For the first few months after my son was born last year, I was hunting for stuff to watch that would be entertaining but not taxing — movies I'd seen before, or movies that even if I hadn't actually seen them, I felt like I'd seen them, because I'd seen the box art for the VHS tape pass through my hands thousands of times when I worked at the Princeton, N.J. location of West Coast Video as a high school student in the early 2000s. Comfort food, basically. This stringent set of formal requirements meant that what I ended up watching was '90s Dad Thrillers.
If you're anywhere near me in age, you know the kind of movies I'm talking about: Movies set on submarines; movies set on aircraft carriers; movies where lawyers are good guys; movies where guys secure the perimeter and/or the package; movies where a guy has to yell to make himself heard over a helicopter; movies where guys with guns break the door into a room decorated with cut-out newspaper headlines. Movies starring guys like Harrison Ford, Alec Baldwin, Kevin Costner, and Wesley Snipes and directed by guys like Martin Campbell, Wolfgang Petersen, Philip Noyce, and John McTiernan. Movies where men are men, Bravo Teams are Bravo Teams, and women are sexy but humorless ball-busters who are nonetheless ultimately susceptible to the roguish charm of state security-apparatus functionaries. Movies that dads like.
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I love these movies pretty unreservedly and only somewhat ironically. It would be hard to argue that the majority of Dad Thrillers are "good" by any dignified standard, but they are comforting to a person born in the right era, and at their best they are supremely competent entertainment, confident and purposeful, briskly paced, crowded with compelling actors, shot on film, and scored with swelling strings and lots of martial drums. Plus, they're all 20 to 30 years old, which means two things: one, we have enough distance to properly historicize and theorize them, and two, most of them are immediately available to watch from the big streaming services.
I'd thought about doing a newsletter series about my favorites from this genre — Movies from the End of History! — but I get the sense I'd lose a lot of subscribers if ended up regularly writing several thousand words outlining how Jurassic Park is a capitalist fable about the dangers of interfering in "natural" selection processes like the market, or trying to parse the ideology of the hijackers in Air Force One (they're … Russian … Kazakh … Communist … irredentists?). Luckily for everyone, the writers John Ganz and Jamelle Bouie have a new podcast, Unclear and Present Dangers, about political thrillers of the '90s and "what they said — or did not say — about the United States in the last years and immediate aftermath of the Cold War." The full watch list for "Unclear and Present Danger" is up here on Letterboxd. The first episode concerns Hunt for Red October. It's great. (And I say that as someone in an active group chat devoted to discussing/quoting Hunt for Red October and other movies prominently featuring monochrome green-on-black display screens.)
That John and Jamelle are doing the important work of interrogating the politics of Renny Harlin movies allows me to rest a little easier. Still, I have a newsletter to produce, subscribers to alienate, and I did spend a lot of this past year watching American actors pretend to be IRA terrorists. So I'm presenting my own Dad-Thriller canon, along with accompanying notes, below and on Letterboxd.
Notes Toward a Theory of the Dad Thriller
What was the Dad Thriller?
The Dad Thriller was a genre of movie made by Hollywood studios in the 1990s1, marketed mainly to men and presented sincerely if not always accurately as intelligent and sophisticated entertainment. The Dad Thriller draws on courtroom dramas, spy movies, the conspiracy thrillers of the 1970s, and the action blockbusters of the 1980s. (See Fig. 1.) The vibe is "action movie you might be able to convince your wife to see because it's sort of about politics, science, and/or legal stuff."
Though the genre is capacious and its borders porous, Dad Thrillers share certain thematic and narrative concerns. They are generally stories of men, often with families, professional degrees, and successful careers, who find themselves unexpectedly battling bureaucracy, conspiracy, irrational violence, imminent natural disaster, or some combination of the above as they confront an existential threat to their, their family, their country, or their planet's safety.
Their themes are functions of the global political economy of the 1990s, and reflect Hollywood's interpretation of the major male socio-political anxieties of the era: the breakup of the Soviet Union; the rise of "non-state actors" including terrorists, paramilitaries, militias, and NGOs; the growth of the internet and surveillance networks; the aging into political and economic power of the Baby Boom generation; women unfairly suing you for being a sex pest; velociraptors; and so on.
Not just anything with explosions or spies counts as a Dad Thriller: The Dad Thriller is adjacent to, but distinct from the blockbuster action, science-fiction, or disaster movie, specifically due to the veneer of political or moral sophistication attached to the Dad Thriller. (Admittedly, this can be a subtle distinction. As an example: While Deep Impact is a Dad Thriller, Armageddon likely isn't.) While there are many independent and foreign movies that share themes and concerns with Dad Thrillers, the Dad Thriller is specifically a product of Hollywood studios and the attendant culture machine.
Am I watching a Dad Thriller right now?
Is Harrison Ford in the movie? (See Fig. 2.)
Is the director Philip Noyce?
Is there a satellite uplink?
Is a key plot point a guy trying to get on the phone with the right guy to give him the correct information?
Is there a shadowy cabal of lawyers and/or corporate executives?
Is an American or English actor playing a current or former Irish Republican terrorist and attempting an unconvincing Irish accent?
Is the main bad guy motivated by money? If he is motivated by ideology, are his politics incomprehensible and unrecognizable?
Is the advice or warning of the movie's hero going unheeded by feckless bureaucrats?
Is the main bad guy a former Soviet military commander?
Is there a tense but ultimately productive exchange about race between a black guy and a white guy who are forced by circumstance to work together?
Is the movie's hero obligated to go undertake a dangerous mission despite being an analyst, not field personnel?
Who was the Dad Thriller?
While the first unarguable Dad Thriller is Hunt for Red October, I personally, and possibly controversially, date the era to Die Hard. While being in many respects a straightforward 1980s action movie, Die Hard also features several important Dad Thriller themes, among them Anxiety About the Japanese, Terrorists Who Are Really Just Capitalists, and A Black Guy and a White Guy Having a Heart to Heart. More even than its thematic concerns, however, the casting and characterization of Die Hard's hero makes it a Dad Thriller.
One key aspect of the Dad Thriller is that the heroes are rarely Action Hero-types: instead they are generally fathers with day jobs who are thrust into difficult circumstances. (Some of them are spies. But usually retired, fired, or disgruntled spies.) More than any other era the 90s featured an unusually high incidence of thriller heroes with academic or professional degrees: lawyers, psychologists, history Ph.Ds, geologists, and so on. (Those heroes without postgraduate education are pretty uniformly cops or businessmen.) (See Fig. 3.)
While Willis's John McClane was a cop, not a CIA desk jockey (like Jack Ryan) or a vascular surgeon (like Richard Kimble), and was therefore somewhat more likely to end up in action-type circumstances, he was comparatively scrawny and emphatically not happy to be trapped in a Los Angeles skyscraper with German terrorists. Before Die Hard pointed the way to the Dad Thriller, the median thriller movie hero was a guy with big biceps and a huge gun who played a retired Navy SEAL Kickboxing Instructor living in Montana; thanks to Die Hard, by mid-decade, thrillers were routinely about military historians and guys with software jobs. Even Arnold Schwarzenegger was obligated to play, improbably, a more-or-less normal guy in True Lies.
What happened to the Dad Thriller?
The Dad Thriller era ended as it began: with an epoch-defining action movie and a Jack Ryan movie. The Bourne Identity, released in 2002, was not not a Dad Thriller, but it also heralded a re-emergence of The Highly Trained Bad-Ass Tier One Operator, a hero perfectly calibrated for the post-9/11 cultural and military obsession with Special Operations Forces. Just as Die Hard had opened the door for the Dad Thriller, Bourne opened it for an 00s generation of movies about guys with "very special skills" who did parkour and close combat.
That same year, Paramount released Sum of All Fears, starring Ben Affleck as Jack Ryan. It had been filmed before 9/11, and it already felt dated on release: its villains were European fascists; its major setpiece was a huge nuclear attack; and it depicted the President and his advisors as wise and merciful leaders who would hesitate before authorizing a missile strike. Despite Ryan's roots in Tom Clancy's right-wing agitprop, the particular Ryan brand of Intense Meetings, Phone Calls, and Government Skullduggery was not, really, where America was "at."
Here and there studios will still release a mutant Dad Thriller to theaters or streaming: David Fincher's Gone Girl, for example, which features Dad-Thriller motifs like False Accusation and Sexually Manipulative Woman, but whose lead male character is a hapless schlub instead of an indignant family-man professional; or Michael Clayton (from contemporary master of the Dad Thriller Tony Gilroy), which is about a lawyer dealing with a corrupt corporation — only, he's working for them as a minor middleman, instead of taking them down as a heroic trial lawyer. ("I'm not the guy that you kill. I’m the guy that you buy" is to the aughts as "You ask me if I have a god complex — I am god" is to the 1990s.)
But for the most part, middlebrow cultural products with a pretense to sophistication have been pushed into serialized television formats on HBO and Netflix. (Thirty years ago, Succession would've been a Dad Thriller starring Sean Connery as Logan Roy, William Baldwin as Kendall, and Rene Russo as Shiv.)
'90s Dad-Thriller Canon
What follows is my attempt at a canon for Dad Thrillers, organized by thematic and narrative content. The list has been updated since its initial publication.
Movies That Are Die Hard in One Form or Another
Die Hard 2
The Last Boy Scout
Die Hard: With a Vengeance
Movies With Jack Ryan
The Hunt for Red October
Clear and Present Danger
Sum of All Fears
Movies With Guys With Freaky Rooms Filled With Photos and Cut-Out Newspaper Headlines
The Silence of the Lambs
In the Line of Fire
Kiss the Girls
The Bone Collector
Movies Where the President Is a Character and Seems Like a Cool Guy
Air Force One
Movies Where Aliens and/or Dinosaurs Reflect Existential Anxieties about Capitalism, Democracy, the End of History, and the Looming Disaster of Climate Change
A Few Good Men
Courage Under Fire
Behind Enemy Lines
Movies Where Alec Baldwin Cucks Someone
Glengarry Glen Ross2
General Boomer Psychosis and Paranoia
Nick of Time
Murder at 1600
Movies That Were or Might as Well Have Been Made from John Grisham Novels
The Pelican Brief
A Time to Kill
The Devil's Advocate
The Gingerbread Man
Movies About Doctors in Distress
Movies Where Cops and the Guys They're Trying to Catch Are Not So Different, Simply Two Sides of the Same Coin
Thomas Crown Affair
Movies in Which a Non-Irish Actor Plays an Irish Republican Terrorist
The Devil's Own
Action-Comedies About the Terrifying But Also Funny Power of the Deep State
The Long Kiss Goodnight
Enemy of the State
Movies Where the Bad Guy Is a Disgruntled Cop or Soldier
Movies Where Nukes and/or Vital Intelligence Are Loose and For Sale to Evil Oligarchs on the Black Market in Former Soviet States
Tomorrow Never Dies
Appendix: Dad-Thriller Periphery
These are movies from the same era that share thematic or narrative concerns with true Dad Thillers, or are simply movies absolutely beloved by dads, but which are, for various reasons, not Dad Thrillers.
"'90s Movies" That Are Spiritually '80s Movies and Therefore Don't Count
Body of Evidence
The Color of Night
Big-Budget Original Science Fiction That Might Have Kinda Sucked But You Have to Appreciate Because They'd Never Make It These Days
Movies in Which History Turns Out to Have Been the Fight for Freedom, Conceived as a Liberal Subject With Property Rights, All Along
Dances With Wolves
The Last of the Mohicans
Legends of the Fall
The Shawshank Redemption
Saving Private Ryan
Movies Where Programmers Live in New York City Apartment Buildings
Single White Female
Movies About Italian Guys
"'90s Movies" That Are Spiritually '00s Movies and Therefore Don't Count
The Fast and the Furious
Black Hawk Down
The First '00s Dad Thriller
The Bourne Identity
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Scholars now agree that the 1990s began in 1988 and ended in 2001, reaching the "High 90s" between 1994 and 1997.