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Pajiba Storytellers: Osama bin Laden

Storytellers is an ongoing attempt to tease out bits of history or literature that would make damned good films. Because if we throw enough ideas out there, Hollywood might accidentally make something good.

In the prologues to their respective biographies of Adolf Hitler, John Toland and William Shirer both meditate on the motivation behind writing the life story of a force of evil. The strength and weakness of biography is that it tends to be an intrinsically humanizing light. Great men are shown to have flaws, tyrants are shown to have their reasons. But some crimes are so great that the perpetrators do not deserve a humanizing light, and it seems right that those who would cast the world in black and white should not receive the benefit of a biography that explores all the nuances of shades of gray. The danger of such a biography is that in explaining atrocity we at least partly excuse it.

But what Toland and Shirer both conclude is that biographies of terrible men should not only be written, but they should be written contemporaneously, not from the distance of centuries once the survivors have faded into history. The biographer in this case is the debriefer of society, not the one who explains why this man did terrible things, for that question of the source of evil is for the priests and psychologists, but to explain how these things happened. The biographer cannot always seek to understand why a particular man was evil, for there will always be evil men whether mad or sane, but to comprehend how such a man could gain the resources, followers, and opportunities to shift the axis of the world.

A film about Osama bin Laden will be made, probably in the next five years. That’s how long it took for studios to put together World Trade Center and United 93, but the films that arise from his death will be an altogether different breed. Those previous films capitalized on emotional resonance, on retelling events everyone already knew in order to spark an emotional reaction in viewers based upon their own memories. That same film tactic doesn’t work with bin Laden’s death.

Kathryn Bigelow had a movie in pre-production about the hunt for bin Laden, which has now been put on hold pending reworking, presumably because the ending has changed. There’s an easy picture there, a remaking of Munich except with the introspection surgically excised. Shots of the fateful day, falling just short at Tora Bora, and then the long middle part of the film as the detective story is followed and the trail grows ever colder, until operatives follow a certain courier. Helos and a fire fight, night vision green and shaky cams, a double tapped body carried back into the night sky and given to the sea. The fade to black as the President begins to speak, silent credits roll.

That’s the easy film and it is not the film that Bigelow should make. 9/11 should not be the beginning of the film, but near the end, perhaps at the two-thirds mark.

The story that needs told is not how the son of a self-made billionaire turned his back on the best education money could buy to embrace a vision of beating the world into his hellish notion of religious paradise. That’s just Paris Hilton with fanaticism instead of alcoholism. Apocalyptic cult leaders who are comfortable sending others to die all while preaching a new world order as relevant as the Flat Earth Society are so common that it’s trite. There’s no story there that we haven’t already heard and rolled our eyes at. Trust fund fascists are the same rotten fruit, whether they’re thumping a Koran or rocking jackboots.

But that’s not the entire story. If it was, bin Laden wouldn’t even be a footnote in history. The bone of the story that catches in the throat is the same one that does with every other malignant leader throughout history. It’s not the madmen who are the mystery, it is the people who enable and follow them. That’s the story that a director with real vision would bring to the screen. That’s a story of introspection, of looking into the darkness with a purpose other than humanizing the monster.

It’s a story that could yield to ingenious technique. Do not cast an actor as bin Laden. He is not the main character in his own story, the people who allowed him to be relevant are. By always leaving him just off screen while weaving the story, of following the hangers-on and suppliers of funds and weapons, we can explore the causes without justifying the man.

It’s too much to believe that we will ever live in a world without evil men, but it’s just within the realm of possibility that we might yet live in world in which no one follows them.

Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at You can email him here.

Steven Lloyd Wilson is the sci-fi and history editor. You can email him here or follow him on Twitter.

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