Sari and I caught a showing of War of the Worlds on Sat. nite and we were unexpectedly overwhelmed. I had read a pan of the flick from Ebert, and a qualified “thumbs-up” from A.O. Scott of the Times, so my expectations were fairly low. But being a fairly dedicated fan of both Spielberg and Cruise, I figured it would at least be an exciting and fun way to take in two hours of movie theater air-conditioning.
Instead, I found myself having a profound emotional experience. As a native New Yorker who was in the city on September 11, 2001, I’ve long struggled with coming to grips with that day. It was truly such a shocking, unbelievable event that in many ways I feel like I never processed it. For me, the movie was actually cathartic, in the truest sense of the word. That terms get thrown around rather loosely, but in this case I think it actually applies.
Yes, on Sept. 11 our city was attacked — but neither I nor Sari were ever in personal danger. Yes, the Twin Towers were destroyed — but I had only visited them once, when I was a kid. Yes, thousands of people died — but I didn’t know any of them. And as much as I wanted to do something to help in the aftermath, there really was no opportunity (other than helping to gather and sort donations, which I did, and contribute a story to one of the 9/11 benefit books, which I also did).
Nevertheless, for many months after Sept. 11, I awoke in a panic imagining more planes were coming, this time for me; or I nearly jumped out of my chair any time a truck back-fired or an ambulance sped by. But then eventually, those feelings deadened as I got back the business of living my own little life. So settling in to see a movie of sci-fi escapism, I was shocked to see how much the movie paralleled September 11, right down to its New York-area location (in fact, some scenes were shot in nearby Park Slope).
The scenes of Tom Cruise running in pure terror as the aliens begin zapping — vaporizing — everyone around him, buildings crashing around him, was right out of the Towers falling. And when he scrambles back to his apartment to find his hair and clothes covered in ash — most of it the remains of his fellow human beings — that was truly chilling. And watching this all happen, I was as terrified as any of the film’s characters. For real moments during the movie, I actually forgot I was a viewer and that it wasn’t real.
I won’t spoil the film for those of you who haven’t read the book or seen the film yet, but there’s one more point to make. In a departure from typical summer blockbusting, this film does not feature a “hero” as its central character. Besides being a failed husband and father, Tom Cruise’s character is basically just a “regular guy.” He doesn’t end up leading the rebellion to repel the invaders. He doesn’t discover their secret weakness. He doesn’t pilot an F-14 into the mother ship and destroy its central command. For the most part, he’s just a working class guy caught up in protecting his family, trying to survive.
I think this was a brilliant decision by Spielberg and I can’t help but imagine that he was thinking of not only Sept. 11 but Schindler’s List when he put this film together. It was important for him to show helplessness, to have us truly comprehend that sometimes we can’t control our destiny, that the heroic individual doesn’t buck all odds and triumph. This is an important lesson — it teaches us empathy.
Sari and I came out of the film in some sort of shock. We hadn’t been prepared to feel that strongly — that’s why the film was so cathartic. Yes, it was a silly sci-fi popcorn flick. But because Spielberg has a heart (and a brain), and because Tom Cruise was willing to play this type of character, they helped me work through my emotions about a real life act of horror, unplugging a stoppage and letting emotions flow. This may be an indictment of me, or our media-based society, but I’m just glad it happened. Film is a powerful medium, and when it’s used in the right way, for “moral” purposes, it can be a potent force for good.