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Laugh, Cry, Believe: Spielbergization and Its Discontents

ISSUE:  Winter 2007
Steven Spielberg
Credit: Joe Stefanchick/Dallas M./Corbis

Laugh, Cry, Believe: Spielbergization and Its Discontents

J. Hoberman

Let no one say the American movie industry has not taken seriously its social mission.

Nearly a lifetime ago and in the midst of another war, several hundred Hollywood creators gathered on the University of California’s Los Angeles campus. The mood was excited, resolute, and militant. The stakes were high. Their conclave was taking place, as one participant put it, barely “a cannon shot” from the studios where they worked.

Hollywood in the crosshairs: Held over the first weekend of October 1943, organized by the Hollywood Writers Mobilization, officially greeted by President Franklin Roosevelt and Vice President Henry Wallace (and the fraternal Writers and Artists of the Soviet Union), the Writers Congress was dedicated to the proposition that (as its chairman, Warner Brothers screenwriter Robert Rossen, declared) movies had the power to influence human behavior, help defeat the Axis, and positively shape the postwar world.

Congress participants were mainly screenwriters. Some were Communists; but not everyone. Darryl F. Zanuck—who addressed a Saturday morning panel on the “responsibility of the industry”—was the top production executive at Twentieth Century Fox. “We must play our part in the solutions of the problems that torture the world,” he maintained. “We must begin to deal realistically in film with the causes of wars and panics, with social upheavals and depression, with starvation and want and injustice and barbarism under whatever guise.”

This urgently self-important, change-the-world sense of responsibility did not end with civilization’s victory over fascism. Four years later, Zanuck was again in the vanguard, producing The Iron Curtain (Hollywood’s first expose of Communist espionage) and, soon after, celebrating an early Cold War success (flying over the Soviet blockade to resupply West Berlin) in The Big Lift. By then, some of the Congress’s most prominent figures—Rossen, John Howard Lawson, Edward Dmytryk—had been blacklisted, even jailed, for the indiscretion of their Communist beliefs.

There were real consequences for dream-factory politics: Hollywood exercised its responsibility and maintained a public role through the Cold War. The studios produced anti-Communist films noir, cooperated with the Pentagon to make Korean War dramas or celebrate new Air Force technology, and ministered to the nation’s sense of spiritual destiny with spectacular tales from ancient Rome or the Old Testament. Less obviously, the industry supported the status quo by manufacturing consensus, adaptation, and reassurance as part of the process that French philosopher Jacques Ellul would call “sociological propaganda.”

During the Kennedy era’s duck-and-cover days, Hollywood operated as though prepared to go to war, albeit uncertain which branch of the government—Pentagon or president—to obey. In 1963, the Department of Defense declined to assist Paramount in filming the military coup in Seven Days in May, though according to star-producer Kirk Douglas, the project was supported by JFK himself. The DOD also refused to help Columbia with the nuclear disaster movie Fail-Safe. The makers of the rival atomic doomsday scenario Dr. Strangelove—a rare example of an unambiguously critical Hollywood movie—knew better than to ask. Meanwhile, armed with the knowledge that two films on accidental nuclear warfare were in preparation, General Curtis LeMay encouraged Universal to make the 1963 A Gathering of Eagles, dedicated to the Strategic Air Command.

Around 1960, actors began to supplant studios as the industry’s motor and an inevitable element of narcissism entered the process. John Wayne was only the first Hollywood Freedom Fighter to leverage the power of stardom as means for political pamphleteering or, if you prefer, public service. (“Could art be useful?” the underground filmmaker Jack Smith wondered, by way of proposing Hollywood movies that might feature “Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh busily making yogurt; Humphrey Bogart struggling to introduce a basic civil-law course into public schools [or] infants being given to the old in homes for aged by Ginger Rogers.”)

As second-tier star Ronald Reagan began his ascent to into the show business stratosphere, Wayne’s lead was followed by young dissidents like Warren Beatty, Robert Redford, and Jane Fonda. Their movies might be construed as oppositional but then theirs was a turbulent epoch when, for the first time since the Great Depression, the movie industry faced insolvency, and even that most American of genres, the Western, became, in its final stages, a vehicle of protest. By the time Reagan assumed the role of president, the nature of star-politics had been long since normalized.

The current star-pol paradigms include Mel Gibson (on the right), George Clooney (on the left), and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (front and center). But one need only have watched last March’s Oscar telecast—five socially conscious movies competing for best picture, a self-congratulatory clip-montage evoking vintage “problem films” of Hollywood past—to realize how integral to the movie industry’s self-image Zanuck’s long-ago call to his fellow filmmakers remains.

*  *  *  *  

Certain directors—the practiced self-promoters Oliver Stone and Spike Lee come to mind—see themselves as political commentators. Recently, they have been joined by a few producers, on both the secular left, eBay founder Jeff Skoll, and the Christian right, Bush fundraiser Philip Anschutz. But the embodiment of responsible, socially aware moviemaking is that repository of the industry’s institutional memory known as Steven Spielberg.

No one since Reagan has so demonstrated a belief in the redemptive nature of Hollywood entertainment. Such faith is not without a material basis. Spielberg’s status as a moneymaker peaked a dozen years ago, when his two greatest hits, E.T. and Jurassic Park, were first and third on the list of all-time Hollywood box-office attractions, with Jaws and Raiders of the Lost Ark still inhabiting the top ten. But even today, Spielberg is credited with nine of Hollywood’s hundred highest-grossing movies—more than those directed by his nearest rivals, George Lucas and Peter Jackson, combined.

As a manipulator of the medium, Spielberg ranks with the greatest—king of cute Walt Disney and master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock. In a sense, Spielberg synthesizes Disney and Hitchcock. Astoundingly attuned to mass-audience psychology, he is at once ruthlessly sadistic and cloyingly saccharine, a filmmaker who opened his first blockbuster by implicating the audience in an aquatic sex-murder committed by a giant serial-killer shark, and the only filmmaker since Disney who might sincerely employ “When You Wish Upon a Star” (the original closing music for Close Encounters of the Third Kind). Naturally privileging sentiment above reason, Spielberg’s movies are shamelessly dependent on such cues. But music is hardly his only means of persuasion. Jaws amply demonstrated Spielberg’s willingness to inflict pain upon the spectator.

Different as Disney’s Snow White or Hitchcock’s Psycho might be, each film exhibits a rage for control readily attributable to its maker. And yet, one doubts Disney ever questioned the purity of his intentions or Hitchcock lost sleep pondering the psychological implications of his films; as the world’s preeminent maker of entertainments for children, the former was a priori virtuous while, as the professionally ghoulish virtuoso of on-screen murder, the latter had no need to demonstrate his moral virtue. Spielberg, however, is the representative of the aging “movie generation”—and thus acutely self-conscious, if not downright anxious to do the right thing.

There is a sense in which Spielberg’s oeuvre is divided against itself, characterized by the Good Steven’s feel-good movies and the more hostile entertainments devised by his evil twin. Bad Steven surfaced first to make his bones with Jaws—a phenomenal success and still an unsurpassed thrill mechanism, enriched by a post-Watergate political subtext concerning deceptive, mendacious public officials. Bad Steven lives to terrorize audiences in the name of fun, making movies like the egregious Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, the amusingly self-reflexive Jurassic Park, and last summer’s intermittently effective remake of War of the Worlds.

Good Steven is epitomized by the reverent sci-fi suburbia of Close Encounters of the Third Kind and ET: The Extra-Terrestrial, movies that, in constructing the audience of kids of all ages, effectively out-Disneyed Disney. Beginning with his 1985 adaptation of The Color Purple, however, Good Steven assumed a sense of adult responsibility with a series of serious movies—not unlike the then fifty-year-old cinema-of-quality associated with MGM producer Irving Thalberg, a secular saint of Hollywood’s Golden Age. The multiple-Oscar-winner Schindler’s List is the most significant of these—the list also includes the slave-ship drama Amistad and Spielberg’s second Oscar picture, Saving Private Ryan. The latter, like Schindler’s List, has aspects of Bad Steven. The extended D-Day sequence that ushers in the movie’s restaging of World War II is a terrifying assault on the audience that goes well beyond the mutilation, dismemberment, and carnage of Jaws. It’s also a virtuoso piece of filmmaking, perhaps the strongest single passage in the entire Spielberg oeuvre.

Badness works—and yet, essentially middlebrow, Spielberg has never made a movie as daringly outre as Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver or Brian De Palma’s Carrie or David Lynch’s Blue Velvet or anything by David Cronenberg. None of Spielberg’s movies has projected the epic sweep and historical perspective of Francis Coppola’s first two Godfather films. If Hook, Spielberg’s bizarrely confessional gloss on Peter Pan, was a fiasco, he is far too sensible to indulge a grande folle as convulsive as Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. But as other directors of his generation fade from relevance, the awesomely productive Spielberg seems ever more central.

Neeson and Kingsley
Liam Neeson and Ben Kingsley in Schindler’s List.

Something less than artist, Spielberg is also something more. He is the institution personified—the genius of the system, the whole Oscar Night shebang in one bearded, baseball-hat-wearing package. Spielberg is Hollywood’s most successful director and most powerful producer, as well as a nouveau mogul, cofounder of the DreamWorks studio (recently sold to Paramount). He is a presidential friend and the Hollywood equivalent of a public intellectual, called upon, in the afterglow of Schindler’s List, to furnish a Congressional investigating committee with expert testimony on the nature of hate crimes.

Spielberg’s gifts as a filmmaker can be wildly overstated. But there’s no denying his brilliance as a pop-culture player—witness the coy strategy that, when it came time to release Munich last December, landed him once more on the cover of Time magazine and thus positioned his latest movie as a public event, “Spielberg’s Secret Masterpiece.”

*  *  *  *  

As an ongoing business concern, Hollywood has a hegemonic duty—more pragmatic than ideological—to be, or at least attempt to be, all things to all people. In this Spielberg has been a faithful barometer.

Opening less than a year after Jimmy Carter’s inspirational long-shot campaign (which, among other then-eccentricities, stressed the candidate’s belief in the existence of UFOs), Close Encounters of the Third Kind rewrote the ’50s alien-invasion script—and, in a sense, the Cold War—in terms of born-again optimism. Together with his commercial ally and fellow infantilizer George Lucas, Spielberg produced the quintessential entertainments for Ronald Reagan’s Morning in America. While Lucas handled the military vision with Star Wars and its sequels, Spielberg provided the Indiana Jones foreign adventures and the suburban childhood romance.

The late ’80s were a relatively rough patch for Spielberg. But the early ’90s brought the apotheosis of the filmmaker’s career—complete with his public identification with Bill Clinton, and vice versa. According to Spielberg biographer John Baxter, it was Warner Brothers executive Steve Ross—Spielberg’s model for the character of Oskar Schindler—who converted the filmmaker to fervid Clinton supporter. After the 1992 election, Spielberg hosted the new president on several trips to Los Angeles; the world premiere of Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (1993) was held in Washington, DC, as a benefit for Hillary Clinton’s favorite charity, the Children’s Defense Fund.

Reagan had laughingly plugged Rambo; Clinton tearfully endorsed Schindler’s List. Who is to say that the movie did not provide him with a useful model, at least during his Balkan intervention? (Mrs. Clinton suggested as much on a 1999 trip to a Kosovar refugee camp.) In early 1994, the president joined the Hollywood Reporter in celebrating Spielberg’s career: “From Jaws to E.T. to Schindler’s List, his prolific work has made us laugh, cry and believe in all the wonders of our imaginations. I join in honoring him for his unparalleled creativity and vision.” Six months later, Spielberg spent the night at the White House—as part of a state dinner for Russian president Boris Yeltsin—and the next morning decided along with two fellow guests, David Geffen and Jeffrey Katzenbach, to create a new studio, DreamWorks.

Thanks in part to Clinton’s publicized friendships with Spielberg and other entertainment notables, the film industry proved a major source of Democratic fund-raising. For the first time since the late 1940s, Hollywood even emerged as a political issue, most prominently for Senator Bob Dole’s unsuccessful presidential campaign. Three of the Democrats’ four leading contributors were movie studios or their parent companies, including DreamWorks (which ultimately would help raise $15 million during Clinton’s term of office). Spielberg and his partners expressed a degree of post-Clinton donor fatigue during the 2000 campaign, but Spielberg’s influence remained.

Soon after attaining the presidency, George W. Bush, not previously known for his interest in movies (or, indeed, any form of culture), cited Saving Private Ryan as his favorite motion picture—as well he might. One of the key Hollywood movies of 1990s, notable for reviving the defunct genre of the “serious” combat film and proposing the army as a source of moral value, Saving Private Ryan expressed a potent new retro patriotism. Would American history have been changed if Saving Private Ryan had opened during the summer of 1996, with a genuine World War II hero running for president? (Perhaps it would only have been film history: Senator Dole had to be retired from politics—and pitching Viagra on tv—before the fantasy could fully be enjoyed.)

More than a tribute to the Greatest Generation, Saving Private Ryan was also a Hollywood movie’s most ambitious attempt to wrest control of the national memory since Oliver Stone’s JFK. With the Cold War over, Spielberg proposed a new raison d’etre for American foreign policy. Not the liberation of Europe but rather saving a single enlisted man was, as one character put it, “the one decent thing we were able to pull out of this whole stinking mess” to “earn the right to go home.” The movie thus articulated a tautology that Vietnam introduced into American political discourse—the purpose of the war is to support those troops that are already there.

Saving Private Ryan was an enormous commercial success, grossing well over $200 million. But as Bush’s endorsement suggests, this World War II vision achieved canonical stature on his watch. Barely three years after the movie captured the nation’s multiplexes, D-Day came home.

*  *  *  *  

The histories of film and of what Jean-Luc Godard terms the “film of history” are parallel narratives. On September 11, 2001, the two intersected. For Americans, 9/11 was not only a national trauma and a political watershed but also an entertainment event—something viewed more or less simultaneously (and then repeatedly) by millions of people, something that would become as incantatory as the most persistent pop song.

Hollywood blockbusters are what bring us together as a nation—if not a planet—and spectacular mayhem is the mode’s lingua franca. Thus, as a professional movie reviewer living six blocks north of the World Trade Center, my first impulse was to describe a disaster film, “the deja vu of crowds fleeing Godzilla through Lower Manhattan canyons, the wondrously exploding skyscrapers and bellicose rhetoric of Independence Day, the romantic pathos of Titanic, the wounded innocence of Pearl Harbor, the cosmic insanity of Deep Impact, the sense of a world directed by Roland Emmerich for the benefit of Rupert Murdoch.”

As an event, the only equivalent to 9/11 in American history is the four-day weekend of the Kennedy assassination. That too left its mark on Hollywood. Within days of the president’s murder, newspapers published speculation that, with its brainwashed assassin, the 1962 movie The Manchurian Candidate might be implicated in the tragedy; visual references to the shooting that took place in Dallas would turn up in Hollywood movies less than two years later. The director Arthur Penn was responsible for several.

Tom Hanks
Tom Hanks (center) and the cast of Saving Private Ryan.

Awesomely telegenic as the terror attack on America was, and as amply anticipated as it had been by the catastrophic blockbusters of the fin de siecle, Hollywood took 9/11 very, very personally. The image had again remade the world. Hardly had the Trades fallen when the studios eagerly reported an FBI warning that they might well be the terrorists’ next targets. On September 21, rumors of an impending attack swept Los Angeles. In the days following the disaster, the Los Angeles Times reported entertainment industry concern that “the public appetite for plots involving disasters and terrorism has vanished.” What then would movies be about? Feeling guilty, industry leaders promised the produce a new form of socially responsible, positive filmmaking. One prominent producer of tv movies and miniseries hastily assured the New York Times that entertainment, post-9/11, would be “much more wholesome” and that “we are definitely moving into a kinder, gentler time.” (Was that time, as his invocation of Bush I’s nomination acceptance speech suggested, meant to be 1988?)

DreamWorks producer Walter Parkes explained that the present atmosphere precluded his studio from bankrolling any more movies like The Peacemaker and Deep Impact: “We make the movies that reflect, in one way or another, the experiences we all have. There are just some movies that you can’t make from here on in.” But wait . . . wasn’t disaster something that we had just all experienced? Not everyone was as blunt or solipsistic as Robert Altman, who saw the terrorists as intellectual pirates, telling the Associated Press that the hijackers had copied Hollywood: “Nobody would have thought to commit an atrocity like that unless they’d seen it in a movie. . . . we created this atmosphere and taught them how to do it.”

Hollywood expected to be punished. Instead, it was drafted. Soon after the attacks, the Pentagon-funded Institute for Creative Technologies at the University of Southern California, another “cannon shot” away from the studios, convened several meetings with screenwriters and directors. The proceedings were chaired by Brigadier General Kenneth Bergquist; the idea was for the industry talent to “brainstorm” terrorist scenarios and then offer solutions. (Elsewhere at the Pentagon, senior special operations officers were studying the urban guerrilla warfare depicted in The Battle of Algiers.)

In Congress, Representative Henry Hyde requested Hollywood’s input into hearings on how the US might successfully address the “hearts and minds” of the Arab world—a subject which would be satirized four years later by Albert Brooks’s failed Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World. How could the movie industry resist the tacit invocation of World War II? Jerry Bruckheimer’s Pearl Harbor had grossed $200 million in the spring and summer of 2001, but what truly seemed prophetic the day after September 11 was the movie’s blend of blockbuster mega-disaster and historical war epic. Black Hawk Down, an artier Bruckheimer production, was rushed into theaters in late December and subsequently furnished on video to US military bases.

Throughout the winter of 2002, this visceral spectacle of US soldiers pinned down under Somali fire functioned as an exercise in virtual combat. Vice President Dick Cheney left his undisclosed location to join Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld at the movie’s gala Washington premiere. Rumsfeld even took a measure of credit; thanks to his personal intervention, Black Hawk Down was the first movie for which US troops were dispatched to a foreign country to aid in its production.

Black Hawk Down inspired patriotic sentiment, precipitated European ridicule, and invited antiwar protest, even as it stood in for the American debacle in Afghanistan that never quite happened. Nor was it the lone beneficiary of the new bellicosity. Upcoming war and action films were seized upon by the administration as useful metaphors as the administration waged war in Afghanistan and prepared to invade Iraq. Mel Gibson’s Vietnam film We Were Soldiers and the Tom Clancy adaptation The Sum of All Fears, in which terrorists detonate a nuclear bomb in Baltimore, were treated as official art.

As The Sum of All Fears captured its second weekend, US Customs officials called a news conference to demonstrate their bomb-detection capability. The following Monday, Attorney General John Ashcroft issued his proud announcement that the currently beleaguered FBI and CIA had successfully collaborated on the arrest of one Abdullah al-Muhajir, born Jose Padilla in Brooklyn. Already detained for a month, Padilla was being held as a military prisoner and suspected of abetting an al Qaeda plot to produce the very scenario The Sum of All Fears so vividly illustrated.

All of these movies predated 9/11. Their inspiration came not from the attacks on New York and Washington or Team Bush’s war on terror but the strong showing of Saving Private Ryan, which grossed $216 million and topped the box office for a month during the Lewinsky summer of ‘98, when Bill Clinton, too, was striving to show he was not just a lover but a fighter. If the universe loves coincidences, as Carl Jung maintained in his work on synchronicity, the dream life does so even more.

Having been announced on the eve of the millennium, as the Y2K panic was reaching its peak, Spielberg’s science-fiction policier Minority Report went into production in the spring 2001 and wrapped that July. Fittingly, Spielberg’s first post-9/11 release, premiering in June 2002, was a tale of precognitive police work that, as many reviewers pointed out, uncannily anticipated the attorney general’s notions of preventative detention. This unexpectedly topical premise, taken from a 1956 story by Philip K. Dick, posits a future in which mutant “pre-cogs” dream of murders before they occur, thus allowing the police to arrest killers in advance of their crimes.

“The guilty are arrested before the law is broken,” per the movie’s sell line. Thus, Spielberg expressed his own support for the extra-legality of Bush’s war on terror.

*  *  *  *  

Once the original shock and awe had worn off, Hollywood filmmakers naturally felt obliged to address the catastrophe. Given his role as the industry personified, how could Spielberg not find himself in the vanguard?

The aerial-conman comedy Catch Me If You Can—announced while Minority Report was shooting and put into production in February 2002 for Christmas release—had a certain post-9/11 resonance, harking back to the prehijacking days when air travel was innocent, sexy fun. But it was The Terminal, which opened in June 2004 and was the first Spielberg feature to have been entirely conceptualized during wartime, that inaugurated the director’s post-9/11 trilogy of terror.

Tom Hanks
Tom Hanks in The Terminal.

Based on the true story of an Iranian national stranded for years in a Paris airport, The Terminal directly—if squeamishly—addressed the new hell of air travel and America’s corresponding fear of the foreign or Muslim-looking. The outlander, in this case, was Tom Hanks, winner of consecutive Oscars for playing the mentally challenged Forrest Gump and the AIDS-afflicted hero of Philadelphia, who need hardly have stretched his persona to portray one of Spielberg’s benign, if not lovable, “others”—particularly as his previous role for the director was as the martyred leader and embodiment of American decency in Saving Private Ryan.

Part genius and part idiot, at once the hero and victim of globalism, Hanks’s Viktor Navorski is an inadvertent refugee from an imaginary Balkan country who is unable to clear customs (and thus leave JFK) because of a midflight coup that has occurred back home in Krakozia. The Terminal’s press book quoted Spielberg’s boilerplate assertion of his “immediate affinity” for Viktor’s situation; it would be fascinating to just know what the filmmaker meant—was he feeling trapped, stateless, alien? Did he deem the new xenophobia and the profiling of foreigners justified?

“The country’s detaining so many people there’s no goddamn room anywhere,” The Terminal’s mildly villainous airport manager complains—writing a check that the movie would never cash. Making Viktor a Middle Eastern, South Asian, or even Bosnian tourist might have given this unfunny comedy a political edge, as well as a measure of human pathos. But, according to Spielberg (or his publicist), “after Catch Me If You Can,” the filmmaker “wanted to do another movie that could make you laugh and cry and feel good about the world.”

In other words, The Terminal was designed as supremely comforting sociological propaganda. Angst is evoked to be dismissed. Our resourceful Viktor soon bonds with a multi-ethnic band of buddies. Hardly the terrifying jungle of the post-9/11 non-American world, The Terminal’s JFK is a petting zoo of multicultural cuteness. The melting pot has not melted away. Foreigners love us and we love them because Foreigners R Us. What’s more, America Rools: It turns out that Viktor’s reason for coming to America had nothing to do with politics or even economic opportunity. His old Krakozian daddy is the world’s most devoted jazz fan, and Viktor wanted to secure a particular musician’s autograph.

It may also be that Spielberg elected to spin The Terminal’s insipid absurdism as feel-good uplift because, by the time his new Patriot Act scenario opened, America had been war in Iraq for more than a year. Indeed, the Pentagon even produced its own wildly (if only briefly) successful Spielberg scenario, attempting to personalize the war in the operation that would be known as Saving Private Lynch. A few weeks later, the president alighted on an aircraft carrier deck to proclaim our “mission accomplished.” If that carefully choreographed performance was intended as the opening shot in Bush’s upcoming presidential campaign, it was followed in September by Lionel Chetwynd’s made-for-tv movie DC 9/11: Time of Crisis. Most of the principles were impersonated by look-alike actors—including Timothy Bottoms, who had previously played the president in the short-lived comedy series That’s My Bush!

Even before 9/11 we were living an alternate national narrative. The purloined 2000 election—that other great, history-changing trauma—was buried in the rubble at Ground Zero. But as 9/11 rendered George W. Bush’s dubious mandate divine, so Chetwynd’s docudrama served as a legitimizing allegory. The Republican equivalent of Fahrenheit 9/11, DC 9/11 appeared ten months earlier than Michael Moore’s documentary, launching Bush’s campaign with a preemptive fictionalizing strike. Tested by adversity, fictional Bush assumes control of the situation—putting a befuddled old Dick Cheney in his place and educating eager young Condoleezza Rice, while laying out American foreign policy for next eighteen months. (The transformation of the nation’s then-unelected leader into an action hero was paralleled by the most compelling Hollywood spectacle of the summer and fall—namely the unprecedented blitzkrieg gubernatorial campaign waged by action hero Arnold Schwarzenegger.)

Hollywood’s several liberal interventions into the 2004 presidential race largely avoided 9/11 and downplayed the war in Iraq. The disaster film Day After Tomorrow blamed catastrophic climate changes on an American administration run by a bellicose anti-ecological vice president; Jonathan Demme’s remade Manchurian Candidate advanced a sense of oil-fueled corporate conspiracy. As usual, Republicans far surpassed Democrats with their capacity to construct scenarios in life, rather than on theater screens. To reiterate only the most successful of these, volunteer Vietnam veteran John Kerry was effectively recast as a coward or worse, while the combat-averse Bush and Cheney were portrayed as resolute wartime leaders.

Although Spielberg consulted on one of Kerry’s campaign films, he made no election year statement per se. (In a sense, the extraordinary pageant of the Reagan funeral—subsuming all political conflict in a simplified, sentimental, personality-driven narrative—was the year’s preeminent example of Spielbergization.) During the summer of 2004, the entertainment press reported Spielberg at work on a serious thriller—dealing with the 1972 massacre of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics and the clandestine Mossad campaign against the responsible Palestinian terrorists. Then, reportedly because the director feared this project itself might become a target for Islamic terrorists, the movie was postponed. In its place, Spielberg would remake the science-fiction chestnut War of the Worlds, which went into production immediately after Bush’s election.

No more lovable aliens. No less ambitious than the Republican candidate, Spielberg sought to invoke the trauma that was said to have precipitated America’s current war and, not coincidentally, scare the bejesus out of the American public. “The whole thing is very experiential,” Spielberg told reporters during the course of an on-set press conference. War of the Worlds would also be universal. Everyone on earth, Spielberg confidently predicted, could “relate to the [movie’s] point of view, because it’s about a family trying to survive and stay together . . . surrounded by the most epically horrendous events you could possibly imagine.”

Tom Cruise
Dakota Fanning and Tom Cruise in War of the Worlds.

War of the Worlds was released in late June 2005 amid a surge of urban terror and fratricidal violence—in Iraq, where the number of civilian casualties in the two years since Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” announcement now approached 25,000. As his particular mission, Spielberg promised something more than entertainment: dealing with the specter of interplanetary combat, War of the Worlds would not be Starship Troopers and “certainly not” the belligerent unofficial Wells remake, Independence Day: “We take it much more seriously than that,” he said. War of the Worlds was “ultra-realistic, as ultra-realistic as I’ve ever attempted to make a movie, in terms of its documentary style.”

What did Spielberg mean? While suitably fantastic in its representation of cosmic jihad, War of the Worlds was striking for staging the initial Martian attack on an actual New Jersey working-class city just across the Hudson from lower Manhattan. “Is it the terrorists!?!?!?!” child star Dakota Fanning cried in the first of many piercing shrieks. Nor was hers the lone “documentary” allusion to America’s worst day. The movie’s references to Martian “sleeper cells,” not to mention its mise-en-scene of bewildered, dust-coated survivors and homemade “missing” posters struck some reviewers as an outrageously tasteless trivialization.

And yet, as effectively Bad Steven as the movie’s opening scenes certainly were, War of the Worlds ultimately resolved the horrible events it represented. The narrative trajectory was informed by a particular political logic. In tracking the emotional development of the frightened child’s father (Tom Cruise) from callow, immature hotshot to responsible mensch, War of the Worlds provided an allegory, if not a defense, of George W. Bush’s crisis-inspired growth into leadership—or at least the audience’s willingness to grant him that growth. Screenwriter David Koepp’s alternate reading, which followed Wells’s own, suggested that War of the Worlds showed “how US military interventionism abroad is doomed by insurgency.” But to see that movie—in which Martian vampire slugs stood in for American combat units, with Cruise as a surrogate Shiite paterfamilias—one would need to fight and internal revolution against years of Hollywood-inculcated narrative expectations.

War of the World’s specific, “documentary” mise-en-scene left no room for ambiguity. Even Bill O’Reilly got the point: “Influenced by the death and destruction visited upon us by the Islamic killers . . . this isn’t the usual Hollywood cheap-shot leftist propaganda. War of the Worlds actually reflects the view of everyday Americans rather than a few Beverly Hills pinheads.” America took the hit and even the least likely among us rose to the occasion. War of the Worlds proved to be Spielberg’s highest-grossing success since his 1997 sequel to Jurassic Park.

Munich began shooting the day War of the Worlds opened—it is in many respects that earlier movie’s reiteration—and wrapped in early fall. Announcing itself as tragedy with the bombastic fanfare of a faux Jewish lament, Munich shows a gang of Palestinian terrorists scaling the wall of the Olympic village to storm the Israeli compound, shooting some athletes and holding the rest hostage. The games continue, even as the whole world watches the debacle on tv. Spielberg compresses the gist of the 1999 Oscar-winning documentary One Day in September into a superbly edited McLuhanite frenzy; as with Saving Private Ryan, nothing else in the movie can match its opening.

This catastrophe is followed not by panicky flight, as in War of the Worlds, but, like Saving Private Ryan, with methodical vengeance. In the first of many unlikely but metaphorically charged scenes, Golda Meir personally organizes a Mossad hit squad, to be led by her favorite bodyguard, codenamed Avner (Eric Bana). The team is given eleven targets; their mission takes them from Rome to Paris to Cyprus to Beirut to Athens to London. The source for this narrative, coyly denied by Spielberg until the moment of the movie’s release, was George Jonas’s 1984 Vengeance—an oft-disputed and essentially unverifiable account of the operation, told to the author by the pseudonymous Avner.

As in Vengeance and its 1986 HBO adaptation, Sword of Gideon, Munich’s commandos are both supercompetent and morally confused. Perhaps even more perplexed, as they are essentially functioning in the world of 2005. The terrifying introduction, with a band of Palestinian terrorists storming the Israeli compound in the Olympic Village, is the most powerful scene in the movie in part because it conjures up the hitherto only imagined hijacking of four American airliners on September 11. And like Saving Private Ryan’s D-Day, it whets a frightened audience’s desire for revenge.

On one hand, and in what Spielberg might characterize as an example of “ultra-realism,” the terrorists of that other Black September are typically evoked in terms that blatantly anticipate al Qaeda. On the other, in a more fantastic mode, Munich doggedly seeks to humanize these Palestinian others. Neither the lovable outlanders of The Terminal, nor the terrifying aliens of War of the Worlds, the movie’s semidifferentiated Palestinians represent a new dialectic, united with their Israeli enemy in common victimhood.

Much of the blame for this “moral equivalence” was assigned to screenwriter Tony Kushner, an outspoken critic of Israeli policy and, in a sense, heir to the left-wing screenwriters of the 1940s. Replying to his to own critics, Spielberg made the suggestive gaffe of defending himself against “the sin of moral equivocation.” And Munich’s least convincing, most utopian scene is pure Spielberg in its search for common ground . . . in America. Thanks to the mysterious French anarchist family who furnishes Avner’s team with their information (don’t ask), the Mossadniks are tricked into sharing an Athens safe house with a group of equally unwitting PLO operatives. The result is an Oslo summit that dare not speak its name: “You don’t know what it is not to have a home,” one Palestinian tells Avner, as Al Green croons his 1972 hit “Let’s Stay Together” obtrusively in the background. This pop anthem addresses us all.

Eric Bana (left) and Geoffrey Rush in Munich.

Although strongly criticized by American neoconservatives, Munich has relatively little to do with Israel per se—except insofar as it expresses the ambivalence felt by many American Jews regarding the Jewish state. “You are what we prayed for,” Avner’s mother (Israeli icon Gila Almagor) reassures the haunted hero, thus suggesting that in his brute application of justice he is a successor to the Golem of Prague. But not even she wants to know just what her guilt-ridden son did.

In Spielberg’s dramatization, the Mossad mission prophesies Bush’s—but without promising any resolution. “Every man we kill is replaced by worse,” the unhappy Avner warns. “There is no peace at the end of this.”

*  *  *  *  

Munich has been praised as the most downbeat, and thus least Hollywood, movie Spielberg’s ever made. However harrowing in parts, Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan both contrived (as the filmmaker would say of The Terminal) to make you laugh, cry, and feel good about the world. No such consolation exists here: on the eve of the Oscars, Spielberg spun Munich as “a prayer for peace.” But rather, it seems the filmmaker’s cri de coeur, an unhappy justification for the war against terrorism.

Largely uncommented on, in the substantial op-ed midrash that has attached itself to the film’s text, is Munich’s implicit suggestion that there is an Israeli connection to Bush’s war and that this connection is intrinsic. Syriana, last year’s other serious movie about terror and the Middle East, solves this problem by leaving Israel out of the equation altogether. Munich, however, makes it clear that we defend Israel because we could be next—and, as the final shot of the lower Manhattan skyline makes abundantly clear, we were! In a unique spin on Old Testament foreshadowing, the war on terror that the movie shows to have been initiated by the Israelis, is now ours to complete.

Like The Terminal and no less than War of the Worlds, Munich seeks to express support for an American foreign policy doctrine. The difference, in Munich’s case, is that this policy is a policy that it (or Spielberg) cannot support. Small wonder that the movie is so depressed. How does one dramatize opposition to the war? Has even one prominent Democratic politician provided a clue? More to the point, how does one make the rational intervention Spielberg dreamed of making without sacrificing the emotional manipulation that is the filmmaker’s stock-in-trade? Let’s stay together, indeed.

Back in 1943, Darryl Zanuck had called for propaganda dressed in “the glittering robes of entertainment.” But that star-spangled cloak brings its own ideological imperative. Entertainment—as Spielberg would naturally understand it—is permission to escape, as it were, into an improved reality. Thus, for much of the Bush administration, tv’s The West Wing functioned as a virtual liberal presidency. (And, perhaps in time for the 2008 election, Spielberg has begun to contemplate the nature of a good-war presidency. Among his upcoming projects is a biography of Abraham Lincoln, starring Liam “Schindler” Neeson.) As one Hollywood wag cracked on the occasion of the last Oscar presentations, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is the only branch of government the Democrats still control.

Searching for improved reality, Munich can address the Bush wars only indirectly and by first providing a tragic justification for those wars. The fantasy of contrition serves as an ending. The movies may alter history in its representation—or provide an alternative history. But the only world they really change is their own.


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