The 1996 action thriller Executive Decision was an early example of what should be called ‘irregular war films’, pitting a team of special forces commandos against a gang of terrorists, on a hijacked plane headed for Washington DC. In this episode I analyse Executive Decision for it’s bizarre mirroring of elements of the 9/11 attacks, the political storm surrounding its release, and the influence the Pentagon had on the script. I discuss on how Hollywood reflects the shift from traditional to irregular warfare, and helped sell the war on terror before it had even begun.
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Before we get into the film itself we need to draw a few basic distinctions. Regular warfare or conventional warfare is designed around the principle of weakening the enemy’s military capacity through direct military strikes. While this might be combined with elements of disguise and deception, it is nonetheless a fairly straight fight between similarly-equipped forces.
In recent decades, as war between nations has become less common and violent struggle has become much more varied in its origins and forms, new thinking has come to light. One idea is unconventional warfare, where you use a proxy force of some kind to do the fighting for you. The Contras in Nicaragua are a classic example. Assymetric warfare is a battle between conventional armed forces and some kind of unconventional force, be it a terrorist gang, guerilla army, armed insurgency and so on.
Irregular warfare is one of the more recent terms, and is defined in US doctrine as ‘A violent struggle among state and non-state actors for legitimacy and influence over the relevant populations.’ This can, of course, involve unconventional and assymetric warfare, but is somewhat distinct from either of those concepts. Irregular warfare is typically a hybrid struggle, involving elements of violence but also intelligence gathering, agents of influence, propaganda, psychological warfare and the like. I think that most Western states are actually in a condition of irregular warfare regarding their own populations, let alone the miscellaneous rebellions inflicted from abroad.
As such, while films like Executive Decision are definitely not war films, the stories they depict are examples of irregular warfare, and one might argue the films themselves are part of an irregular warfare strategy in the real world, especially if they are state-sponsored, as Executive Decision was. Indeed, the film came out in 1996, the same year the term ‘Irregular Warfare’ first appeared in a CIA publication.
As I explored in the episode on the history and development of war cinema, since Vietnam the conventional war movie has been dying slowly. Very few films after 1980 depicted one army fighting another, and where they do depict this the story is usually historical. This is partly because NATO doesn’t fight many conventional wars any more. While the invasion of Iraq was a fairly conventional act of war, that part was over quickly and the majority of that war has been irregular, a struggle for the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people, against a variety of insurgent forces.
While Executive Decision is a poor movie, it is a great example of this new kind of cinema, which focuses on a lone individual or a small band, typically special forces or a covert ops unit or some mixture of both. They face off against an enemy which is either highly competent or huge in number, maintaining the paranoid fiction that NATO isn’t the most powerful military organisation the world has ever seen, and the mentality that we’re up against the odds.
And Executive Decision is a really poor movie. Kurt Russell is hopelessly miscast as an Army intelligence nerd who gets drawn into the fight for control of the plane. One of Hollywood’s great basasses spends half the film wearing glasses, to try to fool us into thinking he isn’t a badass. Steven Seagal also stars, but is killed before much action takes place and given that action is the only thing Seagal can do, this struck me as pretty stupid. Indeed, for an action thriller there’s very little action – several times the special forces team are about to launch an attack to regain control of the plane, but every time (apart from the very last time at the end of the movie) it gets called off. It’s a pointless, dumb pricktease of a movie.
Despite this it got fairly good reviews, with Roger ‘hack for sale’ Ebert giving it three out of four stars, and other respected critics also responding positively. It was also a commercial success – it was the 25th highest grossing movie of the year, proving popular both in the US and worldwide. Maybe 1996 was a particularly bad year for films, maybe a bunch of critics were bought off, I don’t know. I see a poor attempt to remake Die Hard 2, itself a poor attempt to remake Die Hard.
But rather than spend the next half hour taking a steaming dump on top of this steaming dump of a movie, I thought I’d try to elevate this film by looking at the politics surrounding it, which are much more interesting than the film itself. For those of you who haven’t seen the movie or don’t remember it, basically a group of Islamic terrorists hijack a cross-Atlantic flight on its way to the US. So the military use a stealth aircraft with an extending tunnel gadget to fly up to the plane and sneak some soldiers on board, who then eventually save the day.
Obviously, as anyone can tell simply from watching it, Executive Decision got full Pentagon support. The first approach came in 1991, when the producers were advised that support was ‘out of the question’. Several months later a new script arrived, and the military started gearing up to provide assistance and asked for some revisions. But the revised script never appeared, so in mid 1992 they stopped tracking the project. In late 1994 the producers came back with a new version of the script, and things got going again.
The support was fairly extensive – lots of military aircraft, access to filming locations, the involvement of the Army, Navy and the California National Guard. Several of the main cast had to be filmed inside or next to the vehicles, so they had to be cleared. Indeed, if you want to know Kurt Russell’s Social Security Number, it’s in the DOD’s file on Executive Decision.
There are also a couple of fairly extensive sets of script notes, detailing how the DOD changed aspects of the film. A lot of this is just badly-written or inaccurate dialogue that they corrected, but they also had a fairly big influence on the general outline of the film. It appears that they pushed for Kurt Russell’s character to have a military background, because he initially had ‘no military ties’ but ended up a consultant to Army intelligence. It’s also clear that the original script had Russell’s character fixing all the problems that crop up after the Special Forces team sneak aboard the plane. The military didn’t like this, and insisted that the Special Forces characters be ‘able to solve problems’ rather than leaving it all to Kurt Russell.
The terrorists have planted an extremely high-tech bomb on board the aircraft, which the special forces team have to defuse. In the original script Kurt Russell’s character, Grant, gives instructions to another guy on how to defuse it, after ‘Cappy’ gets injured and passes out after being given morphine. So the military changed all of this, making Cappy the bomb disposal expert and having him drift in and out of consciousness while he helps Cahill defuse the bomb.
This is the opposite of the ‘civilianisation’ process I’ve discussed and written about before. Whereas in those instances the controversial material was distanced from the military, in this case they wanted the heroic material to be militarised, rather than all be the work of the civilian consultant played by Kurt Russell. This gave the military characters more to do, and made them look better, rather than just being hired guns who eventually shoot up some terrorists.
Another note is quite funny – the script has around half a dozen men on the team that sneaks aboard the hijacked plane. The military’s note says, ‘The team should be about 10-12 men, the usual size for Special Operations teams. Those without speaking lines could be killed when the delivery plane breaks up.’ Let me explain – when the stealth aircraft flies up underneath the hijacked airliner, the extending tunnel attaches to a hatch on the underside of the passenger plane. Part way through transferring the team to the airliner things go wrong, the tunnel breaks off, and Steven Seagal is rather comically flung out into the air. The DOD’s suggestion was to have as many as half a dozen special forces guys die at this moment, which reveals just how expendable they consider their people to be. Rather than trying to minimise the number of soldiers who die in this high-risk operation, they were trying to maximise it. In the end this change wasn’t made, and it’s just Steven Seagal who dies in this scene, but it’s still a strange way for the military’s Hollywood office to see things.
Military Realism and Islamophobia
Another document in the DOD’s file shows that military support almost didn’t happen. In late June 1995, just as the film was about to start production, the producers sent the military a slightly revised version of the script. In the opening scene of the film, the special forces team led by Steven Seagal carry out a raid on a Chechen mafia safehouse, looking for a stolen Soviet nerve agent. It appears that in the revised script they had the Steven Seagal character in a James Bond role, which caused the Army a big problem.
A letter to the producers says the DOD were withdrawing the offer of military support ‘because of the new introduction of the Travis character’. It goes on, ‘Specifically, the Travis character is depicted as being in civilian clothes during an operation. The Geneva Convention states that soldiers must be in a recognizable uniform in order to be treated under the terms of the convention and its treaties. If a soldier is captured out of uniform during an operation, he can be held and tried as a spy.’
All of this is true, but it overlooks the really obvious fact that Special Forces operations are often conducted illegally, with no regard for the Geneva Convention, often without the host country government knowing or giving permission ahead of time. And Special Forces often disguise themselves in local civilian clothing just like a spy. So the Army’s claim to care about realism is, in reality, a complete joke. The script was changed not to reflect what really goes on in US Special Forces operations, but to reflect the public face of the US in respecting the Geneva Convention and its treaties.
If you don’t believe me then just look at the rest of the film. The letter might say that ‘the military has to have a realistic scenario’ but the entire plot of the movie is absurd and unrealistic. The US doesn’t have a plane with an extendable tunnel allowing people to move from one plane to another mid-flight. That just doesn’t exist, yet the entire plot of the film hinges on the idea that it does exist. There’s a critical moment near the end of the film where the team are taking down the terrorists and one of the terrorists fires off a few shots as he dies. Somehow this blast a large hole in the fuselage, causing an explosive decompression of the cabin. Again, this isn’t what happens. It was unrealistic in Goldfinger and it’s unrealistic now.
Likewise, the terrorists build a ludicrously complex bomb that’s almost impossible to defuse, and also set up a dummy bomb. This gives the special forces team something to do in between getting onto the plane and, an hour later, getting into a gun fight with the terrorists, but it’s ludicrous. The terrorists have no way of knowing that the non-existent aircraft with the Inspector Gadget tunnel would sneak several Special Forces soldiers aboard. They have no reason to suspect that someone might try to defuse the bomb, thus no motive for setting up a dummy or making the real bomb so difficult to stop. All of this only exists to try to provide some sense of tension in the middle of this one-act story.
But the DOD didn’t have any problems with any of that. They had a problem with Steven Seagal not being in a uniform when technically he should be in a uniform, but no problem with claiming to have non-existent technologies or fighting the world’s most careful terrorists.
Indeed, the whole film suffers from the problem that a passenger plane doesn’t have lots of places for a Special Forces team to hide while they figure out what to do. So they gave the plane an attic, a section several feet high at the top of the plane that doesn’t have anything in it – no passengers, no luggage, no cargo. Why anyone would make a plane 30% larger than it needed to be, just to provide for one sequence where Kurt Russell slides back and forth on a tightrope, is beyond me.
I know that pointing out the glaring plot holes and ludicrous unreality of films is the behaviour of pedantic nit-pickers so I won’t get into the full list of stupid problems with this movie. But I do want to emphasise that for all the military’s claims to wanting realistic depictions in realistic scenarios, their own documents prove this isn’t true. They care a lot more about being shown in a positive light than they do about being shown accurately.
They also evidently had no problems with the absurd stereotyping of Arabs and Muslims throughout the script. Admittedly, this is a film where none of the characters have much of a backstory, or much of a personality, they’re pretty much all there just to fulfil the needs of the plot. But the terrorists are especially simplistic – we never learn anything about them, never find out what their motives are or what caused them to take up arms. Most of them never even speak, and the ones that do are the typical gun-waving shouty Arabs you’ve seen in a hundred other movies.
Now, we know that the DOD do sometimes object to depictions of foreign peoples and countries, as they did with Clear and Present Danger. Both the overall depiction of Colombians and the US President’s language about Latin Americans in general were elements of the script that had to be changed before the military approved the movie.
But with Executive Decision there was no such problem. The DOD reviewed the script and found nothing politically objectionable. This may well be because lots of US movies get exported to Latin America, so the Pentagon are wary of supporting films containing racist stereotypes about Latin Americans. Whereas not many US films are exported to predominantly Arab and/or Muslim countries, so they don’t really care how Arabs and Muslims are portrayed. It’s possible that with Saudi Arabia now developing a domestic film market that things will change.
As a result, when the film was released it met with strong criticism from various Arab and Islamic organisations, objecting to the very negative images. The DOD’s file on Executive Decision includes some news clippings about this, including one that says eight changes were made to the film before it was released to the international markets and on video. I don’t know what these changes were, but I’d love to find out.
I’m not saying the Pentagon has a responsibility to remove racist stereotypes from movies, I’m saying they have the power to do so and they use it very selectively according to the politics of the day.
Executive Decision and 9/11
Another aspect to Executive Decision that is worth mentioning is how it paralleled the 9/11 attacks five years before they happened. While I find many of the claims about predictions of 9/11 to be fairly thin, this is a rare exception. For a lot of 9/11 conspiracy theorists, any film, TV show, cartoon, comic book or computer game that featured the World Trade Center, hijacked planes, attacks on skyscrapers or the number 9 followed by the number 11 constitutes a secret coded message about the 9/11 attacks. I think this is ridiculous.
Indeed, it’s a great example of just how stupid and poorly educated most conspiracy theorists are. I’ve yet to meet a single conspiracy theorist with any training in semiotics – the study of signs and symbols. I’ve met tons who obsess over numerology and claim that almost every number is a really important occult number. I’ve met tons who believe every triangle in every pop music video is an occult message to do with pyramids or whatever. But I’ve never met one who had bothered to read any of the theory behind semiotics.
There are many reasons why I find such interpretations to be idiotic. The first is that they are completely unfalsifiable. If someone claims that the number 1 is an important number in the occult, and then claims the number 2 is also very important, and the numbers 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 and 0 are also very important numbers, then what are they actually saying? They’re effectively saying that all numbers are equally important in occult traditions. In which case they might as well be saying absolutely nothing.
Likewise, when they see a triangle in a Katy Perry video and point to it as proof that pop culture is full of occult initiates sending coded messages to each other (or whatever), there’s no way to convince them that it’s just a triangle. Even if the production designer who put it there said there’s nothing special about it, the conspiracy theorist will claim that they’re just saying that to cover up for their secret masters in the Bilderberg group (or whatever). So this mode of interpretation is entirely based on emotion, primarily on suspicion, rather than on information that is sometimes applicable and sometimes not. There’s no falsifiability to conspiracy theories about the occult.
In many cases it goes much further than that, and the person doing the interpreting doesn’t even recognise that they are interpreting something. To them, the symbol inherently has some kind of occult power or significance. This is complete bullshit, because anyone with any background in semiotics knows that the relationship between signifier and signified is arbitrary. The symbols we use to represent things have no direct relationship with the things they are representing.
As such, a triangle in a pop music video is just a triangle. Everything else – about its meaning, significance, why someone might have chosen to put it there – is interpretation. There’s nothing inherent in a triangle that means it has to be interpreted in this way. Put another way, the occult is in the eye of the beholder. Nothing is inherently ‘occult’. And since ‘occult’ basically means ‘hidden’, it’s a contradiction in terms to say something is inherently occult, or to speak of ‘occult symbols’.
But rather than learn about the very theory on which their claims depend, conspiracy theorists would rather bypass all that out of sheer intellectual laziness and ignorance and move straight onto speculating as to why pop culture is full of ‘occult symbols’. They turn their own intepretations into established facts and then try to have a conversation about them. But since the whole process begins with an emotion – suspicion – and an emotion which they are pretending isn’t their motive for interpreting things in this way, all they end up doing is re-interpreting their own emotional state, which has nothing to do with symbols or pop music videos or any of it. It’s little more than narcissistic navel-gazing dressed up as political commentary.
Nonetheless, there are elements of Executive Decision that are worth highlighting. Islamic terrorists hijack a plane to try to force the US government to release the leader of their group. This directly parallels the August 2001 President’s Daily Brief from the CIA which talked about Bin Laden seeking to hijack planes within the US to secure the release of the Blind Sheikh. In the film the plot is a suicide attack designed to kill thousands of people, though the exact nature of the plot is unclear. At one point it is suggested that the terrorists will blow up the plane in mid-air, using the explosion to spread a stolen Russian nerve agent all over Washington DC. At other moments it is implied they will dive-bomb the plane into the city.
Then there’s the US military response. In the film the plane is coming across the Atlantic, giving the US more time to respond. As it approaches the Eastern seaboard they send up two Navy fighters on a NATO training exercise to intercept the flight, with the intention of shooting it down before it can strike its target. This evokes a very similar set of circumstances to what many people believe happened with United 93, that the US military shot it down over Pennsylvania. It also evokes the conspiracy theory about training exercises being used to hamstring the US Air Force’s response to the 9/11 hijackings.
There is also the element that some members of the terrorist gang who hijack the plane aren’t aware of its ultimate purpose. They believe they are doing a conventional hijacking where you land the plane at an airport and issue a list of demands. They don’t realise they are on a suicide mission. This also parallels the 9/11 attacks, where it seems many of the supposed hijackers weren’t told what was going to happen.
Indeed, the comparison is so obvious that when BBC did an episode of Panorama on how Hollywood warned the world that something like 9/11 was going to happen, they even asked Phil Strub about Executive Decision. Unfortunately I cannot find a copy of this episode of Panorama but the transcript is available on the BBC website. Strub was asked if, while working on the film, he ever thought ‘this could actually happen’. He denied this, saying:
We didn’t look at that picture with any kind of grand security concerns, nor did we believe that it in any way encouraged or gave any kind of encouragement to somebody who might in fact want to perpetrate an act of terrorism of that nature.
The interviewer then asked if he ever thought he should go tell the generals, just in case. Strub replied:
Well, no, no not really. I mean I… we approached that script with a pretty high degree of confidence that our senior leadership is looking at all types of possibilities in the area of terrorism and doing a far better job of it than we could, which is why we’re not doing it.
Of course, at the time the BBC was asking these questions it was not publicly known that the US military had not only conceived of this kind of attack but had repeatedly run training exercises to learn how to prevent it. So Strub was right, the Pentagon leadership didn’t need to be told anything.
Nonetheless there is an interpretation of this film, at it pertains to 9/11 and the resulting War on Terror, that I think is worth exploring. As I’ve highlighted before, Hollywood doesn’t make many war films these days, and war films have been declining for decades. In particular Hollywood makes virtually no conventional war films, where one nation’s military fights against another nation’s. Almost all of our contemporary and recent war films have been unconventional or irregular war movies, which conveniently matches up with a long-term shift in thinking by our military leadership.
We can take it back to the 1980s and the Reagan doctrine, whereby unconventional forces (guerilla armies, terrorists and so on) were used to fight the US’s wars in place of US troops. It’s not like the US Army or Marine Corps were fighting the Sandinistas in Nicaragua or the Soviets in Afghanistan, the Reagan doctrine mandated finding other people to do the US’s fighting for them. At the same time the Reagan White House embarked on a program to encourage more ‘pro-hero’ Hollywood movies, as a counterbalance to many Vietnam war movies which were very critical of the military, intelligence and political establishments.
Since then, Hollywood has come to specialise in unconventional and irregular warfare movies, whereby a small group or a lone hero works alongside local brown people to fight an enemy. Even fairly conventional TV series like The Last Ship frequently involve a small number of the ship’s crew going on a mission to liberate some indigenous people of wherever from a drug baron or the like. Meanwhile, the conventional sea battles are kept to a minimum.
So, this shift from conventional to unconventional war movies reflects the same shift from conventional to unconventional warfare in the thinking of our military leadership. Sometimes this is coincidental, at other times it appears quite deliberate.
Where things get especially interesting to me is where a movie about irregular warfare itself becomes a tool of irregular warfare, as is the case with Executive Decision. Whether by accident or by design the film predicted the 9/11 attacks and the post-9/11 War on Terror. Whether intentionally or otherwise, it helped establish this new kind of war, and helped normalise it in the eyes of Western audiences.
Going back to the definition of Irregular Warfare, it is ‘A violent struggle among state and non-state actors for legitimacy and influence over the relevant populations’. While the violence in the film is simulated, it nonetheless did promote the legitimacy of the US government and the US military to relevant populations, and as such the production and release of Executive Decision was an act of Irregular Warfare.