Some movies become classics for all the wrong reasons. 2010’s Four Lions, the British terrorist spoof about a crew of bumbling would-be bombers, still rattles in my mind whenever terrorism hits the news. ISIL/ISIS attacks on Brussels, gunmen in Mali, and continued atrocities in Turkey plague innocent people while those unaffected battle responses ranging from complacent abstractions (“Thoughts and prayers to #Brussels”) to exploitative grandstanding (“Build a wall”). The great strength of Four Lions is its response to extremism: laughter.
Successfully wielded in the Ku Klux Klan scene in Quentin Tarantino’s 2012 Western Django Unchained, there is no more effective way to remove the power of hate than by reframing that hate as complete incompetence. Never shying from the dangerous reality – guns and horseback lynch mobs retain their flame-licked horror – Tarantino understands that the true power stems from a fearful response, so he makes his terrorists buffoons with ill-cut hoods. Four Lions’ jihadists don goofy costumes to run in the London Marathon, even weightier post-Boston. Weight meeting levity, the unwieldy, fuzzy, primary-colored disguises mash pop culture with terror in a way both provocative and utterly silly when a police sniper accidentally flattens an innocent Wookie – ultimately cleansing the palate, if not the mind.
The film, written and directed by often audacious satirist Chris Morris, doesn’t just follow Omar (Riz Ahmed), Waj (Kayvan Novak), Barry (Nigel Lindsay), and Faisal (Adeel Akhtar) scrubbed clean of politics, removing their characters’ motivations and incentives. The four aspire to jihad not for religion (well, Barry – the white convert to Islam – does, but he also says that people playing stringed instruments is a sign of the end of days), but for a strange, sad, pathetic glory. Four Lions makes its characters relatable while their ignorant impulses towards violence stem from stupid, petty irrationality (often backfiring almost immediately). They are not to be feared, but to be discouraged through mockery.
We can laugh because the idiocy runs deeper than pure slapstick, though rocket misfires and clumsy explosives handling generate their fair share of chuckles. Many laughs come from how misguided and sympathetic the terrorists are. Whether they’re singing “Dancing in the Moonlight” during a car ride, referencing 2Pac in freestyle raps, or ranting about the practicalities of fast food purchases, the same desperate doofuses that would bomb a mosque in order to “radicalize the moderates” live like us on our dumbest days. This cinematic terrorist is much different than the mythologized televised terrorist. They are tragic figures, pitiable and powerless – laughing at them allows us to light a candle in the darkness rather than shout defiantly, yet powerlessly.
The best humor, however, comes from the jabs at the aftermath – fertile ground for biting critique that lasts far longer and has the potential to do far more harm than the initial attacks. The final scene reveals that the police have arrested Omar’s innocent Muslim brother as a terrorist, ready to torture him based on nothing more than a beard, a bloodline, and a shared religion. That’s one reactionary side that never fails to rear its head, even more notable during campaign season. The news segment at the end of Four Lions exemplifies part of our culture’s immediate reaction to terrorist attacks: the “I told you so” claims of pithy prognostication. GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump’s itchy trigger finger to ban Muslims from America gleefully piles the bodies of victims into the furnace powering his hateful campaign machine. “They’re coming in by the thousands and just watch what happens,” Trump said, referencing immigrants in the wake of the attacks in Brussels, “It won’t be pretty”. Four Lions ends with a bleakly funny press conference with a similar line of logic, during which an MP explains that the police shot the right man (they didn’t), while the wrong man exploded (not true).
Put in harsh relief with other forms of tragedy, terrorism is the only occurrence where there is a less helpful response than millions of changed Facebook profile pictures and/or political prayers. The intangible promise of “thoughts and prayers” is innocuously ineffective when compared to the hate-mongering generated when someone can shout that they were right.
But when people hurt in the wake of senselessness and violence, catharsis and release don’t come from vengefulness, but digging through the rubble to find ludicrous, absurd hope. Mocking our fears, our offenders and attackers, frees us from emotional paralysis. It’s all too easy to feel numbed by tragedy, or disheartened to the point of climbing onboard an adjacent line of rhetoric. Some may balk at blackly humorous satire as a form of mourning or a way to deal with terrorism in general, but it’s much healthier than emotionally lethargic inaction or meeting hate with hate.