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It was the metaphor that hit everyone in the eye, the one that a handful of observers dared to come out and say. Yet to even think it made you feel a little crummy. It wasn’t just that the cataclysmic horror of 9/11 “looked like a movie.” It was that it looked like an over-the-top flying-metal-and-fireball action movie, the Die Hard/Jerry Bruckheimer kind, the kind that our whole culture has been addicted to since the 1980s. That perception of 9/11 as big-screen-action-disaster-gone-real, widespread though it was, seemed rather indefensible at the time, because to say it, or even to think it, risked trivializing the devastation — the human horror, the scar to our national psyche — that occurred on that terrible day. Yet 9/11, there’s almost no denying it, did live in our minds like a giant motion picture, and part of what made it so wasn’t simply the vastness, the sheer terrifying spectacle, of the tragedy. It was that behind it lay a villain of nearly mythological proportion.

When you think about it, there haven’t been too many real-life villains — at least, over the last 100 years — who have attained that level of morbidly scary curiosity, the status that makes for a human scoundrel who enters and shapes the collective unconscious. Adolf Hitler, clearly, is the most mythological figure of evil in our time. The psycho-madman equivalent — call him Hitler on a serial-killer scale — is Charles Manson. Beyond the infinite horror of both their deeds, there always loomed the dark fascination of their images, the outrageous and undeniable charisma that allowed them to lure followers into what were essentially religious death cults. I may be leaving someone out (you could make a case for Jim Jones, the sunglassed Pied Piper of Kool-Aid), but I think it’s safe to say that Osama bin Laden may well be remembered as the only mass murderer of our time who can take his place on that mythological Dark Olympus of human monsters, right alongside Hitler and Manson.

History has had a lot of bad guys. You could argue that al-Qaeda has had several leaders, like Ayman al-Zawahiri and Khalid Sheik Mohammed, every bit as bad as Osama bin Laden. But bin Laden will always be our larger-than-life Bad Guy — a placid-eyed, beatifically bearded, soft-spoken icon of terrorism who, in the disquieting serenity of his presence, seemed to be coming from a place more violent than we could have imagined. It’s not just that he committed homicide on a scale almost unimaginable. Sitting in front of his caves, in a turban and green Army jacket (how punk!), making the taped missives that Maureen Dowd called “his rock videos,” he seemed completely at peace with murder. That’s what was terrifying about him, and what made him seem grand enough to be an epic figure of evil. It happens in the movies all the time, but in real life, it isn’t often that we get to say goodnight to the bad guy.

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A little over a week ago, I wrote a column, hooked to Robert Redford’s ambitious but dozy The Conspirator, saying that I was tired of 9/11 message movies, the kind that specialize in telling liberals what they already know. (It’s not that I don’t buy the politics of these films; it’s that I don’t buy the attempt to churn drama out of curdled headlines.) But Osama bin Laden’s death makes me think that he could now be the focal point of a great dramatic feature, one that has the excitement, the informational density, the suspenseful grip on the ratlike underground of global politics to show us how contemporary espionage really works. The movie would be all about the hunt for bin Laden, and, if executed right, it could do for the C.I.A. what All the President’s Men did for newspapers. (The C.I.A. needs it now a lot more than newspapers did then.)

The way I envision it, the film — directed by Oliver Stone? David Fincher? Nikki Finke has posted an item that says that Kathryn Bigelow began casting a film about the hunt for bin Laden several weeks ago — would cross-cut between the painstaking search for bin Laden and the mystery that many of us have been so curious about: how, exactly, he survived and evaded capture, what he thought and felt and talked about in his various hideouts, whether stone-caveish or palatial. It would be about getting a close-up look at the monster, to know all the more what he — and jihad — are made of. It could be the one truly vital movie to come out of 9/11 apart from United 93. It could also be the first one to leave us with a sense of victory as profound as our loss.

Follow Owen on Twitter: @OwenGleiberman

All the President's Men
  • Movie
  • 138 minutes