HALFTIME REPORT: Four Lions (2010)

With Halftime Report, your good friends at SportsAlcohol.com revisit some of their favorite films from the first half of this decade.

It’s become part of the conventional wisdom about Paddy Chayefsky’s great 1976 satire Network that modern viewers will miss the comic exaggeration in its depiction of a craven and amoral American media landscape. The darkly absurd predictions it makes about ratings-hungry producers and networks have been rendered commonplace (or even quaint) by reality in the last four decades. I had this in mind when sitting down to watch the woefully under seen terrorism comedy Four Lions again for the first time in a few years. I figured the character comedy would still work, but I wondered if the recent horrifying attack in Paris and incredible brutality of ISIS, along with their bizarre success in recruiting westerners, would render the film’s group of buffoonish Al-Qaeda dead-enders similarly quaint or outdated.

Luckily (or very sadly, really), the film is as relevant (and hilarious AND scary) as ever. While he grounds it in political reality that leaves it slightly dated in the (however recent) past, with references to Al-Qaeda and training camps in Pakistan, writer and director Chris Morris is much more focused on exploring the character of his jihadists than their politics. Morris was apparently moved to research the kinds of people involved in the current wave of terrorism simply as a way to try and understand recent history, but he realized he might have an approach to tell a story when he came across multiple stories indicating the young men in question weren’t evil masterminds or super-competent soldiers, but basically the same mix of idiots and assholes you might find in any bar or frat house (he talked about a wiretapped conversation he’d heard between some young jihadis seriously debating who was cooler, Osama bin Laden or Johnny Depp). With this approach, and by making his terrorists the main characters of the film as opposed to a shifty foreign threat skulking around the story’s periphery, Morris also set a very tricky task for himself.

For my money, he pulls it off, but the degree of difficulty feels even higher now than when the movie came out. Basically, to be palatable as a comedy (and this is a real comedy, replete with very funny banter, wordplay, and slapstick) in a world where bombers have just murdered another 130 people, it has to succeed in three areas.

  1. It has to be funny. Check.
  2. It has to be smart. Morris has this covered with some sharp satirical points, both about the methods and goals of his terrorists (think the repeated debate about the efficacy of bombing a mosque, or the interesting dynamic between the seemingly more Westernized Omar and his more devout, and peaceful, brother) and the response by Western governments, illustrated in an escalating series of dark comic interludes as the movie goes on (including a pre-Sherlock Benedict Cumberbatch as a tone deaf hostage negotiator), leaving innocent people dead or ruined as they scramble to appear in control.
  3. It has to take the threat and repercussions of terrorism seriously. This is perhaps what really sets the movie apart and keeps it from feeling irresponsible. Morris and company manage the feat of keeping laughs coming even as the film slides toward (and doesn’t really back down from) real tragedy. There’s a palpable dread that settles over the film, particularly in the back half as the characters get closer to planning an attack that feels particularly chilling after recents events. The film doesn’t shy away from the horror of what these guys are doing, but it also can’t help but engender some sympathy for Omar and his buddies. Even as their actions grow more hateful (and slightly inscrutable in Omar’s case, since there’s a level on which we just can’t understand why a guy we kind of like would do something so monstrous), it’s hard to shake the feeling that the men themselves are recognizable in any culture.

Four Lions was already something of a tonal tightrope act when it was originally released, and it grows more challenging after every atrocity committed in the amorphous “War on Terror.” It doesn’t really function as a balm in hard times, but Morris is successful at doing something like Mel Brooks did with “Springtime for Hitler” in The Producers, exposing a boogeyman as having  human failings and foibles, rendering the mythic pathetic (and amusing).