Osama Bin Laden’s Hollywood ending

Studio 360

This story was originally covered by PRI’s Studio 360. For more, listen to the audio above.

By Kurt Andersen

From the beginning it was like fiction. The world’s most famous skyscrapers vaporized by two hijacked airliners. The phrase you heard over and over again was: “it seemed just like a movie.” Yes, but the implausible opening sequence of a bad action movie — spectacular destruction orchestrated by a rich, smirking super-villain from his fortified mountain lair halfway around the world.

We went to Afghanistan in pursuit of Osama bin Laden and his allies. President Bush sounded like a tough-talking John Wayne when he said we would “smoke them out of their holes.” But the evil mastermind disappeared, except for the occasional taunt beamed back to civilization. He remained free as many of us stopped hoping. 

And now it is like genre fiction once again — the same movie with an implausible, stunning final scene. A super-elite team of commandos swoop in after midnight. The President of the United States watches with the Secretary of State (his former opponent) on live video at the White House Situation Room. Finally the president speaks: “We got him.”

The only thing missing was Jodie Foster giving a thumbs up to Denzel Washington.

This is not the way the bin Laden story seemed to be heading. Instead, it had been proceeding like so many of the TV series and movies that have riveted us in the last decade — The Sopranos, Deadwood, The Wire, Dark Knight, No Country for Old Men — in all their different genres, these are stories that ended without reassurance. The bad guys more or less got away with it. We’ve almost gotten used to being unsettled and disappointed. 

But this story ended the old-fashioned way — surprisingly, dramatically, and unambiguously. This helps explain why Jack Bauer — the super-heroic counter-terrorist operative from the TV show 24 — has been trending on Twitter.

I think last weekend’s finale felt so satisfying because it was so familiar. We’ve read this novel, watched this show, seen this movie. And it turns out the bad guys also knew how to play their part. The great journalist Lawrence Wright reported that Al Qaeda trainees watched Hollywood action blockbusters and Schwarzenegger movies to see how hijackings are done. 

Did they not watch all the way through and see how those movies end?

Life sometimes imitates art — but only briefly. Reality, unlike fiction, is an infinite murky mess. Happy endings unravel. Black and white moral clarity turns gray. In the real world, we don’t just walk out of the theater. That’s life.


PRI’s Peabody Award-winning “Studio 360 with Kurt Andersen” from WNYC is public radio’s smart and surprising guide to what’s happening in pop culture and the arts. Each week, Kurt Andersen introduces you to the people who are creating and shaping our culture. Life is busy — so let “Studio 360” steer you to the must-see movie this weekend, the next book for your nightstand, or the song that will change your life.

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