Le Dissertation!

For all those who actually read my daily prompt post on Taken and decided to perhaps follow me for the promised Dissertation chapter, here it is…  plus a section from the conclusion which also deals with the film’s politics, enjoy!  (no plagarism please!)

‘Neeson as heroic father

            I’m not trying to beat the state; I want to save my daughter.[1]

The most recent of the films studied is the 2008 Pierre Morel directed Taken.  The plot of which revolves around the relationship between Liam Neeson’s ex-CIA agent Bryan Mills and his attempts at reconciling with his estranged ex-wife and daughter.  Things take an unfortunate turn when Kim is kidnapped by an Algerian sex trafficking ring and it is up to Bryan to go and take her back.  Taken’s primary focus, it can be argued is on the relationship between Bryan and Kim as well as his attempts at reconciliation with his ex-wife.  Xan Brooks in his review of the film for the Guardian observes the film’s constant focus on the fathering aspect; Brooks observes that ‘If the Families Need Fathers campaign is in need of a gung-ho recruitment ad, then heads up, here it comes.’[2]

Whilst the overall tone of Brooks’ review is incredibly scathing about the film’s politics, he does accurately describe the tone of the film, as well as the tone of several other action films which involve the relationship and attempts at reconciliation between the lone father figure and the estranged family.  Fatherhood became a problematic representation occurred during the era of second wave feminism, when the place of fathers in the familial unit were being questioned and even considered to be in decline, as Donna Peberdy explains:

With the endemic image of the deadbeat dad shirking his “responsibilities” as a father and a parent, along with the apparent erosion of the marriage institution and the decline of the male breadwinner role, the American father was running the risk of becoming an endangered species.[3]

 This ‘endemic image’ Peberdy alludes to was an issue which such concerned the Clinton administration, due to their perception that fatherhood was ‘equated with nationhood.’[4] Their aim over the years was to re-establish fatherhood at the centre of families, as Peberdy goes on to explain:

Clinton’s emphasis on “responsible”, rather than “traditional” fatherhood demonstrated an attempt to rework and renegotiate the image of fatherhood in the contemporary period and to reconsider the place of the father in the American family.[5]

As a result of the Clinton ideology, cinema began to focus more upon the relationships between the father and their ‘new’ relationships with his family unit. These ‘new’ fathers provided the images of fatherhood which the Clinton administration was looking to create and popularize, the fathers which were integral to the familial unit.  Fathers who were more involved with the children, provided them with economic and emotional support and one who could protect them.  The popularization of the father as the heroic figure in cinema was noted by Anna Dienhart, whilst her argument focuses primarily on comedy films such as 3 Men and a Baby, it can also be applied to these post-Clinton era action films:

Popular culture certainly has a fascination with fatherhood…There is also a growing list of popular films exploring various types of father roles.  These images often present idealized images of the new involved father.[6]

In these stories featuring the ‘new’ father as protagonist it is usually due to the mother and her abandonment of her ‘natural’ role, in Taken, the mother figure is held responsible for the breakdown in the family unit by leaving her husband and taking the child.   Much like in Man on Fire, whilst the father figure is the main focus of the story, the mother figure tends to be peripheral, not generally playing their part in the flow of the films’ plot, in this case being held responsible for the films’ crisis in the first place.   From Taken’s opening scenes, it sets Neeson up as the truly caring father, showing a home video of his daughters’ fifth birthday party and then immediately afterwards cutting to Neeson going to collect a birthday present for her seventeenth.  These two scenes work to show the audience that Bryan is an example of the ‘new,’ more emotionally involved father which the Clinton administration sought to promote.  The ‘new’ father was seen as the ideal response to the questions posed of masculinity and fatherhood during the rise of second-wave feminism and the new generation of ‘career-women’ which accompanied it.  These ‘new’ fathers provided the answer to what Maureen Green called, the ‘recurring problem of civilisation’:

The original and great recurring problem of civilisation, is to find a way to include the male in this tight little group of mothers for longer than the odd bout of copulation.  Incorporating men into the mother and child institution…is a tricky problem which demands the invention of certain social rules.  What shall a man be? What shall he do?[7]

Our first indication of what the ideal ‘new’ man shall do is given during an early scene where Neeson is hired to protect Holly Valance’s famous pop star character, Sheerah.  After the concert, she is attacked by a potential assailant armed with a knife.  Neeson’s actions during this scene give an early indication of his character, which will be replicated during the rescue of his daughter.  Firstly the audience can see his ability to use ‘appropriate’ violence in the manner he disarms and neutralises the would-be attacker. Then in the very next scene we see his ability to show compassion when he offers the visibly shaken pop-star a shoulder to cry on.  This ability to show ‘real’ human compassion and empathy sets the modern stars such as Neeson and Washington apart from the older, ‘hardbodied’ action stars such as early-80s Schwarzenegger and Stallone et al:

Neeson emanates a warmth and humanity that other protagonists in films of this kind lack; indeed, if Steven Seagal or Sylvester Stallone were substituted in Neeson’s place the movie would be exposed as the formulaic rescue/revenge tale that it is. Neeson plays Bryan Mills as a human being rather than a single-minded beast on a rampage…[8]

This is evident especially throughout most of the second act of the film, after Kim and Amanda are kidnapped.  The films narrative appears to blame the girls’ ignorance of Neeson’s warnings. In Kim’s case it is simply not listening to her father’s advice about their trip and in Amanda’s case it is about being too naïve.  Neeson’s initial appearance of being overprotective and a ‘smothering’ parent is legitimized.  It is the girls’ own fault as a result of not listening to him.  An idea which was observed by IGN reviewer Jim Vejvoda:

The ever security-minded Bryan fears the trip is too dangerous for two young American girls to take, but he finally relents in order to gain Kim’s approval.  Quicker than you can say “father knows best,” Kim and Amanda are set-up and kidnapped by a group of Albanian sex traffickers operating in Paris.[9]

The Clinton ideology stressed that a strong nation is based around strong fathers.  Once Kim is taken away from Bryan, the ‘family’/nation are under threat, from ‘terrorism.’  The choice of Albanians as the villains hints at the post 9/11 paranoia which still evidently exists within the nation.  The absence of the strong father in Kim’s life, which includes her disregard for any of Bryan’s warnings about the dangers in Paris, is shown to result in her kidnapping by the foreign ‘terrorists’. Michael A Messner, in his discussion about the politics of Schwarzenegger during his ‘Governator’ years, epitomises the culture which surrounded Taken and is clearly seen to influence the film’s politics:

The post-9/11 world has provided an increasingly fertile ground for the ascent of the Kindergarten Commando as compassionate masculine protector…The desire for a revived “Daddy State” is activated through a culture of fear: Only the man who really cares about us, and is also tough enough to stand up to evil, can be fully trusted to lead us in these dangerous times.[10]

Messner’s observation summarises the role of Neeson in this film.  Its opening scenes build up the idea of Neeson as the truly caring and loving ‘natural’ father, whereas in the later scenes he is shown to be the one who is tough enough to stand up to the ‘evil’ of the Albanian ‘terrorists.’   This symbiotic bond between new ‘heroic fathers’ as caring protectors whilst still retaining an ability to inflict violence when appropriate, i.e. when their child is under threat, is consistent with Messner’s observation of contemporary politics of masculinity:

And what tethers these two seemingly opposed principles is protection-protection of children and women from bad guys, evil robots from the past, or from faceless, violently irrational terrorists from outside our borders[11]

It is a result of these politics which allows the audience to identify so closely with the hero.  The violence which dominates much of the second act of the film is forgiven by the audience as a by-product of the ‘natural’ paternal instinct to protect his own flesh and blood.  Taken utilises the idea of fatherhood as equitable with nationhood in order to create its image of a ‘heroic father.’   The audience are encouraged to support Neeson’s character because of his clear affection for his daughter, as well as his strong desire to rescue her makes Neeson a sympathetic hero to the post 9/11 American audience.  The films narrative, much like it did during the Sheerah scene takes care to show both facets of Neeson’s character.  Making sure his ‘heroic father’ maintains the balance between compassionate and caring whilst also being tough when the situation demands it.  One scene shows Neeson taking down a seedy camp for the gangs victims single handedly in his desire to rescue his daughter, whereas in only a few scenes’ time, we see his delicate treatment of a prostitute he rescued.  He provides her with a bed, and hooks her up to a home-made IV drip to purge her body of the drugs the gang have forced upon her.  Scenes such as this reinforce Neeson’s heroic image as the ‘good’ American father.  His compassion for this girl he has rescued is contrasted with the callousness of the Albanian gang, who have hooked her onto these destructive drugs.  Vejvoda’s observation of Neeson as possessing a humanity that a Stallone would lack is testament to the film’s ability to ‘balance’ Neeson’s masculinity effectively between his paternal instincts and his protective ones.  As the film progresses, a larger ‘foreign conspiracy’ against Neeson is revealed, with the police chief, a former ally of his, is found to be corrupted by the Albanians.  Taken is very explicit in its politics, revealing a large scale Euro-African conspiracy against Neeson’s lone American father, thus increasing audience sympathy with his character.  Another reviewer for the Guardian, Philip French, also observes the films racial politics, its demonising of all the non-American characters in order to highlight the ideologies which Messner and Peberdy observed:

By the time Neeson has dealt with the Albanians, the bent French coppers assisting them and the murderous Arabs taking possession of the girls on behalf of lecherous Sheikhs…[12]

Taken shows the ‘danger’ which the lack of a strong father figure can lead to, attacks on the family/nation from the ‘enemy’.  In the case of this film, the ‘threat’ now comes from the Middle East rather than the Russians.   At the film’s conclusion, Neeson rescues his daughter/nation from the ‘terrorist’ threat, the renewed presence of the strong father figure in Kim’s life leads to her ‘safety.’  The re-integration of Neeson into Kim’s life restores harmony and security to the family unit, now that the ‘real’ father has returned; Kim can receive ‘real’ affection and ‘real’ protection which Stuart was shown to be unable to provide. 

Taken’s creation of the heroic father relies on political manipulation and post 9/11 paranoia.  Without the stable father figure, such as the one which Neeson provides, the family can come under threat.  The kidnapping which is so central to the films’ narrative is only allowed to come about because Neeson is removed from the family unit, leaving Kim ‘exposed’ to ‘attack’ from the outside.  When this threat of ‘attack’ is eventually realised, it is the responsibility of the strong and truly caring ‘heroic father’ to mount the rescue operation to save her from the ‘foreign enemy’.  Not only is it his responsibility however, as the narrative shows, it is only Neeson who is capable and prepared to rescue and protect Kim.  In terms of the ‘fatherhood as nationhood’ argument, the family/nation is only threatened when the strong father figure is absent from the family unit, but once that threat is realised, only the strong father figure can return and ‘save’ his family/the nation from certain death/degradation. 

Another contributor to the focus on the ‘heroic father’ figure in action cinema is the culture in the post 9/11 era.  Taken in particular focuses on this aspect, with the plot revolving around the typical American teenage being kidnapped by a foreign terrorist group.  Taken’s need for the ‘heroic father’ figure is more to do with a notion of protection and stability for the family unit, only Neeson is able to protect his daughter/nation from the ‘evils’ of the terrorist group and the corrupt European police aiding and abetting this ‘evil.’   The heroic father as displayed throughout the three films studied is shown to possess a combination of toughness and compassion, as Michael A. Messner observed, this renegotiation of masculinity allows for men to be shown as identifiable and ‘human’:

The ascendant hegemonic masculinity combines the kick-ass muscular body with situationally expressive moments of empathy, grounded in care for kids and a capacity to make us all feel safe.[1]

Overall, the ‘heroic father’ figure provides audiences with a re-worked figure of hegemonic masculinity.  These ‘heroic fathers’ have been shown as having the capacity to be nurturing and compassionate, yet still tough whenever the situation demands it, some even show a willingness to make the ultimate sacrifice for the benefit of their ‘children’ or for the greater good.  All the problems which occur within these contemporary action films are solved by the ‘heroic father’ figure, whether these problems be emotional or physical, the ‘heroic father’ is always able to solve them.  Fatherhood is equated with heroism in contemporary action cinema, and audiences are always reminded that we still do, and will always need a father


[1] Michael A. Messner, ‘The Masculinity of the Governator: Muscle and Compassion in American Politics’, Gender and Society, 21:4, (2007),


[1] Taken, Dir. Pierre Morel, USA: 2008

[2] Xan Brooks, Guardian review of Taken, http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2008/sep/26/thriller.actionandadventure,posted: (22nd January 2013)

[3] Donna Peberdy, Masculinity and Film Performance, (Hampshire: Macmillan, 2011) 122

[4] Peberdy, 125

[5] Peberdy, 125

[6] Anna Dienhart, Reshaping Fatherhood: The social construction of Shared Parenting, (London: Sage, 1998) 13

[7] Maureen Green, Goodbye Father, (London: Routledge), 1976, pp.29

[8] Jim Vejvoda, IGN review of Takenhttp://uk.ign.com/articles/2009/01/30/taken-review,: (24th January 2013

[9] Jim Vejvoda, IGN review of Takenhttp://uk.ign.com/articles/2009/01/30/taken-review  posted 30/1/2009,  accessed: 24/1/2013

[10] Michael A. Messner, ‘The Masculinity of the Governator: Muscle and Compassion in American Politics, Gender and Society, 21:4, (2007), 468

[11] Messner, 468

[12] Philip French, Guardian review of Taken, http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2008/sep/28/actionandadventure (13th March, 2013)’

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