Saturday, 7 March 2015

Airplane Hijackings in the Wake of 9/11

Contrary to popular belief, terrorism is not a recent idea introduced by radicals in the Middle East. It has a long and complicated history that spans centuries and a variety of different cultures. Even Canada has produced terrorist groups like the Front de libération du Québec, who were responsible for the October Crisis of 1970 in which their kidnapping of two politicians led to Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau to invoke the War Measures act, placing Montreal under military jurisdiction. Most people who lived through it say that it was not a pleasant memory.

In any case, terrorism emerged as a popular subject matter for the modern action movie after the success of Die Hard, ironic considering the villains of that film were not so much terrorists as they were thieves disguising a heist as a terrorist operation to confuse and manipulate the authorities. The success of Die Hard led to a wave of imitators, some of which would introduce actual terrorists as the villains. This led to the introduction of the "Die Hard on an X" film, an unintended subgenre of the action film that came from many 90's action films imitating the basic premise of Die Hard (similar to what happened with Halloween and the slasher film).

It did not take long for filmmakers to realize that the claustrophobic and often crowded environment of an airplane lent itself to tense situations and a variety of dangers. Only four years after Die Hard, the movie Passenger 57 was released, which put Die Hard on a commercial airplane. This was followed by several more "Die Hard on a plane" movies, such as Executive Decision, Con Air, and Air Force One. All of these films centered on an airplane hijacking, something that seemed like a good setup for an action movie at the time. That was until September 11, 2001, when that very scenario led to the destruction of the World Trade Center. That was when people started to take terrorist actions a lot more seriously, and after that there weren't as many airplane hijacking films.

As a result of this event, now known as 9/11, the plots of many of these early airplane hijacking films, with the possible exception of Con Air, become a bit harsher with hindsight. This is especially noteworthy in Executive Decision, which in many ways unknowingly foreshadows the tragic events that would happen a years later. The villains are a group of Islamic extremists with a strong disliking towards the American government, already calling to mind the work of Osama Bin Laden and the image of terrorism that would come to dominate the media. However, as the protagonists (a group of special forces men accompanied by an engineer and CIA analyst) start to learn more about the villains' intentions, they begin to show a clearer and increasingly disturbing resemblance to 9/11.

As the heroes discover, the agenda involves using the plane to cause a massive amount of destruction on American soil that, if successful, would kill millions of innocent people. The only difference is that instead of crashing into a skyscraper, the tactic invoked by the villains of Executive Decision involves setting up a bomb on the plane that will detonate when it lands. However, that too becomes much harsher when one realizes that their entire scheme is basically a mass-suicide bombing, something that would also become very familiar to a public bearing a new found fear of terrorism.

As a result, airplane hijackings become a far less popular topic for action cinema, and indeed movies in general. Still, airplanes make a great environment for tense narratives for a variety of reasons. They are usually a claustrophobic by design, and are often very crowded. There is also a sense of being trapped that comes when a plane is in flight, as the massive height prevents any escape, and an added sense of danger comes with the possibility of something forcing the plane down. Filmmakers still wanted to explore just how dangerous air travel can be, but hijackings were now out of the question. Instead, action films had to find new ways of creating the same tensions without potentially offending their viewers.

Red Eye provides a perfect example of this out of the box thinking. While it clearly draws inspiration from the airplane hijacking films of the 90's, it takes a new approach to drawing tension out of the same environment. Instead of hijacking the airplane, the basic formula is inverted. The villain is on board the airplane with a political agenda, but unlike the antagonists of Passenger 57, Executive Decision, or Air Force One, his plan has nothing to do with the plane itself. He has no intention of disrupting the flight (and in fact on several occasions takes measures to keep the plane on its scheduled route) but rather one passenger, Lisa. The claustrophobic tension subsequently comes from Lisa being stuck sitting next to the villain and also being the only one aware of his true intentions. no attempt at a hijacking occurs, nor is any destruction inflicted on the plane itself, yet that same tension rises in a new way.

The one exception to the 90's cycle of airplane hijackings was arguably Con Air. Unlike Executive Decision and Air Force One, the villains were not actually terrorists but escaped convicts taking over a prison plane. Their motives fit more in line with the traditional Die Hard formula, in which the antagonists are seen as a home grown threat (both of 2013's "Die Hard in the White House" films being an exception). In Speed Dennis Hopper's character is essentially a psycho who uses money as an excuse to commit violent acts. Hans Gruber of Die Hard is a thief pretending to be a terrorist (in one scene, he tries to "negotiate" with the police, demanding random members of unrelated terrorist groups be released and after naming one pauses to remark "I read about them in Time magazine"). Similarly, in Con Air, the antagonists are a group of prisoners organizing an elaborate escape plan that involves taking over their plane. No political ties are brought up, just evading recapture.

This same approach can be seen in the more recent incarnations of the "Die Hard on a plane" structure, perhaps most notably in Non-Stop. In many ways it draws on the Die Hard formula, although updated with modern technology in mind (the radio/telephone conversations prominent in older "Die Hard on an X" films are replaced with text messages). It also reflects a major social change in how it approaches the subject of airplane hijackings. Much as in the traditional "Die Hard on an X" formula, the villains are treated as homegrown enemies, specifically soldiers upset with their government (similar to, though better handled than, the renegade soldiers led by Ed Harris in The Rock).  Similar to Dennis Hopper in Speed (and by extension, Scorpio in Dirty Harry, a likely inspiration) they perform violent acts but use money as an excuse). In that sense, it is essentially an inversion of Hans Gruber's plans in Die Hard. Whereas Hans disguised a heist as a terrorist operation, the villains of Non-Stop disguise a terrorist operation as blackmail.

However, much like Hans Gruber, the plan used by the villains of Non-Stop is made counting on the presence of Air Marshal Bill Marks and with an understanding of how the airline would respond to the situation in order to manipulate them appropriately. Charles Rane of Passenger 57, Nagi Hassan of Executive Decision, and Ivan Korunov of Air Force One are all able to take the passengers and flight crew by surprise because they were working in a very different time when terrorism and airplane hijackings, while not unknown, were not a widely recognized issue. That changed with the tragedy at the World Trade Center, and Non-Stop was made in an era where the public in general, and airlines even more so, take these issues far more seriously.

Instead of having the villains reveal themselves early on by pulling out guns, the plan instead falls upon exploiting the airline's (not unjustified) procedures in dealing with hijackings. This means that while there is a terrorist operation going on, the villains themselves remain hidden. Their plan depends on manipulating protagonist Bill Marks by making him look like the terrorist (when in fact, he is the one trying to save the plane), stirring up confusion and distrust among the passengers. They even manage to frame it so that everyone outside the plane also becomes convinced that he is the one responsible for the hijacking.

It is curious how one event, especially a tragic one that killed so many people, can mark such a drastic change in how film approaches a topic like this. In the 90's, airplane hijackings were seen as a great premise for an action film, usually ones that ended with the "terrorists" getting taken out by the hero in a spectacular fashion. After 2001, people began to realize how serious an issue it really was, and suddenly it didn't seem like such a great source of entertainment anymore. Executive Decision presumably never meant to predict a future tragedy, it was simply intended to be an exciting adventure. Wolfgang Petersen went on record to say he would probably not have made Air Force One after the attacks on the World Trade Center.

These early airplane hijacking films are products of another culture, another time. They are a glimpse into the different views of the past, made by people who failed to realize how serious an issue. The changes that follow in later films such as Red Eye and Non-Stop are visual demonstrations of society's changing views on a single issue. By looking at these patterns and studying them in the political context of the time in which they are made, we can see how one real-life tragedy changed the world's perspective on a single issue.


  1. This is an excellent write up and I never gave it much thought but you are quite right in your assessment. It will take quite a while before these type of films, based on an airplane, will take place again. It will happen but memories will have to begin to fade and, sadly, they will. You know, I was only 6 yrs old when the kidnapping and killing happened in Quebec but I remember it! It scared me and I felt great sadness when I learned Pierre La Porte was murdered. The FLQ was a real presence during the 70's which created anxiety in many of us

    1. Yeah, that's normal for the impact of these kinds of things to fade over time. People still remember the Titanic disaster as a tragedy, but seeing as very few (if indeed any) people are still alive who actually experienced it, hearing about it doesn't leave quite the same impact it did in 1912. I wasn't even born when the FLQ were operating in Quebec, most of my knowledge of the October Crisis comes from other people's accounts and Canadian history textbooks.

  2. 9/11 changed film making across the board. For instance, scenes in airports became completely different and took on added importance in all genres. In action flicks, American ones at least, Islamic extremists replaced Russians as the most common type of villain. Movies in general just have a different outlook on the world and many still reference it directly. As far as post-9/11 plane movies go, '05's Flight Plan starring Jodie Foster also comes to mind. Instead of a politically motivated terrorist, Foster is trying to find her son who was kidnapped while she slept and hidden somewhere on the plane. Tension is created in a different way. Excellent, thought provoking post, John.

    1. I've never seen Flightplan, though from what I've heard it does sound like it could be interesting. Passengers is another one that draws on that same sort of situation to a lesser extent, with the focus being instead on the aftermath of the crash and a cover-up by the airline which may or may not be happening.