Movies grapple anew with the Middle East conflict

Are movies getting a grip on the ungraspable Middle East?

A handful of films does not another New Wave make, but lately several, including “Paradise Now” and “Syriana,” have moved beyond heavy-ordnance patriotism to set our gaze ground zero at the explosive intersection of terror, religion, big oil, history and geopolitics. They are films that feel right for this historic moment.

It’s about time. With few exceptions, such as 1962′s “Lawrence of Arabia” and 1966′s “Khartoum,” Hollywood’s depiction of the Arab world has ranged from the stereotypically comic to the execrable. Rudolph Valentino in harem pants and DeMille’s 1935 “The Crusades” set the tone for lust and Western righteousness at large in burning desert sands peopled by swarthy, cunning, scurrilous, devious cutthroats, sometimes literally: “Don’t go (into the Arab quarter of Jerusalem),” warns a British officer in 1960′s “Exodus.” “They’ll cut your throat.”

Sometimes the depictions were harmless costume drama. Who can forget Tony Curtis’ address to Piper Laurie in “Son of Ali Baba”: “Take me to your foddah, da Caleeph”?

More recently, after the first Gulf War, the tone became downright nasty in films like “Rules of Engagement” and “True Lies,” in which a character says, “Feeling gloomy? Pulverize an Arab!” Demi Moore’s “G.I. Jane” came of age — you guessed it — by blasting away a duck’s row of Arab baddies, as if every living Arab male had exchanged traditional headdress for a gunman’s ski mask.

Lately, however, Hollywood and the Arab film community have begun to dig deeper into the sand to locate at least part of a tangled root that has knotted the West and the Mideast, evangelism and secularism, modernism and history, Christianity and Islam, not just through decades but centuries.

Based on Anthony Swofford’s book, Sam Mendes’ “Jarhead” points to the absurdity of a conflict (the first Gulf War) in which the enemy is not only unseen, but never even encountered.

Steven Spielberg’s upcoming “Munich” reveals the moral quandary of Israeli commandos’ eye-for-an-eye response to terrorism as perpetrated by the Black September movement during the 1972 Olympics. “Somewhere inside all this intransigence there has to be a prayer for peace,” Spielberg told Time magazine, “because the biggest enemy is not the Palestinians or the Israelis. The biggest enemy in the region is intransigence.”

Stephen Gaghan’s “Syriana,” on the other hand, is our new millennial answer to “Three Days of the Condor.” In Sydney Pollack’s 1975 thriller, a secret military intelligence cabal plots to seize control of Middle East oil fields. At the end, CIA station chief Cliff Robertson tells renegade Robert Redford, “Today it’s oil, tomorrow it’s water. People just want us to get it for them. They don’t care how.”

In “Syriana,” getting it — for the American consumer and for a Texas-based oil company maneuvering against foreign competition — has retrofitted the American government around corrupt expediency. It’s a system in which “due diligence” replaces justice and an office-bound Washington CIA assassin directs his killer missile from a GPS fix — and has a wife and kids in the sleepy ‘burbs.

Like “Condor,” “Syriana” is an intelligent thriller, but its complex storylines include international and Persian Gulf coast power relations, politicized family accessions among the emirates, and the conversion of a Pakistani oil field worker into a Muslim suicide bomber.

“I came of age in the ’80s and ’90s,” says the 40-year-old Gaghan, who, in researching “Traffic” discovered that the Pentagon’s anti-terror and anti-narcotics units were in the same branch. “In the ’90s, after communism collapsed, we all thought we could work hard for eight weeks and go shopping for the rest of our lives. Then the World Trade Center fell. An Islamic radical living in a cave in Afghanistan was warning us to get out of Mecca and the Holy Land. Suddenly the world became very small. The U.S. consumes 26% of the world’s oil and gas, 70% of which is in the hands of Islamic fundamentalists who hate us. I fear for what my kids will inherit.”

Nowhere is the French concept of plus ca change more relevant than the Middle East.

Papal Europe, weakened by the fall of Rome, redirected the barbaric energies of marauding Visigoths and Vandals south in a series of Crusades to reclaim the Holy Land for Christianity. It’s a story most recently visited by Ridley Scott in this past summer’s “The Kingdom of Heaven,” which, to its credit, suggested that there was nothing black and white about the Christians’ cause.

It was Europe, via France and England and their joint Sykes-Picot Treaty in 1916, that redrew the political map of the Middle East to serve its post-WWI interests (this was the betrayal dealt with in “Lawrence of Arabia”).

Oil was not the issue then that it is now. In fact, it was only in the early 1930s that British engineers and geologists, scratching around the undulant, barren drifts of Saudi Arabia, detected the massive reserves below.

“I don’t think it could be said that there’d be no violence in the Middle East if the British hadn’t intervened,” says Jack Miles, senior fellow at the Pacific Council on Intl. Policy. “Britain wanted to establish kingdoms and France wanted to establish republics in what they both termed ‘mandated territories.’”

If the political is personal, nothing personalizes a condition with more immediacy than movies. Miles vividly recalls the impact of seeing Bahman Ghobadi’s 2004 “Turtles Can Fly,” which is set in Kurdistan and is the first film made in the region since the fall of Hussein.

“It shows Kurdish refugee camps full of maimed children — they’ve been sent into the mine fields to disarm and dig up land mines for the adults to sell,” says Miles. “Sometimes the mines go off. The central characters — who can’t be older than 15 — include a girl who’s been raped by Saddam’s troops and can’t bond with her baby, and her brother, whose arms have been blown off at the elbows. Everyone is waiting for the American troops, but when they arrive, vacant-eyed, and pass right by, you get the message that nothing will make a difference. You never get used to seeing the boy’s blown-off arms.”

“Paradise Now,” directed by Israel-born Arab Hany Abu-Assad, is a thriller of a different sort; its suspense is rooted in a presentable and intelligent young Palestinian man’s inexorable decision, after initial hesitation, to go through with a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv. Rather than depict him as a demented nut case, the film quietly (there’s no music to cue our emotions) reveals his familial shame and dishonor, and his sulphurous anger at the ghettoized hopelessness of Arab life in Gaza. Most frightening of all is his hardening unreason.

The final scene shows him ready to pull his detonator cord in the middle of a busload of ebullient young Israeli soldiers. In extreme close-up, his eyes are vacant, too — nothing will make a difference to him either.

The screen goes blank — as it does at the end of “Syriana” — as if to say that, wherever your sympathies might lie, the end result of fanaticism is oblivion.

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