Comedy has this way of getting you to drop your guard. Satire is particularly strong at telling the truth behind a story. No one does comedy and satire quite like the British, who coincidentally, have experienced decades of terrorism and internal strife. So who better to create Four Lions, a cheery, sneery, adoring, and loathing film about five idiotic but deadly earnest Muslim suicide bombers from Sheffield? Omar (the ringleader), Waj (strong and smart as an ox), Barry (the zealous and fiery "revert"), Faisal (the pathetic redshirt), and Hassan (the rapping joker playing a game that became real) are five men who have every intention of carrying out this murderous act, to wound the (perceived) enemies of Islam and radicalize the moderate Muslims to rise up against the West. Think Manuel from Fawlty Towers meets 24 and you're in firing range of Four Lions.
We enter into the film in the final days of their plot, as they attempt to make their jihadi videos, and two of them (Omar and Waj) get called to a training camp in Pakistan. After screwing up big time (pay attention to the end credits!), Omar and Waj are kicked out and returned to the UK. The crew must recalibrate and create their own deadly plan – suicide bombing the London Marathon.
As a comedy, the film is funny and extremely absurd – straight up, we both laughed at pretty much everything, and some of the stuff was note-perfect. (Watch the deleted scenes for more memorable lines.) Sure, the characters were more stereotype than archetype, but that's pretty forgivable for this film. It's a meditation on idiocy, not a character study. It was an entry at Sundance in January 2010, had a very small release in British theatres in May (initially only 115 screens, upped to 200, but still pulled in £3M), and only recently came to North America in November 2010. It's received loads of critical attention and acclaim (including 81% fresh at Rotten Tomatoes), but made strangely little noise here. It's being distributed in the US by Drafthouse Films (you can find out where it's playing now, and where it will be playing, on the main page of that site). One thing's for sure – this is a British film. There's no way a comedy like this could be made in America, and maybe that's one of the reasons it just hasn't made much of a splash – the sensitivities and sensibilities are just different. ["Plus the accents, idioms, and slang are pretty challenging, I think, to most North American ears. Thank God for subtitles. I had to watch it a second time with the subtitles on to catch all the dialogue and jokes. Even without the difficult subject matter, films like this are a hard sell in America." -- Deborah.]
One quick side note about our different sensibilities – where North Americans like to praise and defend freedom of speech when it meets our needs (see our article on Medal of Honor), note the comments of the sister of a woman who died in the 7/7 London suicide bombings who says, "I feel just because for me it's personally a sensitive subject that it's not something that shouldn't be tackled. It should be tackled and maybe this will provide a platform for some honest and upfront discussion." In the same article, a Muslim youth worker points out "[t]he moral of the story is that the Muslims are not the terrorists, it's the idiots that are the terrorists." and "[i]f Muslims get offended by terrorists having the mickey taken out of them, it just means they're attached to and they believe in that terrorism, so I don't think any Muslim should be offended by that."
As a statement against terrorism, Four Lions is not your average American "terrorists are bad" film. While four of the five suicide bombers are almost completely comic and two-dimensional, the de facto leader Omar manages to get in a full life, with a loving wife (Sofia), pre-teen son (Mahmood), and a deeply religiously observant brother (Ahmed). The film is filled with things we discussed late into the night, and Omar's relationship with his family was one of them. His family members all know about his plot; Sofia and Mahmood are loving and encouraging, and Ahmed is the only one making any effort to talk him out of it. The way Omar is lovingly encouraged to carry out his murderous plot by happy Sofia and the adoring (and adorable) Mahmood, the way they playfully banter and the Lion King-based stories Omar tells Mahmood about their plans all defy our stereotypical understanding of the terrorist as scary, isolated wack job.
Sofia is cast as modern, liberated, and not at all under Omar's thumb. She laughs, and defends her husband and herself with a squirt gun when his brother comes to talk him out of his plan. Later in the film, after an accident that leaves one of the group dead, Omar temporarily suspends the plan. Discussing it that night with Sofia, his sadness is evident; she says half-jokingly, "you were much more fun when you were gonna blow yourself up, love." Let's face it – some of these people have supportive families, and that might be the scariest part. If you truly believe that dying to defend the cause results in going to heaven as a martyr, then death should be a happy event. ["I am still struggling to make sense of Omar's family and their relationship to each other, and what director Morris was trying for here. If Omar is so worried about one of his wanna-be mujahideen cronies blowing their cover (justifiably so--they're all morons), why is he casually sharing his plans for a suicide mission with his young son? Children aren't typically known for their discretion. And it's not like he's terrorized his wife and child into silent obedience. In every respect save for the suicide mission, they have a normal, loving, warm, conventional, comfortable existence. Nothing about Sofia suggests that she holds radical ideology. I agree that those who believe in suicide martyrdom probably do welcome death as some sort of joyous achievement, but nothing in the portrayal of Sofia and Mahmood suggests they share these beliefs. I really am not sure what is going on here, and it was by far the most problematic part of the film for me." -- Deborah.]
My favourite part of the idiocy and delusions is when the egomaniacal and power-hungry Barry (who adopts the nom de Islam "Azzam Al-Britani" but can't get anyone to call him that) can justify any target or action by twisting all rationality into a pretzel and the weakest-minded cell members (i.e., everyone but Omar) all follow what he has to say--from bombing a mosque to "pushing a baked bean up the end of [their] knob[s]"--to demonstrate submission and dedication.
We had difficulty with the lack of justification presented for their terrorism. Yes, they're angry, yes there's a war in Iraq, in Afghanistan, oppression in Palestine, but most well-adjusted, comfortable people don't decide on suicide bombings. Maybe terrorist anger is the same as Tea Party anger – just anger, and the only perceived solution for their anger is escalating conflict and violence, because anything else would require communication, maturity, insight, sympathy, and empathy. ["Sorry, bro, that all smacks of effort." -- Deborah.] In other words, it's easier to punch someone than talk to them, and it's really easy to believe that someone else is the cause of all your problems. ["As director Chris Morris has said, 'Terrorism is about ideology but it’s also about doofuses.' This film is very heavy on exploring the 'doofus' part, and much lighter on the ideology part--although part of the commentary is definitely that their ideology, such as it is, is informed mainly by unfocused rage, piss-poor analysis and extremely confused politics." -- Deborah.]
Very few characters in the film aren't idiots, but every character is played 100% straight, even the spacey neighbour whom Hassan cluelessly invites into the secret flat and then might become a target for straight-up murder. Omar's brother Ahmed, who fails to talk Omar out of his plans, may have a solid intention, but he too is played for a fool because of his highly conservative tendencies. Even a co-worker of Omar's who runs marathons, and defends him in the end out of loyalty, goes on about talking to his legs. The best portrayal of idiocy, though, has got to be the police snipers at the London Marathon. Brilliant not only in their stupidity, but in their unwillingness to acknowledge the reality of what they've just done. ["Something that I think has been overlooked because of the controversies that overshadow this film is that Four Lions is actually quite an interesting exploration of male interaction--how men work together (or don't), how they relate under pressure, how they struggle for power, and so forth. There are only a couple of female characters in the film and other than Sofia, their roles are almost negligible. The focus is entirely on men's interactions and relations." -- Deborah.]
Here's the official trailer. (Click here to watch it on YouTube.)
See this movie if you can (and then come back here and comment on it -- we'd love to talk about it with more people). Four Lions is ultimately much bleaker than the trailer suggests, and one of the most uncomfortable comedies we've seen.