What is ‘World War Z’ saying about Israel and the Middle East?

Brad Pitt in a scene from "World War Z."
(Jaap Buitendijk / AP)

Embedding ideas about Middle East political crises in popular entertainment isn’t new. David O. Russell’s film “Three Kings” forecast much of the lawlessness and greed of post-2003 Iraq all the way back in the late 1990s, while Frank Herbert’s novel “Dune” can be read in large part as a parable for the region’s oil wars of the 20th century.

But it’s still startling to watch “World War Z,” a summer action movie about the zombie apocalypse, and find, about one-third of the way through, a layered set of points about Israel and its relationship with outsiders. (Warning: Plot summary and spoilers below.)

Trying to suss out the source of a deadly zombie pandemic, Brad Pitt’s Gerry Lane decides to travel to the Holy Land, where he finds that vigilant and maverick-minded intelligence officials got wind of the pandemic early, with enough time to try to contain the virus by building a giant wall to keep out the infected.

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The results are wildly successful. The wall not only has kept the pandemic at bay but it has a created a kind of post-sectarian utopia, where Muslims and Jews of every stripe sing and dance in the same circle, in what is easily one of the movie’s most powerful sociopolitical moments.


Quickly, though, the Valhalla ends. Zombies, drawn by the loud joyous singing from the various religions, figure out a way over the wall. Israel is in the same position as pretty much every other country.

It’s a rich and complicated piece of narrative, and filmgoers with a sense of history about the Middle East will find themselves wondering what it’s all supposed to mean.

Most obviously, there’s this contradiction: In the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a wall is a heavily fraught symbol. But here it turns into an instrument of … peace?

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Certainly there’s a case to be made that Forster is offering a feel-good message. Peace is possible, even in a larger time of global darkness, Forster seems to be saying, and right in the very spot that so much blood has been shed. All it takes is a little maverick thinking.

But does the theory hold up?

The wall, after all, turns out to be futile. The zombies form a giant human pyramid and spill into the sanitary areas, and the best-laid plans of an inventive Israeli government turn out to be for naught.

Instead, the message seems simpler: Building divides to keep out a threat, no matter how rooted in preservationist logic, doesn’t work.

On the other hand, the movie does seem to be going out of its way to cast rank-and-file members of the Israeli military in a positive light — Lane takes a young Israeli soldier with him on his further globe-hopping adventures, and she becomes a key ally in helping him fight the virus by addressing it at the source.

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And the policy that accompanies the wall is a benign, even favorable one. As the Mossad official tells Lane, the Israeli government is willing to take in healthy people from any religion or country, a kind of open-door policy that would incense Pat Buchanan or Steve King—or, for that matter, right-wing Israeli politicians.

It may well be that there’s no single message intended by the film which, as with Max Brooks’ novel (where the wall has a less salutary effect and in fact leads to an uprising among Israel’s ultra-Orthodox) leaves a lot open to interpretation. So open, in fact, that at least one commentator actually believes the film is an indictment of dovish thinking.

Still, when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—and, for that matter, conflict in general—“World War Z” offers what seems like at least one clear takeaway. The most aggressive policy won’t be useful in the face of a serious threat. A long-term solution probably involves even the most creative form of reactive thinking--it requires a willingness to contemplate the root cause.


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