Skip to main content


June 2024
2min read


Americans may have been caught unawares by events of the last few months, but not because filmmakers hadn’t done their best to prepare them. Most films that feature terrorists are irresponsible action movies, which have needed a new source of villainy ever since the Nazis got old and the Communists stepped down ( Black Sunday , for example). But several excellent, easily available films treat the issues and audience—and the subject—with a modicum of respect.

Here are four of the best:

The Battle of Algiers (1966). The director Gillo Pontecorvo’s influential and much-imitated film is stirring and riveting Marxist propaganda that tells us as much about radical filmmaking in the sixties as about the Algerian struggle against French colonialism. The Algerian rebels are portrayed as Marxists, which owes more to the director’s historical view than to real life, and the French, particularly an intellectual colonel played by Jean Martin, are not just symbols of colonialism but articulate spokesmen for it. The film won’t teach you much about Muslim involvement in the Algerian revolt, but it will explain the radical revolutionary’s mentality as clearly as any movie ever. In one famous exchange, the colonel tells a captured Algerian that his comrades are cowards because they use “bombs in baby carriages.” The prisoner responds, “You have planes, tanks, and machine guns. Give them to us and you can have our baby carriages.”

The Little Drummer Girl (1984). For some reason, possibly because it was directed by George Roy Hill ( The Sting, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid ), who was regarded as a good commercial filmmaker but had no critical following, this absorbing version of John le Carré’s bestseller was not a hit and has been seen by few. Now might be a good time for a revival. Diane Keaton gives a seamless performance as a no longer young, struggling American actress in London who is recruited by an Israeli agent (Klaus Kinski) to pose as the lover of a dead Palestinian agent and infiltrate his organization by seducing his brother. As is usual in le Carré, there are no good guys or bad guys, just patriots and professionals.

Michael Collins (1996). Lest we forget, what would become known as terrorism had its birth in the Western world, and the man who taught the twentieth century the rules of undercover street warfare, who shook the British Empire while doing more than anyone else to create modern Ireland, was Michael Collins. The Irish director Neil Jordan’s epic tries to compress too many ideas and too many characters into a single film, and the love-on-the-run romance between Collins (ferociously played by Liam Neeson) and Julia Roberts never finds the right tone. Still, there are some stirring scenes, particularly the opening, with its depiction of the bloody failure of the 1916 uprising, which drove the Irish rebels underground. No film has better conveyed the idea that one man’s terrorist can be another man’s freedom fighter.

The Siege (1998). Most Hollywood movies overstate the potential destructive capacity of terrorism; Edward Zwick ( Glory ) actually understates it in this sober, multilayered examination of the effects of a major terrorist act in New York as seen by the perpetrators, the intelligence operatives who trained them (including Annette Bening), the FBI (principally Denzel Washington, but also Tony Shalhoub, as an Arab-American whose son is taken prisoner by mistake), and, especially, the military (Bruce Willis plays a career military officer whose solution to terrorism is martial law). The Siege is less about terrorism than about the dangers of excessive response in a democracy, but it’s no less riveting for that.

—Allen Barra

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.