Friday, December 30, 2005


Dir: Some guy named Spielberg (Always, Hook).


Let me begin by saying I know relatively little about Israel's response to the terrorists of the 1972 Munich Games. So comments about the historic fidelity of Spielberg's retelling can change my read of the film, perhaps substantially. But given the political gravity of this story, I am pretty certain Spielberg has most of his ducks in a row. The last time Spielberg released two movies in the same year, one a special effects extravaganza (Jurassic Park) the other serious cinema (Schindler's List), he dominated the Oscars (I do not think that will happen this year due to the relative weakness of War of the Worlds).

Unlike Schindler's List, which invited questions as to whether the maker of ET and Jaws could capture respectfully the horrors of the Holocaust, Munich is perhaps Spielberg's most controversial film (however, for a filmmaker who rarely engages existing and deeply-rooted social tensions, that is not saying too much). Certainly the subject matter possesses the necessary kindling for very incendiary insights, but the best way to avoid controversy is to avoid taking a stand that could alienate droves of loyal movie-goers: don't blame the Jews, they are reluctant combatants defending their existence; don't blame the Muslims and Palestinians, they just want a home. But then, who is left to blame? (Canada?)Wait a minute, it sounds like the staunch Spielberg apologist is echoing Godardian criticisms of the American auteur? Could this be true? Nope (surprise). In fact, with the exception of Kaminski's signature luminescent camera and the occasional moments of narrative levity, this is perhaps the least-Spielberg Spielberg film. The kinetic editing style, obvious and obtuse camera angles, and highly metaphoric characters hints at New Wave filmmaking.

Spielberg treads the political wars carefully; he humanizes many of the characters (more so the Israeli hitmen) as principled warriors fighting for the elusive concept of home. Despite the more "noble" intentions, Spielberg adopts an ambivalent perspective on the use of violence to achieve such ends. He does not condemn it as much as he suggests its ability to beget more violence. Spielberg escapes possible ethical indeterminacy by indicting both the media and, to a lesser degree, American apathy as culprits to the never-ending cycle of violence (the first fifteen minutes is a very non-Spielbergian but extremely effective indictment of media coverage of terrorism).

Prior to seeing the film, I read a review that criticized Spielberg for lazy storytelling, the product of impatient editing. I do not buy it. Spielberg is a master storyteller (in fact his reliance on narrative devices to articulate a film's argument is often the basis of most erudite criticisms of Spielberg). So, any deviation from careful storytelling, in my mind, must be intentional (always the charitable reader). Every scene that involves some retaliatory strike or heightened violence ends prior to resolution; we never see the escape. The next scene is linked by a jump cut that finds the surviving characters safe. Where that might fail traditional narrative standards, Spielberg is using the editing to create the argument of endless and unresolved violence.

The final shot, predictably, attempts to bring the film "home." It deviates from traditional, feel-good endings that Spielberg too often tacks onto the end of his films, so it succeeds in that regard.

The acting is typically solid (Eric Bana plays a wonderfully tortured son of an Israeli hero; however, I do find it interesting that his inner struggle does not come from killing the terrorist masterminds-although there is some of that-it comes mostly from executing Israeli policy that requires him to make larger familial sacrifices).

Lots more to say. But. we'll save that for the comments.

Good film, Go see.


Blogger Omri noted on 1/02/2006 05:59:00 PM that...

Ron: you can't escape moral indeterminacy by blaming the media and American apathy for Palestinian terrorism. Even less so can you avoid it by creating equivalences between the murderers of athletes and those who bring justice to those murderers. More thoughts in a little bit...  

Blogger Omri noted on 1/02/2006 09:55:00 PM that...

A film that claims to depict concrete historical events but instead excludes facts in the interest of political goals is patent propaganda. According to Spielberg, Munich has two goals: to spark discussion about the moral cost of violence and to promote the Middle East peace process. Although the second goal is unrealistic anyway - not even Spielberg believes that the film will change the diplomatic situation in Israel - it is worth mentioning that Munich neglects current Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas's role in financing the massacre. But dishonesty relating to the peace process is a minor issue. The more significant concern is that Munich uses small historical inaccuracies, Spielberg-esque narrative dominance, and un-Spielberg-esque editing tricks to tilt dialogue in favor of moral equivalence. The film gives the impression that there are imprecise but ultimately dispositive similarities between terrorists and those who bring justice to them.

The heavy-handed theme of Munich is that Palestinian terrorists and their Israeli pursuers find unity and equality in each other's mutual humanity - that, since both sides are torn by conflict and doubt, both sides are ultimately more similar than dissimilar. But already here, there is a disjunct: to achieve the humanization of the Israeli soldiers, Spielberg has to paint a demonstrably false picture of a cruel Israeli state taking men away from their families and sending them on endless missions of violence. To achieve the humanization of the Palestinian terrorists, all Spielberg had to do was dehumanize the murdered Israeli athletes. Israelis are humanized by blaming an abstract entity, Palestinians by ignoring real victims. Only thus can the moral planes between murderers and their pursuers be leveled.

This move is not just morally problematic – it's probably factually incorrect. The doubt that Spielberg needs both sides to feel probably didn't exist. In the broadest sense, it's highly unlikely that the Israeli agents were actually wracked by doubt: these were the same operatives who hunted down Nazi war criminals. They were inclined to see the Munich massacre as an extension of that same genocidal anti-Semitism and global indifference: the West Germans had refused to provide adequate security, the East Germans had actively foiled rescue attempts, and the British told the Israelis that they had it coming. For the rest of the 1972 games, Olympic officials refused to lower flags to half-mast in mourning because Arab States complained. The import of Spielberg's dishonesty regarding Israeli motives cannot be over-estimated. Not only does it establish that Munich is basically wrong on its face, but it renders dishonest Spielberg's most significant pathos-inducing device: sympathy for the Israeli operatives.

This leaves Spielberg with two options: either he's being honest about Palestinian motives but dishonest about Israeli motives (in which case the film is definitionally biased) or he's being unfair to both sides (in which case its wildly fabricated). The latter is probably much closer to the truth. Munich mastermind Mohammed Daoud insists that Spielberg is being dishonest in implying that the terrorists wanted to be spared execution. This not-so-surprising revelation does not exactly help Spielberg’s image of family-devoted terrorists who contain a passion for life, but even more importantly, it's kind of second dropping shoe. It turns out that Spielberg is wrong on both counts: the Palestinian terrorists were unremorseful about murdering innocent Israelis, and the Israeli operatives were unremorseful about punishing them for it.

In addition to this overarching tension with reality, Spielberg weaves a number of smaller dishonesties into his broader 'at the end of the day we're all the same' platitude. Regarding the day to day depiction of operatives' lives, the consensus of experts is that Munich is almost indistinguishable from fiction. Former Shin Bet chief Avi Dichter described it as a children's story with "no comparison... in reality" A forthcoming book will provide evidence that obliterates the depiction of revenge-minded Israeli leaders. And Mossad veterans consider the idea of a hit-team isolated in the field for months to be wildly implausible. The last point is perhaps the most significant - Israeli intelligence protocol insists that, for the sake of operatives, no team is left in the field more than a couple of days. But Spielberg wants to club the audience with a trite conflict between family and country (Avner's first and most severe doubts are grounded in his separation from home). Munich all but dares the viewer to conclude that protecting one's homeland is worth destroying one's family. That dare doesn't really work if the audience knows that Israeli missions are designed to ensure that operatives are quickly brought home to their children.

Worse for Spielberg - if the audience knows that Israel cares about its soldiers, then his entire project of equivocation through scapegoating collapses. Demonizing the Israeli state enables Spielberg to externalize blame away from his sympathy-evoking characters: if he can blame vague entities, he doesn't have to blame real people. Whether it be the media in the first 15 minutes of the film or the state of Israel for what feels like an eternity, the root cause of nihilistic Palestinian atrocities is located anywhere but in nihilistic terrorist ideology.

Outside of the plot, there are some un-Spielberg-esque cinematic concessions that Spielberg makes to smuggle his message into the film. Instead of individuals, Munich is filled with metaphors and analogies. He can thus partake equally of abstraction ('it's not just about Munich, it's about violence in general') and plausible deniability ('sure the film isn't entirely accurate, but it's about what the characters stand for'). This is Spielberg letting his desire to sermonize get in the way of his better film-making instincts: Jurassic Park's Sam Neill had more concrete fidelity.

And finally, it is a typically powerful Spielberg narrative that both makes and suffocates the film. Narrative devices furnish Munich with some of its most evocative - and its cheapest and most dishonest - tactics. 'Most evocative' because cut shots after missions, split second cliff-hangers, and saccharine tension combine to create the effect of endless and unresolved violence - an effect not reliably achieved through speeches. 'Cheapest' because the impression is that Israel pointlessly sent young men to hunt down other young men - as if there is no purpose behind Israel's need to demonstrate that Jewish blood can not be shed with impunity. And 'most dishonest' because Spielberg insists that he is trying to start a balanced debate, but he uses the narrative to contradict and overwhelm any balance. Yes, a conscience-stricken Israeli hit-man is contrasted with Arabs wildly dancing in celebration of murder - but then Spielberg soaks the film with so much sentimentalism that by the end, Israelis and Arabs are united as equal victims. The script might speak of Israeli self-defense, but the film shouts only of mindless violence. In this sense, Munich is a testament to Spielberg's genius - a lesser filmmaker could not have negotiated the tension. The hypocrisy would have been obvious.

The most accurate criticism of the film is not that it's anti-Israel. Munich is not really against anyone, and neither is Spielberg. But this pretense of intellectual nuance is precisely why the film and its director are profoundly mistaken. Equivocating between terrorism and counter-terrorism is not intellectual courage but ethical laziness. That Palestinian terrorists believe they're defending Arabs and Israeli soldiers believe they're defending Jews does not mean that murdering athletes at the Olympics is morally equivalent to bringing justice to terrorists. "Palestinians kill, Israelis kill" is not rigor - it's trepidation in one of the great challenges of our time. Instead of taking a side Spielberg relies on false narrative tricks - 11 athletes killed, 11 terrorists killed. The actual number was probably 18 terrorists killed. So why doesn't Spielberg heighten the Israeli retaliation for effect? Because that wouldn't scream 'it's an equal and never-ending cycle of violence!' in the same overwrought way. That isn't a starting point for reasoned debate – it's facile pretension as an exercise in profundity.

Spielberg, troubled by political criticism of Munich, apparently called Roger Ebert up to discuss Munich's ability to situation arguments about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He's also described Munich as a "prayer for peace". But arguments are premised on lies are no foundation for dialogue and prayers that refuses to distinguish between killers and their victims is blasphemy. Spielberg should be ashamed of himself, and of his cheap propaganda.

[Cross-posted at Mere Rhetoric]