Chris Morris was one of my cultural heroes. I pored over recordings of On the Hour and his shows for Radio 1; The Day Today and Brass Eye were watertight satires of the language of news media. Blue Jam (plus its televisual progeny Jam) proved that comedy could be beyond edgy – it could be terrifying if you listened to it in the dark with headphones on, a truly groundbreaking, nightmarish hybrid of horror, ambient music and sketch comedy that might have been known as his crowning achievement if it hadn’t been deliberately hidden away in a late-night slot so that it could squat menacingly on the border between dreams and waking. Morris can, without exaggeration, lay claim to having helped change the way the makers of news media regard themselves and speak to us. His mockery of the self-important gigantism of newsy rhetoric was so precise, so powerful that it became difficult to deal in such bombast without irony, and his refusal to give interviews or answer to his critics even during the most frenzied moments of his censorship wrangles only added to the mystique and bolstered the credibility of a man who had opted out of second-tier commentary on his work: if there was almost no studies of Morris’ work, it wasn’t because it wasn’t important – it was such a lucid, categorical body of satirical essayis, that it needed nobody to step in to explain it. Did I mention that it was all really funny? Because that usually helps. I didn’t think so much of Nathan Barley, his collaboration with Charlie Brooker, not because it didn’t have some great jokes, but because it made fun of a certain kind of vacuous media twat that was so self-evidently objectionable as to require no further comment. It was fun to mock Nathan and his idiot ilk, but the show had none of the necessity of his earlier shows that slipped inside the news format and bent it out of shape from within.
Here endeth the hagiography. I just wanted to say that I really wanted to like Four Lions. I wanted it to be the next stage in the glittering career of an artist I had long admired. And I did enjoy it. And it does mark a new Morrisian age. But I have a few reservations.
Four Lions is a tale of a group of British jihadis (or, more properly, mujahideen) who plot a suicide mission to blow up civilians to send a message to a decadent society. The story follows their increasingly strained relationships as they plan their mission, argue over targets and stumble over the practicalities of acquiring the materials for their explosive acts. Their all-round incompetence at carrying out these preparations provides the comic bedrock that distracts temporarily from the horror what they have in mind; it seems at times that they themselves have little cognisance of what is coming, like bereaved relatives who paper over their grief with catering arrangements for a funeral.
At first glance, Four Lions looks like another in a long line of sentimental British comedies in which marginalised groups of (usually) working-class (mostly) men attempt to assuage their disenfranchisement by forming a group that will perform a creative act that asserts their independence, agency and self-worth – see Brassed Off, The Full Monty, Lucky Break or, for slightly different takes on the same concept, Billy Elliot and Calendar Girls. They all have to do something physically demanding or potentially humiliating to reclaim their identities and jolt themselves out of difficult circumstances. On one level, Four Lions gathers poignancy by slotting into this template, with suicide bombing just another performance for which the protagonists need to rehearse so that they can, as they articulate it, get to a better place. But this may also be its greatest subversion, getting unsuspecting cinemagoers to root for people who want to kill innocent bystanders, simply by mapping their story onto a conventional narrative trajectory. Our muscle memory tells us to support non-conformists who want to live out their dreams. And while your brain is getting into the groove of learned behaviours, you’re chuckling along with budding terrorists and hoping they’ll manage to get those bags of fertiliser to the hideout without accidentally blowing themselves up. It strategically lulls you into knee-jerk support for terrorists.
These are loveable incompetents, endearing at first glance because they seem so naively focused on something for which they are so massively ill-equipped, oblivious to the bigger pictures of geopolitical or theological conflict. It is the focus on the mundanities of getting ready for their mission that keeps their minds off thorough reflection on the virtues of their cause or the ambiguities of the message they want to relay to the world through the sacrifice of their bodies. There are jarring hints that their attack is really aimed at “Jews and slags and that”, but no real sense that these men are acting on religious ideological imperatives. Fessal (Adeel Akhtar) seems like such an aimless sweetheart, despite what he’s mixed up in, and it’s tempting to assume that he has no cognisance of the inner lives of the people he is preparing to kill. Omar (Riz Ahmed) refuses to accept his brother’s invitations to his Islamic reading group, frustrated at his adherence to scriptural precision and uptight observance, but probably also fearful of being talked out of the deadly task on which his pride and purpose rest. Omar gees up his dimwit friend Waj (Kayvan Novak) for the suicide plot with the joyous analogy that living in Britain is like being stuck in the queue at Alton Towers. “Do you want to be in the queue, or do you want to be on the rides?” The promise of getting onto the “Rubber Dinghy Rapids” is enough to sustain Waj’s enthusiasm for blowing himself up, the metaphor having replaced the reality – it stops being, for him at least, a life-or-death struggle or a holy war, and becomes a shortcut to a fleeting bit of well-deserved self-gratification. In that running gag is a whole thesis about how religious rhetoric can make the unthinkable matter-of-fact. But hey, it also falls back on comedy staples like exploding animals and bumbling police officers, so there’s something for everyone.
Morris has said that he wanted to do for Islamist suicide bombers what Dad’s Army did for the Home Guard. Presumably (and hopefully) the aim is not to make us warm to the idea of being blown up just so we don’t offend these people, but to point out, by contrast the extent to which they have been demonised in popular culture, and that demonisation can only lead to glamourisation. I found myself wondering if this was a transferable model for comedy. Could we, for instance, have a knockabout comedy where a bunch of earnest-but-dim white supremacists plan a series of arson attacks on synagogues. I have a feeling it wouldn’t go down so well at the multiplexes, but I’m not sure why not. Is it because there are already a terrifying number of people voting for white supremacists to represent them in Parliament? Is it the missing element of suicide (committing suicide for an ill-judged and futile cause has some poignancy to it – it confirms your sincerity, if not your foresight, and requires the kind of dedication to irrational things that goes hand in hand with the comedy of fecklessness), or something else? I suppose the question is really about who this film is for. Is it for those who want to mock, or those who want to understand the phenomenon of young British men exploding themselves to kill other citizens of their country. And is it possible to do both?
Having spent the first half of his career deconstructing the form and language of media, it seems that Morris is now more concerned with the content than the vessel in which it is delivered. It used to be that it was impossible to get an interview with the man himself – Lucian Randall’s recent biography of Morris (the first) got a whole chapter out of the author’s failed attempt to secure an interview, and his close friends and colleagues needed permission before they would talk about working with him. With the release of Four Lions, he has been infinitely more open to discussion of his work, introducing it at screenings and Q&As, and giving the occasional chat, as with his interview with Xan Brooks in The Guardian. Morris had this to say about his prior interest in media language:
You see young people, or kids, and they’re fascinated by the way people talk. And that’s great. But eventually you get to the point where you think, ‘You know what? I don’t care how you talk, I’m just listening to what you’re saying.’ […] There’s a place for looking at the language. How can you wage a war on terror? How can you declare war on an abstract noun? But the danger is that then you’re ignoring the most interesting thing about it. This is such a life-or-death issue that just looking at the language would be a cop-out. You want to find out what’s behind the rhetoric. You need to look at the engine.
But even if it’s not the main focus of the film, language plays a key role in Four Lions. It’s true that the film is not formally experimental or imitative – it adopts the kind of furtive handheld camera style that seems to be the default setting for this kind of quasi-neo-realist thing these days (The Office, The Thick of It), sidling up to the actors or standing amidst the group like a silent, mildly embarrassed member of the cell. If this is deliberately conventional, the wordplay leaps out of the speakers as classic Morrisian craftsmanship. Without wishing to downplay the doubtless significant contributions of Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong (co-writers of Peep Show and The Thick of It, they’re clearly on the kind of roll that will one day put them alongside Galton and Simpson or Clement and La Frenais), the dialogue here is often a mix of tortured metaphors and rhetoric inflated to bursting point, a perfect continuation of Morris’s regular argument that slang, jargon and bullshit serve to disguise uncertainty, contradiction and insoluble paradox in a simplistic vestments of authority, steadfastness and truth.
By the time it gets around to a conclusion that becomes increasingly inevitable, the tone shifts considerably. The story finishes with an unsettling image that should stifle any laughter, but this brave note of disquiet is undercut by the closing titles’ montage of the aftermath, returning to Morris’ safer ground of news parodies. It undercuts the power of what immediately precedes it, the one scene where the comedy, well worked though it is, somewhat throws away the hard-won energy that had been generated up to that point. I don’t want to give too much away about the ending, but if you want to discuss it, post a message on the forum below.
Four Lions is a valuable intervention in debates about terrorism, pointing to the gulf between the ambitious proclamations of suicide bombers, and the squalid reality of their situation, and should be rewarded for jamming the machinery that allowed the image of the terrorist as maniacal evil wizard to stay in circulation for too long. It also critiques the smokescreen of nonsense that allows the rhetoric of Holy War to flourish independently of scriptural bases. But it does rather allow (note that I didn’t say it “encourage”) the interpretation that fundamentalism is the self-defeating problem of isolated, moronic enclaves of a few nutters. It’s not the idiots or reckless idealists we need to be wary about so much as the leaders who face off pridefully across the world stage with little care for how their proclamations will be translated into action by those who long for leadership and certainty.
The four lions seem to have indoctrinated themselves; they are not the duped offshoots in a political resistance movement, but the offshoot of twisted logic that puts them in a position where they feel like they have no choice but to blow themselves up: when words can’t achieve what they desire, or adequately describe their rage, they are reduced to a silly, Tex-Avery death in the hope that somebody else will take over the job of language and report their actions in more glorious terms.
- Before the film came out, there was some unease over whether Muslims would be offended by the film, as if Britain just had one giant Muslim sleeping in the next room and we should try not to make too much noise and wake him up. We don’t have to check that everybody’s cool with any cultural product before it gets a release, but it’s always nice to check that your satire is accurately targeted, especially when it’s a film about Muslims written by three middle-class, middle-aged white guys. Shelina Zahra Janmohamedat at Altmuslim.com asks “Can Terror be Funny?” I wish she didn’t make generalisations like “Muslims will find it hysterically funny”, especially when the film takes care over showing the fractious, internally conflicted nature of any group brought together by ardent belief in any ideology, but it’s an interesting read. See also the review at Muslim View, which calls it “the Muslim version of The Life of Brian” and “one of the most profound pieces of insight into Muslim extremism and all that surrounds it to have been produced in recent years.”
- The parody of British jihadists has been done before in Monkey Dust, where West Bromwich’s would-be terrorist cell is constantly distracted by one of their mums (“You can do your jihad now but I’ll need the table in 20 minutes so I can set your tea out”):