Register Sunday | June 16 | 2019

The World at War

Steven Spielberg Goes Too Far

When I was six, I watched Cosmos, the PBS series based on Carl Sagan's book. I don't remember much of the show except for the part about the effects of a nuclear holocaust. Actually, I don't even remember what he said about that-I just remember his face and his voice and then crying in my bed all night long, my mom lying next to me, doing her damnedest to comfort me.

I was a sensitive child, and a scared one. After Cosmos, I focussed much of my irrational anxiety on the apocalypse. I had nightmares about invasions and orange skies and desperately looking for my family after an attack. At the same time, I was drawn to apocalyptic stories: At various times, I was obsessed with Thundarr the Barbarian, Red Dawn, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Battlestar Galactica, Watchmen, Planet of the Apes, and the Mutant Massacre storyline in The Uncanny X-Men. An odd list, I know, but after the Cosmos incident-and similar ones involving A Fire in the Sky and Night of the Comet-my parents manoeuvered me away from The Day After and the like. All of this was compounded (or started, depending on your view of history) by Ronald Reagan's obsession with building atomic bombs: whatever politicians argue about eventually trickles down into the heads of elementary-school students, only without context or narrative filter. Chernobyl didn't help, either.

As it was when I was a child, I was drawn to the horror, to the fliers. I read every one of them, and I would cry.

When I got older I realized that there probably wasn't going to be a nuclear war; that the superpowers weren't run by madmen, but rather cynical pragmatists. (That was then, and this is now.) I also found out that we have a good ten billion years to wait before the sun explodes. I was fine, and could now be anxious about the normal things-work, love and money.

The events of September 11, 2001, could have come from one of my childhood nightmares. To repeat the cliché, my complacency vanished. I started having new nightmares, worse daymares and would start crying spontaneously while walking down my New York City street. The anxiety was worse than before because the fear was not based on theatrical puppet shows; it was based on the smoke that wafted up my street for weeks, the smell of burning plastic that lasted months, and the never-ending blanketing of images: the burning towers, the falling bodies, the ashen mobs and the posters.

Jesus, the posters. They were so much worse than the list of names on the Vietnam Memorial, because there was no artist to interpret them, no history to tell us their meaning. It was just raw grief in the form of snapshots. I lived on West 13th Street then, and one of the clusters of posters was centered a block away at St. Vincent's Hospital. It was like living in the hallway of a morgue.

As it was when I was a child, I was drawn to the horror, to the fliers. I read every one of them, and I would cry.


I had planned on boycotting War of the Worlds. I'd long ago dismissed Tom Cruise as a cute, mediocre actor who made better-than-average movies. He might have been gay and become a Scientologist to "cure" himself, but more likely he was just a hot guy that some of us wished were gay. Since he fired the publicist who had made his career and replaced her with his Scientologist sister, however, his true personality has emerged-he's an immature, hyperactive, misinformed nut. His instant engagement to half-his-age Katie Holmes is no more shocking than anything Liz Taylor did, but his attack on Brooke Shields for using anti-depressants to stave off her post-partum depression (not to mention his associated hysterical rants against psychiatry in general) is at least appalling and at most, dangerous. Those of us who can read forget that stars of Tom Cruise's status can influence people's actions. I was especially offended by his crusade because I was kept sane after September 11 by therapy and forty milligrams a day of Celexa, an anti-depressant.

I felt compelled to see the movie though, when I heard that Steven Spielberg, America's Greatest DirectorTM, had infused his alien-attack movie with a high dose of September 11 allusions. Spielberg has made some profound statements about the horror of humanity-The Color Purple, Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan, for instance-and I hoped that he might re-imagine the greatest alien invasion story of them all as a commentary on our current political situation, in much the same way that The Day the Earth Stood Still or Invasion of the Body Snatchers were about the Cold War. Besides Bruce Springsteen and Michael Moore, few of our great artists have made profound artistic statements about September 11. Catharsis is not too much to expect of Spielberg.

War of the Worlds could have just been thrilling if Spielberg had just chased his actors with aliens, but the gratuitous manipulation of a national trauma-the personal trauma of thousands-made the movie terrifying, not to mention appalling.

I will admit that the film is "good." Tom Cruise and Dakota Fanning are complex and scared, Janusz Kaminski's pictures are high art, and Josh Friedman and David Koepp's screenplay is riveting. The only truly weak link is Tim Robbins, who is playing the same disturbed, nervous man he played in Mystic River-except Clint Eastwood isn't around to keep him from eating the scenery with salt and pepper.

Unfortunately, Eastwood also wasn't around to give the movie any meaning. War of the Worlds is not a metaphor, it's a horror film. It's not a movie about fear as much as it is a movie made to scare the shit out of the audience. Horror films often rely on twisting the nature of safe archetypes: Mom turns evil, pets become monsters, nightmares come true. In War of the Worlds, Spielberg goes too far, pasting the most iconic of September 11 imagery into the narrative for no reason other than to upset the viewer. After the initial alien attack, Tom Cruise is covered in the ashes of the people who were killed next to him. As he and the extras run from the aliens, smoke billows behind them. Everyone asks, "Is it the terrorists?" (No, but the baddies did have sleeper cells.) The night after the first attack, thousands of homemade missing posters line the streets.

The reason most horror films work is that they are entertaining. The fear we feel is false; the adrenalin spike, a trick. To not actually have been chased by a knife-wielding madman is the happy ending. War of the Worlds could have just been thrilling if Spielberg had just chased his actors with aliens, but the gratuitous manipulation of a national trauma-the personal trauma of thousands-made the movie terrifying, not to mention appalling. It's taken me a week to shake the movie out of my head. It will take a lifetime to stop being scared.

Ted Gideonse has written about the arts (and other stuff) for Newsweek, Rolling Stone, Salon and the Advocate. He lives in Brooklyn and keeps a blog, the Gideonse Bible. Bring Me the Axe appears every other Friday.