JULY 31, 2005
John Podhoretz, he of that most famous of neocon dynasties, just can't get the alleged subversive subtext of Spielberg's "War of the World" out of his mind. Now he's zeroed in (New York Post, July 27) on David Koepp, the co-writer of the screenplay. Podhoretz quotes from an interview on the film that Koepp gave to the Chicago Sun-Times: "Certainly there are a lot of political undertones and overtones. In the '50s, 'War of the Worlds,' was, 'My God, the commies are coming to get us.' Now its about fear of terrorism. In other parts of the world, the new movie will be fear of American invasion. It will be clearly about the Iraq war for them." Podhoretz interprets this statement as saying that the aliens in the Spielberg film "are intended to symbolize the U.S. military."
But the quote from Koepp doesn't say this. It says that different people in different countries will read into the "War of the Worlds" what they want to read into it, as have people in past decades and places. Naturally today's Americans will project fear of terrorism into it on some level. And of course Iraqis (whether anti-U.S. or pro-U.S.) will associate the Martian invasion with the shock and awe show over Baghdad and the ensuing events when they view videos or DVDs obtained from the copyright pirates in China. In an interview with IGN FilmForce, Koepp is crystal clear about this: "I think the movie will be seen as a prism that will reflect whatever people already believe" (emphasis added).
Koepp is silly, however, to say that the film will play overseas to fears of a U.S. invasion. The French love to bash America but I doubt there's a single Sorbonne intellectual who really believes the U.S. military is planning to drop daisy-cutters to take out the Left Bank. Probably the only people with a sincerely held fear of a U.S. invasion post-Iraq by America's depleted army of National Guardsmen are the North Korean crazies--and they are unlikely to let anyone in their country see this or any other Hollywood movie.
Koepp in other interviews not quoted by Podhoretz has admitted that he himself identifies the Martians with the U.S. military. But just because a screenwriter has ultraliberal personal views doesn't mean those views find their way into his or her script (these guys are professionals when all is said and done), or are retained by producers or directors even if they do appear in an early draft. Certainly there is no hidden subversive subtext in "Spider-Man," "Jurassic Park" and "Mission Impossible," all of which Koepp worked on (unless the message "Don't Clone Dinosaurs" is some kind of attack on multinational biotech companies). And does Podhoretz really think Spielberg would have risked the public hue and cry that comparing the U.S. Marines (even in a coded form) to Hitler-style mass-murdering aliens would have triggered?
It is widely known that screenwriters have very little artistic control over their scripts (just read F. Scott Fitzgerald's "Pat Hobby" stories). It is the directors and producers who make the final decision, and their decision in this case clearly was to make a summer blockbuster, not a magnet for demonstrations and boycotts. There is nothing of any significance in the final script or in the movie as a totality that would lead a reasonable person to conclude that it is propaganda aimed at the U.S. military or the U.S. government. I mean, the bad guys invade the United States, not Iraq. They destroy the government in Washington, not Baghdad. They have no sympathizers or allies among the American people. And the U.S. military fights back heroically against them.
I also stated in my previous posting on this subject that there is nothing to lead one to believe the Martians are intended by Spielberg to symbolize Islamic terrorism--they are armed with death rays, not box cutters; and their aim is to exterminate the human race, not forcibly convert it. If they bring down tall buildings, well so have dozens of s-f and disaster films going back to "Godzilla"--and no, that famous monster wasn't a symbol of the Soviet Red Army, it was just a lizard.
Well's "War of the Worlds" is one of the great archetypal tales of modern popular literature, working on the preconscious mind and (in Freudian theory, at least) on the unconscious. As such it is a magnet not only for the political obsessions of individuals but for all kinds of projections of their personal "stuff" (the latter often assumes a political form without the person being aware fully or at all about what he or she is really expressing). The same thing can be said of the artistic creator: H.G. Wells the novelist, Orson Welles the radio dramatist, and the successive screenwriters, directors and producers of film versions have all expressed their own personal conflicts as well as society's "group fantasies" in this story. The kind of one-sided ideological interpretations in which political pundits excel tends to miss this forest for the trees (as when Bill O'Reilly seized on a single statement of the hero's teenager son about wanting to kill the aliens and ignored the many previous scenes depicting the boy's rage at his father).
And by the way, if there is any clear reference to contemporary events in "War of the Worlds" it is to the breakup of the Tom Cruise-Nicole Kidman marriage and the issue of whether the kids will be raised as Scientologists or Catholics. This situation may account for the unusual power and depth of Cruise's acting this time around.
Podhoretz's latest remarks on "War of the Worlds" are contained in a column with the headline "Hollywood Hell: Stars are out to bash U.S." I grant that columnists don't always have control over the dumb headlines that the tabloids attach to their writings, but this particular column appears to predict the worst based on the strange assumption that Hollywood moguls are so ideologically driven that they no longer care about the profits that result from appealing to the broadest possible audience. Although Podhoretz does make some legitimate points about Hollywood individuals who have a history of making foolish remarks, the people in question are mostly not the ones who make the final decisions about important films. However, I fully concur with his concern over how the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre (and Mossad's subsequent tracking down of the terrorists) will be handled in Spielberg's next film, because of the director's past record of naivete about the Palestinian cause.
But Podhoretz, like so many neocons, overstates his case by a galactic parsec. We even get a weird replay of Red Channels type McCarthyism. Actress Maggie Gyllenhaal, we are informed, is the daughter of Naomi Foner who in turn is the sister of historian Eric Foner (and of course, although Podhoretz doesn't say it, Eric and Naomi's uncle was the labor historian and Communist party member Philip Foner).
What's the point here? Should we do DNA testing on everyone in Hollywood to see who is or isn't related to some dead white male Stalinist or ex-Stalinist? But then, to be fair, we'd also have to test all the conservative pundits in New York and Washington to see who's related to dead or elderly white male ex-Trotskyists....
Political incorrectness on the Sci-Fi Channel? In the most recent episode of "Battlestar Galactica," soldiers from Commander Adama's fugitive human fleet are trapped on a planet where the Cylons have set up missile defenses. The Cylons of course are the robot life-form ("there are many copies...") who almost wiped out humanity in a sneak attack and are now pursuing them through the galaxy. The trapped soldiers have to take out the Cylons missiles so that the shuttle from the Mothership can rescue them. So the surviving officer says to his little band, "Let's go jump some toasters." Toasters? This was a new one on me, although folks tell me the term has been used on this series since the beginning. Maybe the young techno-geeks at MIT and Stanford who're working on real robotics should start a movement to protest this dangerous precedent of hate speech against robots and their kitchen-appliance ancestors.
Credit where credit's due. In my July 6 posting I mentioned that Spielberg's "War of the Worlds" embodies, among other things, a parental rescue fantasy. This concept comes from the ongoing film research of Geraldine Pauling, a member of the International Psychohistorical Association (IPA).