THE UNTOPPABLE STUNT

A problem that action-movie directors and terror-maestros have in common.

Years ago, in a film review or a profile in one of the papers, I read about a quandary that action film makers face but never talk about.

I don’t know if they have a private name for it, but they should; they should call it the Untoppable Stunt Problem.  It’s the problem of always having to find a new, improved Big Stunt — the biggest ever! — to thrill jaded audiences.  You know what I mean?  In the old days, it was enough to have cowboys and Indians chasing each other on horses, firing pistols and hooting loudly.  Then a serious one-upmanship took over, and by the 1980s, movie stunts had begun to venture ludicrously beyond the bounds of human ability and even physics.  Ever bigger stunts, and ever bigger explosions — to the point where the accidental deaths and injuries began to mount — in an ever more desperate effort to wring more juice from audiences’ overstimulated mesolimbic dopamine circuits.

It occurred to me, reading about Bin Laden and the plans he sketched out while holed up in Abbottabad, that he faced a very similar problem, namely how to out-do the mass killings, collapsing towers and general horrific spectactle of 9/11, so that Al Qaeda could stay relevant.

According to ABC News yesterday:  “Documents recovered by SEALs in raid details terrorist plots greater than 9/11.”

And the Guardian, among others, reported:

The al-Qaida leader was convinced that only a massive blood-letting on the scale of 9/11 would have the necessary shock factor to effect a change in US policy around the region. He told his followers that a sprinkling of smaller attacks would not have the desired effect.

Oddly enough, one of his fantasized targets was L.A.

Bin Laden seems to have had a reasonably good, directorly sense of what was logistically feasible and would look good on the TV screen.  According to the Daily Mail, “he appeared angry at a suggestion by the Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula that a tractor or farm vehicle could, suitably adapted, be used in an attack,” rejecting the “sadistic plot to fit rotating blades to a tractor and use it to ‘mow down the enemies of Allah'” — ostensibly because it would cause “indiscriminate slaughter” but more likely because it would have looked like something out of a cheapo slasher movie from the 70s (and would have required targets as dumb and immobile as one finds in those movies).

On the whole, though — and perhaps understandably, considering his conservatism — Bin Laden didn’t have the creativity (or the knack for managing creative types) to pull off bigger and bigger acts of terror.  But if someone else, more like Spielberg or James Cameron — or god forbid, Jerry Bruckheimer — were to take his place as commander of Al Qaeda, the West could be in serious trouble.


THE UNTOPPABLE STUNT