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I Watched 'The Rock', the 1996 Nicolas Cage Film that Helped Start the Iraq War

Some of the intelligence used to justify the invasion was taken from a trashy Hollywood movie.

Nicolas Cage in 'The Rock'

The Chilcot report into the Iraq War is a pretty boring text, one that probably won't be gracing many beaches this summer. So thank God for section 4.3, § 130, which queries some of the British intelligence on Iraqi chemical weapons that was used in the push for war, and which will be known to future generations as The Fun Bit. Chilcot writes that: "in early October, questions were raised with SIS [Secret Intelligence Service/MI6] about the mention of glass containers in the 23 September 2002 report. It was pointed out that: glass containers were not typically used in chemical munitions; and that a popular movie had inaccurately depicted nerve agents being carried in glass beads or spheres." That popular movie is, of course, 1996's The Rock, directed by none other than Michael Bay, in which Nicolas Cage and Sean Connery team up to fight a rogue general threatening mass destruction from his base in Alcatraz: a giddy, stupid, funny adventure, the piece of special effects-filled brain pap that started the Iraq War.

Annons

For some reason, this is mostly being treated as a kind of nostalgic joke – hey, millennials, remember the 90s? They're back, in war-of-aggression form! – or, at most, as an indictment of the security services, either so blinkered or so bloodthirsty that they'd happily pass on important war intel that clearly came from a Hollywood film. And yes, it's true: either Tony Blair was dumb enough to actually believe an intelligence report delivered by a sweaty and shouting Nicolas Cage, or he lied to us, and he's still lying to us now.

But the real importance seems to have been lost. If action movies can so totally reshape the world around us, if they can project their fictions into actual geopolitics, does it really make sense to say that this world we're living in is fully real? As Baudrillard observed of Apocalypse Now, "the war becomes film, the film becomes war, the two are joined by their common haemorrhage into technology." We're stuck in a Philip K. Dick novel, a fake reality that obliterates any chance of any firm ontological ground. And this isn't just any fake reality: we're living in a fake reality directed by Michael Bay, a world in which Michael Bay is a kind of accidental God. No wonder the past few decades have been so violent and stupid, no wonder so much of our world has been destroyed, no wonder so little of it has made any sense. He didn't mean to do this to us. He just wanted us to be entertained.

Annons

But never mind something as degraded and discredited as material reality – what about the film? What does the knowledge that the 1996 Nicolas Cage thriller The Rock materially contributed to the Iraq War do to our enjoyment of it as a piece of cinema? Can it still be simple stupid fun, despite leading to the deadliest war of the 21st century, or is it tainted now? Is it still possible to enjoy Nic grunting and screaming his way from one contrived chase scene to another as if nothing had happened, or will every whine set off car bombs? If you watch it now, will it reveal strange dimensions, bonus scenes from distant and blasted lands that you didn't remember in the original, the wail of nasheeds where you'd expected a heroic, cinematic thump? Will Isis parade through the unfocused background on a sunny San Francisco day? Does Saddam Hussein's face, bloated and terrible, leer accusingly from its balcony? Can there really be no cinema after Fallujah? There's only one way to find out: to watch the 1996 action spectacular The Rock all over again, to read, with trembling hands, the bible of our new world.

The strangest thing about The Rock is that the baddies are all American. But then this is 1996, slap-bang in the middle of that strange decade when history briefly put itself in abeyance, culture turned itself into a mess of gurning primary colours, and the United States had no real external enemies. At the start of the film, Nicolas Cage's FBI chemical weapons specialist (opening line: "First of all, it's because I'm a Beatlemaniac") disarms a sarin gas bomb, disguised as a child's doll by a gang of nefarious offscreen Serbian immigrants. Serbia, a poor and shrinking country on the unregarded fringes of Europe: this is our foreign threat. It's all child's play; the American hyperpower fighting its wars in an enchanted toyland.

Annons

So the baddies are Americans, and not just Americans, but American soldiers. Except they're not really baddies. All of Michael Bay's films are shot through with an instinctive militarism – this guy really respects the Brave Boys; he lionises them with a cloying, masochistic libidinality; he'd let these big burly men of action stamp on his puny head until it popped like a grape, so long as they promised to maintain an expression of dignified resolve while doing it. In The Rock, our villain is a rogue Marine Corps general, whose unit seizes a stockpile of chemical rockets, takes control of Alcatraz Island, and promises to wipe out the city of San Francisco if his demands are not met – and throughout Bay keeps on trying to convince us of the man's good personal qualities, hinting subtly at first but with increasing clamour that he was right to do all this.

He's doing it because the men under his command, a highly secret covert operations unit, didn't receive public honours when they died in combat, as if that wouldn't defeat the whole point of a highly secret covert operations unit – but the government agents trying to stop the man can't decide if he's a "legend", a "hero", or only a "man of honour". "God knows I agree with you," says a SWAT commander, shortly before being brutally cut down by machine-gun fire. Even the President gets into the act: "We have ignored, abandoned, and marginalised a great soldier," he says. What he means is: I don't deserve to govern! Bring in martial law! Tanks on the streets! Let the big army men run everything; it'll be a thuggish dictatorship, but that's what we want! You can almost see the Bush presidency and all its attendant horrors taking shape, like the liquid-metal Terminator reconstituting itself, right before your eyes.

Annons

Of course, our Nic Cage/Sean Connery odd couple aren't the villains either – how could they be, when they keep wisecracking at each other? The real villains are inanimate objects, which are always malign but superable. First, the missiles, green and ominous and uncomfortably phallic, blistering with their deadly spermatozoa. Cage disarms them by reaching an arm through the draperies of poison-filled beads and pulling out the rocket's guidance chip; it comes out with a little castrated clunk. Getting rid of WMD is so easy, you just need to believe in yourself. But the evil of the missiles spreads everywhere. Why does Alcatraz, a prison island, include a huge cavern complete with a clattering rollercoaster-like rail and perilous mining trolleys? Why does a tourist attraction in the San Francisco Bay feature a narrow passage which can be crawled through, but only if you dodge spinning blades and bursts of fire that explode every few seconds despite having no actual function? Because physical reality is out to get you. And in a way, this was the logic that was deployed for the Iraq War: we weren't invading a country, we were fighting weapons of mass destruction, only objects; we could love people even as we killed them by the thousand, because our cause was just. Which made it hard to enjoy The Rock so much the second time round: this is a film at war with the entire universe. And it's winning.

Annons

@sam_kriss

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