighter who saves the free world, or what passes for it, from guerilla terrorists–only after a requisite number of well-stocked explosions. The movie is Collateral Damage, and its release was held off by the producers’ fears that its plot echoed too closely recent world events, and would give viewers qualms and–as a collateral side-effect–reduce their own box-office take.
The producers need not have worried. The events of the plot bear as much relation to events of the real world as Arnold does to a human. The delay of the movie’s release let Arnold and his cronies parade their nobility. They would perhaps lose money by holding back the film, Arnold let it be known, but it was for the greater good. It was better that we all come together, and not be reminded of our woes. Tragedy, after all, is tragic, and the movie is only a movie.
Are the guerillas terrorists, or are the terrorists guerillas? The movie uses the words interchangeably, the latter much more than the former, and unless I’m imagining things, the word “guerilla” is sometimes dubbed over the word “terrorist.” But even if I am imagining things, the movie’s strategies of avoidance are clear enough. The terrorists’ profiles combine elements of Colombian drug lords, leftist revolutionaries, and generically secular religious fanatics. In other words, they are modeled on figures who do not exist, except as clusters of cliché.
Several times in the course of the movie we see a video of one of the terrorists. In silhouette, hunched in front of a wall adorned by what seems like a prayer rug with, off to one side, a bright red emblem that looks like a slightly deformed sickle, the terrorist intones diabolically, “Your seedies will nivair be sahff!” The accent is difficult to place. But the evocation of Osama bin Laden would perhaps seem uncannily prescient if bin Laden himself were not a contemptible embodiment of the same murderous clichés the movie exploits. Since Soviet Communism is at least nominally a thing of the past, you’d think Arnold could put the red sickles in cold storage. The whole point, though, is that he can’t. The movie is a cryogenic nightmare, with its Commie rat terrorists who also play like banana republic anarchists and, more distantly, Islamic fundamentalists. They make no sense, except as products of a generalized, hysterical paranoia that not only harks back to the Cold War, but expresses a kind of warped nostalgia for it.
In two striking moments, the terrorists accuse Arnold of being like them. The terrorists have set off a bomb that has killed Arnold’s wife and son, and he vows revenge. The counterterrorist agencies are not doing enough, by Arnold’s reckoning, and so he shrugs off his depression and jets off to Colombia to take charge himself. A counterterrorist agent played by Elias Koteas as a Robert DeNiro lookalike, both tough and twinkly, cries, “You can’t take the law into your own hands!” But damned if Arnold can’t. The movie is really just the usual right-wing parable of vigilante justice, stoked by self-righteous dander and amorphous rage.
“Why do you Americans think you are the only ones who can fight for independence?” seethes a terrorist, to Arnold. Through clenched stumps of bright calcified matter that were perhaps once a set of teeth, Arnold growls, “Interpentence fow watt–to keel?” Later, another terrorist–seemingly a nicer one–returns to the same theme, comparing Arnold in his rage to the first terrorist. In a snit signified by three wrinkles in his preternaturally sleek, though bloodied, brow, Arnold narrows the sphincters encasing viscous blobs where his eyes should be, and snarls, “I am nofink like heem!”
“Not yet,” replies the seemingly nicer terrorist, after a pregnant pause.
The idea that countersubversion inevitably mirrors what it combats is not new. It goes back, at least, to Richard Hofstatder’s Cold War classic, The Paranoid Style in American Politics. It would be surprising to see this movie raising this idea, however briefly, if it were not clear that the movie has little interest in sense-making. Ideologically, the movie could not be more coherent, but structurally it’s a mess–and the relation of its suffocating coherence to its complete illogic is yet another factor that renders its ugly patterns very familiar among American movies.
The truth is, the movie has no fear that its viewers will think Arnold is like the terrorists. Vengeance, the movie is certain, is not terrorism. It is justice. The terrorists are “fascists”–that is the word the movie uses–and Arnold, despite the accent, is as American as Lyndon Baines Johnson. What with that quasi-sickle, and a number of oblique references to Che Guevara, you’d think the terrorists might be deemed “Communists.” But even this movie, stupid as it is, knows that label would no longer serve to stir viewers’ wrath.
Yet the right-wing distaste for fascism remains a recent phenomenon and, in this case, a mere convenience. It seems never to occur to the filmmakers that viewers might connect their fantasy terrorists to the contras–the anti-Communist guerillas who violently, with American support, sought to overthrow democratically elected governments in Central America during the Reagan years, back in the days when it was still a marginally conventional wisdom that fascism and communism were diametrically opposed ideologies. In this movie, the collapse of fascism and communism–a common conflation of the last two decades–seeks to play both ends against a middle that may therefore no longer exist.
In its promotional campaign, the studio claimed a firefighter’s union endorsed the movie. The union quickly countered that it did not. The claim of endorsement was discreetly rescinded. Still, Arnold’s ennobling self-sacrifice in withholding this movie out of respect for the delicacy of our sensitivities has paid unexpected dividends. At the box office, Collateral Damage is Number One–with a Bullet.