War and Peace: The Spirit of 9-11 on the Silver Screen
Guest Perspective/Roy Morrison
For Martha Brickett, in memoriam
My son Sam, 12, had just finished another day of baseball camp. It was raining hard. Instead of a trip to an All Star team evening practice, we went to see Steven Spielberg's "War of the Worlds" on opening day.
I don't know what the critics will say. But it was a rather dark and sometimes claustrophobic movie of humans on the run from pitiless alien monsters.
Two things struck me about this "War of the Worlds." First, as Sam and I played long toss in the road after we came home, whipping the baseball long distances, it occurred to me that I threw better than Tom Cruise's movie character, the reluctant hero-dad. And second, that "War of the Worlds" was as good a depiction of the American bruised psyche after 9-11 that we are likely to see.
As the invasion begins, there's a strange turbulence in Spielberg's sky, followed by an intense lightening storm repeatedly striking the same spot in the New Jersey pavement, then the ground splitting before astonished spectators, buildings toppling, an alien war machine emerging from the earth, death rays destroying houses, vaporizing people, flipping a huge bridge on its side.
Suddenly, we are at war and on the run, not from H.G. Wells' Martians. Our antagonists in Spielberg's film are an even more sinister enemy whose buried machines, like Al Qaeda sleeper cells, were hidden in our midst, beneath our very feet. This was an enemy meticulously planning our destruction while we lived our innocent pre-attack lives.
As in the book, the aliens are undone by our earth's ubiquitous microcosm with whom we have evolved, while the aliens have not, to ultimately fatal effect. It's the natural world that we treat with ecological disrespect that saves us, not technology, not the world's most potent military.
Indeed, it's a flock of birds landing on top of an alien fighting machine that discloses their weakness.
There is, of course, the Hollywood story of a divorced dad on an epochal trek from New Jersey to Boston, saving his daughter and being reunited with his teenage son. There are also more nuanced messages about war bringing out the best and worst in us, about acts of kindness and courage, and of selfishness and desperation, about hard, bad choices. And in the end, it is family, not broader social values that triumph, while the earth itself defeats our antagonists.
War of the Worlds captures the emotional subtext of shock and victimhood that 9-11 visited upon Americans. The consequences of its emotional impact clearly go far beyond the slaughter of innocents and the destruction of buildings in the attack by a handful of terrorist fanatics .
The psychic wounds of 9-11 were essential in helping the Bush administration lead the United States to war in Iraq, and for its arguments to continue the fight. 9-11 is the justification for torture, not only of real Al Qaeda prisoners, but of unfortunates in Abu Garib and Guantanamo. 9-11 justifies imprudent military spending, the USA Patriot Act and other assaults upon our privacy and civil liberties.
Steven Spielberg's "War of the Worlds" may or may not be great cinema. But I find it a compelling dramatization of the pain that 9-11 inflicted upon the soul and spirit of Americans. Viewed in this way, the movie can help us understand this pain and see that the solution to the problem posed by our antagonists will not ultimately come from the power of our weapons, but from the resources and strengths of our democratic society, our families and communities that we have at hand and need struggle to maintain.
Roy Morrison is an energy consultant and writer in Warner, N.H. His latest book is Eco Civilization 2140: A 22nd Century History and Survivor's Journal (forthcoming). http://www.roymorrison.net/