Chris Morris’ new film “Four Lions,” which attempts to satirize “homegrown” Jihadist terrorists in the United Kingdom, is a disappointing and distasteful fiasco.
Morris is best known as a British television current affairs satirist on programs such as “The Day Today” and “Brass Eye” who revels in controversial and edgy subjects. “Four Lions” premiered at the 2010 Sundance film festival, has done well at the box office and received considerable and largely positive attention in the United States and the UK. The theater in which I saw the film in Washington DC was sold out, and the audience appeared extremely receptive in spite of elements of working-class northern English and South Asian immigrant cultures that few Americans are familiar with.
“Four Lions” tells the story of four young British Muslims in Sheffield who have, for reasons the film does not explain, decided to embrace the ideology of Al-Qaeda and conduct terrorist acts in the UK. Two of the men, Omar and Waj, go to Pakistan for “mujahideen training,” during which they accidentally blow up a terrorist training camp.
The other two extremists are the particularly dimwitted Faisal and the most extreme and irrational of the group, Barry, an English convert. Their essential features, both as individuals and as a group, are extreme stupidity and incompetence, which do not prevent them from being very menacing. But at heart, this is just another version of the gang that couldn’t shoot straight. Inevitably, however, the four end up causing brutal mayhem at the London Marathon.
Since the film focuses on an extremely serious, important and under-analyzed (maybe even under-conceptualized) phenomenon, it should have been both funny and insightful. Unfortunately, it is neither.
That there are people like the ones depicted in the film is beyond question. That some of these people really are as bizarre and incompetent is also evident from counterterrorism surveillance and several spectacularly bungled attempted “homegrown” Jihadist attacks, particularly in the United States. The extremists, their radicalism and, in some cases their stupidity, are not only legitimate grounds for satire, they virtually scream for it. Yet “Four Lions” fails miserably both as a satire and as a critique.
It’s not really an Islamophobic movie, I hasten to add. The only aspect of the film that rings profoundly false and might be considered socially and politically objectionable is the representation of Omar’s young professional wife, not to mention his cheerful young son, as calmly and demurely supportive of his plan for suicidal terrorist mayhem. The record strongly suggests that such extremists go to great lengths to hide their plans not only from others in their Western Muslim communities broadly; but specifically also from family members including parents and spouses. I’m as skeptical about Omar’s wife representing a real phenomenon as I am convinced that he does.
Morris has said that he believes he has made “a good-hearted film,” but I don’t know how he could possibly think so. There’s nothing wrong with black comedy, at which the British excel, or gallows humor for that matter, but the image of a mentally challenged would-be terrorist suddenly exploding because he has wrapped himself in a homemade bomb and inadvertently collided with a sheep just isn’t that amusing. This is the most troubling thing about “Four Lions”: it sounds funny in theory, and it should be funny, but in practice it merely proves to be predictable, tedious and frequently repulsive.
The humor in the film, for those familiar with the evolution of British comedy, is mostly old-fashioned, drawing mainly from the Peter Cook tradition, especially the millennialist fools in his classic “The End of the World” sketch from the “Beyond the Fringe” review, which debuted in 1960. The voice of these “Jihadist British Muslims” is, in both tone and structure, pretty much indistinguishable from what was on offer at the Edinburgh Festival 50 years ago.
Morris has defended his script by pointing out that he has drawn some of his material from actual counterterrorism surveillance documents. No doubt that’s true. But I doubt that, ludicrous and disturbing as many of those conversations may be, they are anymore more entertaining or amusing than his film proves.
In the final analysis, satire has to have a point. “Four Lions,” insofar as I can tell, simply doesn’t. Yes, such people exist, and they’re frequently morons. Yes, ignorant, weird converts are often the most extreme ones (Barry keeps insisting that what they really should blow up is the local mosque to “radicalize the moderates”). Yes, the police are often equally cretinous, and occasionally perhaps equally ruthless. Yes, at a certain level political extremism proves in practice to be a sick joke. We knew all that already.
I watched Morris’ film carefully, and I just have no idea what, beyond such obvious and even undeniable banalities, he was really trying to communicate to his Western audiences. The danger with this kind of satire is that it trivializes a serious set of problems, and the payoff has to be insight or analytical clarity offsetting such trivialization. “Four Lions” tries much too hard to be edgy without ever actually asking any of the most difficult questions its subject matter begs. In the end, it’s as foolish and incompetent as are its own main characters.