Steven Spielberg is universally recognized for accurately, impartially, and humanly dramatizing complex topics in his movies. No humane person, for example, could have remained untouched by "Schindler's List."
So it was that when Spielberg's latest production, "The Peacemaker," got rave reviews, I forked over the $8 admission and went to see it. Great movie, except "The Peacemaker" again demonstrates Hollywood's creeping tendency to portray minority ethnic and religious groups in an unnecessarily prejudiced and harmful manner. Even more disturbing is that such creeping prejudice sells well on Main Street, USA - reflecting poorly on America's ability to correct improper images of itself as a truly multiracial, multireligious, and faithfully just society.
"The Peacemaker" portrays many realistic scenarios, whether of nuclear weapons being hijacked in Russia's "Wild West" atmosphere, or of the corrupt Russian generals willing to sell them. There's no doubt Iran, the alleged destination of the movie's hijacked nukes, would do, and is doing, everything to acquire weapons of mass destruction. Even the movie's ideological rationale is rooted in the reality of civil war ravages that destroyed the former Yugoslavia.
But here's the problem. The movie's ideological antagonist, one Sarajevan named Dusan, is identified by the screenwriters in a suicide video as a "Serb, Croat, and Muslim" before he jets off to New York to detonate his Soviet plutonium briefcase. Yet his motive for wanting to nuke Manhattan has nothing to do with any stated Islamic agenda. The understandably human reason: revenge for the brutal gunning down of his wife and daughter by UN peacemakers. Was it really necessary to add "Muslim" to his description, leading audiences to believe Islam was playing some role in his motivations for revenge?
Then, there's the ethnic slander. The movie's mad scientist is revealed three-quarters of the way through the movie as none other than a Harvard-educated Pakistani. Not only did he not look Pakistani, but again there was no overt reason for him being identified as such. How would the audience have reacted if the professor was portrayed as an American antigovernment supremacist helping Iranians acquire nuclear weapons?
If writers had done their homework, they'd know that when US troops were disgraced in Somalia, Pakistanis acting under UN mandate were sent in to keep the peace. When no other country was willing to assist the Bosnian Muslims as they were being raped, murdered, and pillaged, Pakistan's elite special forces units were sent in under UN cover to provide military balance to the region.
Today, Pakistanis are still the single largest UN contingent keeping peace throughout the world, with over 2,000 troops out of the approximately 15,000 total on duty. Hollywood should not forget it is Pakistan's principled nuclear restraint that has prevented Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons technologies. And all this in the face of Washington's warmer disposition toward a tactically nuclear India - further compromising Pakistan's political and military rationale for keeping nukes out of Tehran's hands.
Movies are powerful opinion makers, and Spielberg's usually serious and thoughtful projects legitimize their characterizations. Perhaps before embarking on his next project, he'll consider whether unnecessary or inaccurate portrayals of ethnic and religious groups that become ingrained in the minds of moviegoers do not injure America's reputation as a fair and just land - and his reputation as a serious and thoughtful filmmaker.
* Mansoor Ijaz, an MIT and Harvard-trained nuclear scientist, is of Pakistani descent and runs New York-based Crescent Investment Management.