27 September 2007

Did Faludi See the Same Movie?

Today's New York Times Arts section contains an article about Susan Faludi and her new book The Terror Dream: Fear and Fantasy in Post-9/11 America. According to the article, Faludi says that in the 2005 War of the Worlds movie Tom Cruise plays a “deadbeat divorced dad emasculated by his wife, reclaiming his manhood by saving their little girl.”

I think that's a profound misreading of the movie. While the War of the Worlds is indeed a story of a male looking after a female, it's more particularly the story of a parent looking after a child.

Cruise's character, Ray, is far from "emasculated" at the start of the movie. He's operating a huge, phallic crane; the script says he "sits comfortably in the seat, working the controls of the crane with two joysticks." The other guys in Ray's neighborhood like and respect him. He's behind on his child-support payments. He's doing what he wants, when he wants. Ray is completely immature--and he's got two kids to look after on the weekends he can't weasel out of. Now that's scary.

In fact, Cruise's performance in the first half of War of the Worlds is why I've told my mother it's too scary for her. Not because of the huge aliens burning people into dust. Not because of Tim Robbins as a crazy man. Not because of little Dakota Fanning enduring one violent wreck after another. No, it's because Tom Cruise does such a convincing job at playing the Worst Dad in the World.

Like 95% of Cruise's other movies, War of the Worlds is about his character realizing he has to grow up. By looking after his daughter, Ray doesn't "reclaim his manhood" in a masculine/feminine sense. He reclaims it in a adult/juvenile sense. He becomes a man, not a boy. And all it takes is one massive alien invasion.

The Times article says, apparently still reflecting Faludi's interpretation, "At the end of that movie, Mr. Cruise’s character cradles his daughter in his arms." Ray holds his daughter in his arms many times in the movie. But the final scene shows him sending her off to be embraced by her mother, and then hugging and reconciling with his teen-aged son, who'd lost respect for him because he was (a) such a bad parent, and (b) not aggressive enough in fighting the aliens.

Faludi rightly sees the parallels with The Searchers that producer-director Steven Spielberg and screenwriters Josh Friedman and David Koepp put in War of the Worlds. Both movies end with a family reuniting in a doorway, for example. But while John Wayne's Ethan is excluded from that family and left outside alone, Cruise's Ray has earned his link to it.

I thought Faludi's op-ed piece a few weeks back drawing a line between the North American frontier conflicts of the 1600s and 1700s and the terrorist attacks of 2001 made some interesting points. Interpreting War or the Worlds against the backdrop of those attacks could also be provocative. Indeed, it's almost impossible to watch the movie and not consider recent history. But doing so requires seeing what the movie actually shows us, not just what fits a pre-existing concern.

Yes, War of the Worlds has a male hero and a female in need of protection. But it doesn't carry the message that in a crisis a man must "reclaim his manhood." It says that dads have to look after their children. Significantly, Cruise's character doesn't go after the alien invaders (much less aliens from another planet who are easier to find). For the sake of his children, Ray tries only to escape and hide. Finally, when we consider the message of War of the Worlds, we have to remember H. G. Wells's ending: the aliens die a natural death, not due to anyone's manhood.


david elzey said...

Interesting, both Faludi's take and yours. I won't rewrite an old college paper here, but I will point out that sci-fi in American film is often used as a window into the anxieties of the nation viewed from a safe distance.

In the 1950's sci-fi was alien invasions and radiation, big on the minds of Cold War folks. The aliens were, naturally, the Red Menace (Invasion of the Body Snatchers) and radioactive fallout was responsible for many supernatural disasters (Godzilla). It spoke to our national fear of the outsiders, and of the unspeakable horrors unleashed in the atomic age.

Since the sci-fi reinvents itself to fit the times. In a one-two punch Kubrick laid out utopian and dystopian takes on the future (Clockwork Orange, 2001: A Space Odyssey). Alien takes on the feminism (and changing roles of motherhood) of the late 1970's. Today Transformers revive a Reagan era cartoon for that same audience in a Bush era republic spouting the same isolationist dogma.

So I would have to agree the War of the World is, indeed, a mirror into our post-9/11 psyche, aimed to take us from uncaring adolescent-acting adults and ram us headlong into parental concerns whether we like them or not. Buck up, America, the aliens are here and they won't go away unless we fight.

Of course, the aliens do go away without our help, but at least we can pat ourselves on the back and say we did our part. We don't stand down! We don't use logic or reasoning! We surrender our freedoms to our fears and fight the senseless fight!

That's who we are.

J. L. Bell said...

I don't think there's any doubt that Spielberg et al. made War of the Worlds with the 2001 attacks in mind. How could they not plan some of those scenes without thinking of the visual resonances behind them?

The ideological moments original to this version that seem strongest are:
a) Cruise's character tries to hide himself and his daughter from the aliens, even killing Robbins's to do so, but that doesn't work.
b) Cruise's character is then saved from being eaten by other people in the net, and with their help he manages to do some damage to that one alien.

So don't just be selfish and hide! Everybody work together! Those are not-unfamiliar messages, both in movies and in families.

The US military comes across as powerless, a way for the Cruise character's teenage son to work out his anger. (That's in contrast to the same military in, say, Independence Day.) Not until the tripods fall ill can our man alert those soldiers to the fact that their shields are down.

Then, of course, we blast them out of the sky.