Throughout the cinematic ages, countless fiction and non-fiction films have been created documenting and reflecting the time period’s political and social atmosphere. Today’s current atmosphere is permeated with terror and terrorism; therefore, directors and producers have created a plethora of films depicting this subject matter. What remains interesting is the influence of directorial creative freedom upon the framing of the topic and for which purpose the film serves be it propaganda, educational or entertainment.

According to the Associate Dean for Graduate Studies and Research at Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communication, Richard Alan Nelson:

Propaganda is a systematic form of purposeful persuasion that attempts to influence the emotions, attitudes, opinions, and actions of specified target audiences for ideological, political or commercial purposes through the controlled transmission of one-sided messages (which may or may not be factual) via mass and direct media channels (Nelson, 1996).

The inculcation of terrorism, by the way of propaganda film, is prevalent throughout the world. Those who strive to promote their ideological, political or commercial messages and those who counter these messages utilize directorial creative freedom to persuade their audience.

For example, Steven Spielberg’s movie, Munich, serves the purpose to educate the audience of the fine line between terrorism and counterterrorism. Munich is based off of true events surrounding Israel’s retaliation against Black September, a Palestinian terrorist organization, after they murdered 11 Israeli Olympic athletes during the 1972 Olympic games in Munich, Germany.

Spielberg infuses actual footage with the cinematic dramatization of the events exposing the audience to factual information. The violent and brutal imagery framed Israel’s Prime Minister Golda Mier’s justification of counterterrorism. Additionally, Spielberg placed great emphasis on the moral dilemma precluding Mier’s decision when she said “Every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values” (Munich, 2005).

Throughout the film, the viewer is shown Israel’s acts of counterterrorism, as well as the collateral damage that is usually absent in pro-American counterterrorism activities. Conversely, the Israel agents are shown to be nervous and motivated by their own personal convictions, yet, at times, they are shown to struggle with the conflictions of duty and their personal conviction.

In the end, Avner, the leading Israeli agent, realized the domino effect of terrorism – a counterterrorism act is an act of terrorism, which initiates a counterterrorism act that ultimately catapults state sanctioned and non-state terrorists into a never-ending cycle of terrorism.  Spielberg captures this phenomenon when Avner proclaimed “There’s no peace at the end of this no matter what you believe” (Munich, 2005), thus “framing terrorism as a global war that can not be won” (Silcock, 2011).

In contrast, in 2006 Universal Pictures released United 93. The film, directed and written by Paul Greengrass, is a cinematic portrayal of the events surrounding the hijacking of United flight 93 on September 11th, 2001. The film depicts the four Muslim hijackers as “conflicted and afraid” and “fervently engaged in prayer” (Kellner, 2005). These images project to the viewer that the terrorists who carried out 9/11 were unsure, frightened and surmountable.

The American passengers were shown “as ordinary citizens, involved in the petty cares and mundane rituals of everyday life” (Kellner, 2005). Once they “[became] aware of the disaster unfolding” (Kellner, 2005) they banned together and overwhelmed the terrorists; thus, successfully thwarting the terrorists’ goal. These images promote American heroism and the inability of a terrorist to destroy American ideology.

United 93 put a face on a faceless enemy and frames terrorism as defeatable. The imagery projects and infuses the American psyche with the belief they are undefeatable when united. The message is reinforced when political and military leaders quote a passenger, Todd Beamer, who was overheard on an open cellular phone line moments before the passengers fought back: “Let’s roll!” (IMDB). American policymakers have utilized his quote as a “moral cloak” (Moeller, 2009) “of purposeful persuasion” (Nelson, 1996).

The film serves the purpose of propaganda for American superiority over the inferior terrorists’ extremism. United 93 “[distracts] the population from the real source of the problem, which is an ideology that wants to destroy the west” (Obsession: Radical Islam’s War Against the West, 2005).

United 93 and Munich are just two examples of the plethora of fiction and non-fiction films depicting terrorists and their acts of terrorism. United 93 perpetuate American dominance and their ability to conquer any enemy threatening their way of life. Furthermore, it diminishes fear of terrorism by its unspoken message if we stand united we have nothing to fear. Munich, on the other hand, creates fear of terrorism because it depicts terrorism as an undefeatable faceless enemy.

By and large, theatrical terrorism is a result of directorial creative freedom. The framing of the topic can serve as a means to educate, spread fear or as propaganda to persuade its targeted audience towards a political agenda.


Kennedy. K. (Producer), Spielberg, S. (Producer & Director). (December 23, 2005). Munich [Motion picture]. United States: Universal Studios.

Kellner, D. (2005). Social memory and the representation of 9/11 in contemporary Hollywood film. Retrieved from

Mier, P. (Producer), Shore, R. (Producer) & Kopping, W. (Director). (October 21, 2005). Obsession: Radical Islam’s War Against the West [Documentary film]. United States: Clarion Fund.

Moeller, S. D. (2009). Packaging terrorism: Co-opting the news for politics and profit. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

Nelson, R. A. (1996). Chronology and glossary of propaganda in the United States. Goleta, CA: ABC-Clio, LLC.