Finally, Hollywood is offering humane, equitable images of Arabs and Muslims. Stephen Gaghan's political drama "Syriana," and Steven Spielberg's "Munich" discard stale stereotypes. Instead, they forcefully and eloquently argue that unabated power and unconstrained violence serve to expedite terrorism and prevent peace.
Gaghan's lucid geopolitical thriller, "Syriana," which I did some minor consulting for, stars George Clooney and Matt Damon. The film probes contemporary questions, ruffling our senses and causing us to ponder seriously the consequences of what happens when corrupt, influential U.S. government and corporate executives mix together greed, oil and terrorism in order to maintain their monopoly on Arab oil. Power and money matter most.
Writer-director Gaghan projects "Syriana's" Arabs, Pakistanis and Americans as multidimensional characters, complete with complex motives. In the clash of modernity and radicalism, Gaghan eschews stereotypes. For example, he presents unemployed Pakistani Muslim oil refinery workers not as hateful suicide bombers but as innocent victims, seduced by an Islamic fundamentalist.
"Syriana" does not vilify the Muslim world, its people, religion or culture. Instead, the film warns us to be wary of power moguls, men who consider the deaths of innocent people acceptable. In Gaghan's harsh, corrupt societies, everyone is expendable: educated Arabs seeking democracy, unemployed Pakistani immigrants desperate to find a meaningful purpose to their lives, covert CIA operatives pursuing justice, even Arab and American children.
As for "Munich," I initially balked before seeing it because Hollywood has a history of demonizing all things Palestinian, and Spielberg, one of the world's most influential filmmakers, has not always been balanced in his portrayal of Arabs.
In a number of movies that Spielberg has been associated with, there have been negative depictions of Middle Easterners. Egyptians are shown as Nazi-sympathizers in "Raiders of the Lost Ark," Arab terrorists try to machine gun Michael J. Fox in "Back to the Future," Dr. Moriarty's Egyptian cult kidnaps young girls and torches them alive in "Young Sherlock Holmes" and fanatical Egyptian Christians are out to kill Indy in "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade."
In his skillful "Munich," however, Spielberg portrays Palestinians and other Arabs not as demons but as thoughtful, ordinary human beings. He does not paint Palestinians in black and Israelis in white. Both have a conscience, both articulate thoughtful arguments about what it means to be a displaced people.
"Munich" captures the varied motives and emotions of an Israeli hit team as it goes about killing, one-by-one, Palestinians responsible for the deaths of 11 Israeli athletes during the 1972 Summer Olympics.
Spielberg could have achieved more balance, however, by showing innocent Arabs that had nothing to do with the Munich attack being killed, such as the real-life assassination of an innocent Moroccan waiter in Norway who was shot dead by the hit team.
In the end, watching Israelis shoot Palestinians is as painful as watching assassins kill Israelis. In "Munich," the lives of reel Palestinians are worth almost as much as the lives of reel Israelis.
Caring, intelligent Middle East thrillers like "Syriana" and "Munich" demand our attention because they pose incisive questions applicable to today's quest for Middle East peace: Are political objectives achieved by the acts of revenge, by an unending cycle of violence that continues to the present day? What has the use of force accomplished?
Thanks to the inventive vision of directors like Gaghan and Spielberg, we can better debate whether violence has brought us any closer to peace.
Jack G. Shaheen is the author of "Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People" (Interlink Publishing Group, 2001), "Arab and Muslim Stereotypes in American Popular Culture" (Georgetown University Center for Muslims, 1997) and "The TV Arab" (Bowling Green State University Press, 1984). He can be reached at email@example.com.