Bin Laden lies at the bottom of the ocean, yet the jungle of shadowy networks and lethal plots he had left behind is still breathing with the night. His scarred body sleeping with fish is shrouded in mafia style mystery. There is no doubt now he is no more than something of a fleeting shadow beyond visible light. Yet that floating ghost, just like the dead narrator in the pool at the beginning of Sunset Boulevard (1950), could be telling us a different story. The official version would probably pale in comparison; from that vintage point of the bloated remains sinking to the lower depths, his story would appear full of black-hearted irony and twisted fatalism.
One could almost imagine a sardonically gurgling voice beyond the watery grave lamenting the futility of every worldly success and all human endeavours, even when the goods are delivered with the reassuring accuracy of a highly secretive Navy SEAL assault team. And this brings us to a lonely place by the side of the road, the place away from busy highways, the place of provincial solitude and obvious boredom that nobody would seriously consider as a stopover on a honeymoon or a business trip. Suddenly(1954) is the name of that dull spot where nothing happens and also the name of a strange thriller that begins with the appearance of Frank Sinatra as an angel of death. It would be interesting to re-visit Bin Laden’s killing from that angle, to see it from the perspective of the doomed man seeking vindication in the most unexpected places – in the hail of bullets and in the blinding light of a deadly blast.
In the film, the bad guy has a lived-in face, a puzzling past and an uncertain future. He rolls into this one horse town in a black Cadillac. He is looking for a scenic perch from which he can shoot the American president down. He is an angry man. He is a sad man too, an everyman with an axe to grind, more broken than the others but also more capable of turning the demon of frustration into deadly action. He is an ex-marine, a child of the system who sees no point in the clockwork, a war veteran with a circus in his head who has seen too much blood and discovered that he liked the abstract, painterly aspect of every mayhem. The town Suddenly is only the last stop. It is a nightmare tarmac for an explosive take off. The psychotic renegade with delusions of grandeur takes a long journey from there, into the mental black hole where he can find a way to become one with his environment; darkness within getting in touch with darkness from all sides.
The man at first poses as an FBI Agent. In his fedora and sharp suit he manages to fool a retired CIA agent whose isolated house on the hill above the railroad is the perfect spot for an assassination attempt. On the first glance, Sinatra is impeccable. He fits the profile. He knows the moves and he is poised to impress – all business and hard-boiled resolve. But look at a smirk within the smile, and the dark sparkle in the eye and a hideous double emerges inside the agent suit. The most intriguing idea of the film is that the devil in disguise is an ex member of the church. He is one of us, a true believer who loses all faith. He is a cog in the machine that spins out of control, a killer with a familiar smile who comes down the known road from an unexpected angle. And this is where the parallel with Bin Laden seems to be of some interest.
If we set aside the fierce animosity most of us feel for the mass murderer and just look at the man himself, in his human dimension, then another side of his character comes into the light. Something disarmingly banal yet terribly troublesome. Bin Laden played football in his spare time. His favourite team was Arsenal. He loved his kids and Whitney Houston. He drank Coca-Cola and eased kidney pains with occasional hit of marijuana. He had friends and a sex life, dreams and fears. Just like Frank Sinatra’s identity-deprived president assassin in Suddenly, he was simple and arrogant at the same time. He was brilliant and silly, at once human and brutal, in other words a lively mess of chilling contradictions. Bin Laden was the man in search for a self just like Sinatra’s character in the film; someone with the egotistic drive to become exceptional by any means. No available cultural paradigm or role model could have contained his passionate yearning for a different world, in which he would be recognized for more than he really was. Sinatra took the gun. Bin Laden found the God in the explosive. He turned young fanatics into smart bombs. But the need for recognition, independence, for a permanent fixture under the violent sun is the same. Icarus comes to mind – an Icarus noir, a negative flyer with a grand plan, the man of ambition who comes too close to the source of shining and is desperately in need of a better pot of glue to keep his makeshift wings together. And this is the most daunting part of Bin Laden’s demise, the human and universal aspect to the established profile of the malignant terrorist.
Bin Laden could have had it easy. He could have been one of us, a citizen of the world circling the globe in search for a next scene to play. Charmed existence was just around the corner, hotels of Dubai, beaches of Ibiza, private schools, exclusive clubs, wild nightlife, fast cars and pretty girls. In not so many words – an American dream. Yet he turned his back on it. His extreme wealth led to an extreme thought. He did not only go rogue, he went mad with enlightenment, all the way down the river into the heart of his own darkness, into the land of religious fantasy and street gangs. But his madness is serene and remorseless. This kind of resolute shadow stance with a reptilian undertone is seen in some of the greatest American movies such as Suddenly and Chinatown.
In Suddenly Frank Sinatra gives the performance of his life playing a villain. One side of his face was scarred in action and is frozen into a pained mask. There is nothing attractive or appealing about him; yet he steals every scene from seemingly more charismatic actors. He stands up to them. His look is like a hook, like a one-two knockout punch, his penetrating eye is like a blunt weapon. He rules the scene despite of his shortcomings. What gives decisive energy to the bad guys is not the power within, but the frailty all around. Therefore our problem lies not in the type of outcast or misfit, like Sinatra or Bin Laden, who are essentially weak people looking to transcend their limitations, but rather with the place itself, that small town called Suddenly. But it could also have been called Dogville, that grey zone between the city and the countryside; full of contradictions, prejudice, boredom and hypocrisy.