That conversation came to mind recently as I watched a slew of new filmsa veritable jihad film festivaldealing with terrorism: Syriana, Munich, the excellent Palestinian film Paradise Now and, for kicks, a dvd dash through the fourth season of the television series 24. I watched with new eyes, however, mindful that we are at war and that these sorts of entertainments can influence the public's sense of the struggle, especially serious films that purport to show the reality of the conflict, as Syriana and Munich do.
Actually, far more people watch 24an addictive comic book of a showthan the serious films. There is an indomitable hero, Jack Bauer, who saves the world from evil with stunning regularity. But Bauer is different from pre-9/11 action heroes: he routinely and rather zestfully tortures people, which almost always results in the acquisition of crucial information. Indeed, whenever someone says, "Jack, you can't do that," the only reasonable viewer response is "Oh, shut up! Go for it, Jack." The show's message is not very subtle: We can win this war, but only if we allow our heroes to do the job by any means necessary. By no accident, 24 is a product of Fox.
If 24 represents the classic conservative fantasythe myth of American competence and omnipotencethen Syriana represents the Michael Moore left's myth of American venality and omnipotence, as perpetrated by producer and star George Clooney, who usually knows better. The film aspires to arty complexity, but its purpose is simple-minded in the extreme. The oil companies and their lawyers control everything, including the CIA, which turns out to be an incredibly effective and diabolical agency. In Syriana, not only does the CIA assassinate foreign leaderswhich is banned by Executive Orderbut impeccably so. The target is, of course, the honorable nationalist sheik who wants to rein in the oil companies for the good of his people. As those who have been following real life know, this is hilarious.
Happily, Munich and Paradise Now are a relief from all that competence. The latter, about two would-be suicide bombers, is filled with bumbling and a full range of human responses, including humor, to the absurdity of blowing oneself up for a cause. The bombers are average guys dragooned into action by an old pledge. The decision to detonate depends more on a question of personal shame than religious or nationalist aviditywhich doesn't seem very realistic either. But if the filmmakers err on the side of humanity, neither are there any blunderbuss "Can't we all just get along?" messages. The confused normality of the two young men is horrific enough.
Steven Spielberg's Munich has drawn some harsh responses, mostly because the director chose to go Rodney King in a Time interview last month: "For me this movie is a prayer for peace." He has expressed dismay about the perpetual cycle of violence in the Middle Eastwhich seems to imply a moral equivalence between Palestinian terrorists who butchered members of Israel's Olympic team in 1972 and the Mossad agents who tried to track them down and kill them. The film itself is more subtle. The "facts" of the story have been questioned by former Israeli intelligence officers, but Munich is about feelings, not facts. It's about the emotional impossibility of a war in which most battles are, of necessity, not only outside the traditional rules of warfare but also beyond the limits of civilized behavior. It's a spy movie for people who have seen too many spy movies.
As with Paradise Now, human frailty abounds in Spielberg's movie. The Israeli assassins fumble with their guns and can never quite get their bombs right. They are intent on their mission, but the psychological burden is crushing. And that is the point: this new form of warfare, imposed by Islamist fanaticsand utilized by Iraqi extremists in response to the U.S. invasionis a sapping wound to a civilized society. The notion that there are heroic sociopaths like Jack Bauer who can carry the fight without severe psychological consequences is a fantasy. The flood of Iraq war veterans showing up at hospitals with post-traumatic stress disorder is testimony to that. The moral necessity to confront the terrorists is clear. But the war is going to be fought on their terms, not ours, and we are bound to be diminishedstained, perhaps irrevocablyby it.