CHRISTIAN ETHICS AND THE MOVIES
Terrorism - Munich (2005) and Syriana (2005)
By David A. Thomas
These two movies (both rated R) represent Hollywood's first important efforts to engage in a serious discussion about the ethics of terrorism.
Hollywood is "out of touch," actor George Clooney declared at the 2005 Oscar awards ceremony in accepting his statuette for Syriana. Referring to civil rights and liberal causes, he went on to praise movie-makers for their history of producing courageous films with bold social and political themes throughout cinematic history. In fact, most mainstream movies are the opposite. Almost all major studio products reflect conservative social values and go to great lengths to avoid being offensive. Movie making is an entertainment industry that necessarily caters to popular tastes and the prevailing winds of public opinion in order to attract the largest audiences in a fiercely competitive market.
That is why most issue-oriented movies are low budget productions by independent producers. They have less to lose.
Some examples of Clooney's "out of touch" movies that are important social texts include the powerful Vietnam War movies, Platoon and Apocalypse Now from the 1980s, a full decade after the U. S. withdrew from Saigon. The Equal Rights Amendment was first proposed in 1921; the one we remember was from 1972. Yet the first breakthrough feminist fable, Thelma and Louise, was released in 1991.
This year's Munich and Syriana represent a couple of Hollywood's preliminary forays into terrorism in the post-9/11 climate. Syriana is a product of Participant Productions, a new independent company, which also released Good Night and Good Luck, about McCarthyism (another Clooney vehicle). However, Munich is a Steven Spielberg movie. For him, to take a controversial stance on a political issue is a major departure from character. Considering the body of Spielberg's filmography, from E. T. through last year's remake of H. G. Wells' War of the Worlds, no one is more mainstream than he.
Middle Eastern terrorism has been a constant feature of modern history for nearly a century. Zionism was a movement that came into public consciousness in the 1920s. The conflict has been escalating ever since. Israel was recognized in 1948. The Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) was formed in 1964 Western Airliners were hijacked by Arab terrorists in the 1960s. Black September, a PLO terrorist group, kidnapped and murdered eleven Israeli Olympic athletes in 1972.
State sponsored terrorism against the U. S. was initiated by the Hostage Crisis of 1979, when Iranian students held 52 Americans in the U. S. Embassy in Tehran for 444 days. That event influenced the defeat of President Jimmy Carter's re-election bid. Middle Eastern terrorism targeting the U. S., specifically, has been reported increasingly since then. In 1993, a terrorist bomb exploded in the basement of the World Trade Center.
Then came September 11, 2001. President Bush's speech of September 20 identified an individual, Osama bin Laden, as our attacker. From that point forward, the United States has been engaged in a "war against terror," against non-governmental terrorist organizations, as well as so-called "evil" governments. Our tactics include both CIA operations, and the Iraq War that was launched in 2003 and still grinds on today.
Enter Hollywood, getting in touch.
Munich is not a story about the '72 Olympics tragedy per se. The story line follows the Mossad assassination team which Golda Mier sent after its terrorist perpetrators. Given a list of nine Black September leaders in the movie, the team manages to complete its mission of cold-blooded revenge against four of them. The drama is about the team members' moral struggles as human beings with the ethics of what they are doing.
Munich's underlying theme is that "defending your home is costly." The assassins make up a team of ordinary men selected to be as unremarkable as possible. Their bomb making expert was, in his real life, a toy maker. The team leader's avocation was cooking, and his contact point with his informant was a gourmet kitchen shop. The Palestinian terrorists they pursued were also portrayed as otherwise decent intellectuals and family men.
The movie ends with the team leader, self-retired from the mission, settling into his new home with his young family in a Brooklyn apartment. The movie's final image, ominously, is a shot of the World Trade Center in the middle background.
Syriana is set in the present day, in a fictitious Middle Eastern oil country. The plot line is broken down into separate sub-plots that follow the interrelated competing interests of several parties. First, there is a pending merger of two U. S. oil companies with designs on a major Middle East oil field. Next, there is the CIA which sees its mission to be to mastermind the outcome. Next, there is a royal Arab oil family whose two sons have opposite ambitions for their country's future allegiances. One is corrupt, and he wants to stick with America. The CIA, of course, supports him. The other son, more progressive, wants to shift the country's oil exports to China. Embedded within this story line there is a young American energy consultant who sides with the more progressive pretender to the throne, in defiance of the CIA's wishes. George Clooney plays an amoral, entrepreneurial CIA agent who sells weapons to belligerent parties on the side, one of whom turns out to be a militant Islamic group who plays a big part in what happens next. In the midst of this techno-drama, there is that militant Islamic group that is determined to attack the American oil company by means of a young, idealistic suicide bomber.
Christian Ethical Issues about Terrorism: These two movies represent Hollywood's first serious efforts to get involved and engage in a serious discussion of the ethics of terrorism. These narratives use stories told by Hollywood's icons to engage both sides in a discussion of such questions as these:
What about state-supported lethal covert assassination teams? What about the CIA's covert warfare? What is the Western piece in the provocation of terrorist responses? What about fundamentalist Islamists carrying their faith through the instrumentality of suicide bombers? What about American dependence on Middle East oil? What about the Iraq War? Is the U. S. now resuming a proactive military role as world cop? Are terrorists merely armed Islamic freedom fighters?
For all of us, where is Christ in our discussion of these issues of global oil politics, war, and terrorism?
David A. Thomas is Associate Professor of Rhetoric, Emeritus, from the University of Richmond. He retired in 2004 and now resides in Sarasota, FL. He may be reached at email@example.com