Wednesday, May 24, 2006



Dir: Him (Schindler's List; Jurassic Park; The Color Purple; War of the Worlds)

Let me give my own thoughts on the film, and then address the debate that occured here on I Just Saw.

I found the movie difficult to form a judgment on. Some parts I found very compelling, and others left me flat. It is by no stretch a bad film, but I do think the good parts workmanlike. On first reflection, this is a capable and entertaining film, but not much more.

The excellent parts are the actual cloak-and-dagger assasinations and plotting. As a spy/secret agent film, Munich delivers a sense of realism and successfully conveys the politics of field work, not just the actual killing itself. Many times it reminded me of a mob movie, with various hits going on and different alliances with different families, everyone recognizing the futility and the inevitabiliy of it all. I rather liked the relationship between Avner and his informer Louis, a complicated one that grows over time. The problems on contacts, pesky governments counting receipts, the unpredictability of explosives, the jitters of new operatives, are all welcome remedies from the polished perfection of a James Bond.

Some directorial bits were also rewarding. I was rather impressed with the opening montage about the hostage crisis at the Olympics, and the shifting back and forth between the two sides. Would that the rest of the film had that sort of depth and complexity in its exploration of this issue! More on that below.

But what falls flat in the film are the familial elements that are supposed to create Avner's tension about his job. Am I right, or was the entire development of the love for his family that is supposed to dominate his entire worldview the fact that he had sex with his pregnant wife? One scene, and then its "I can't live without you." Half way through the movie, Avner cries when his toddler says "Dada." Everything else is just inferred. But I expect some reason to be invested in his relationship myself if I am going to care about its disposition. The movie is far more concerned with justice, not with family. I found that whole thread tacked on, unconvincing, and distracting.

What is left is some things that blow up good, an interesting spy film that chooses a different conflict than most others, and not much else. Just like a Bond film, I think the little dart guns are cool, watch in the bushes with our hero until the guards have a cigarette break, and wait for the next action scene.

The debate between Ron and Omri linked above addresses an entriely other level to the film, its overt and ambiguous politics. You should read it before moving on to my reactions below.

While Omri's post is well thought out and makes sense from a certain perspective, its is not applicable to this film. Omri starts with a contradiction in the first two sentences, one that cuts to the heart of his critique. He says that a movie claiming to represent the facts that then gets those facts wrong is propanganda. He then says that Speilberg wanted to (1) spark discussion about violence and (2) contribute to peace with Munich. Where is the fidelity in truth in those two goals?

Omri's post goes on to simultaneously make two arguments. One, that Munich is inaccurate (his first claim above). Two, that Munich equivocates between Israeli and PLO violence. All of the stuff relating to one goes out the window once we recognize this is a narrative and does not claim to accuratley represent the events of the Munich and its aftermath. You can make that charge against Michael Moore (or even Mel Gibson, who was more interested in the facts of the matter than many film makers), but not Speilberg. This is polemic, not documentary.

So we have equivalence. Ron says that Speilberg is deft there, humanizing both sides while resisting the assignation of blame, expect to "the media and, to a lesser degree, American aparthy." Speilberg is ambivalent to violence, recognizing the motives but bemoaning its lack of solvency. I agree; too many scenes feature characters proclaiming that Israel has no other response to terrorism, that anyone would do the same thing in their shoes. No characters question counter terrorism itself, but only pragmatically; it doesn't work, leaders emerge and they have revenge on their minds, but you still have to do it.

Omri thinks this move equivocates. But it is also undeniable. Any neutral observer would have to recognize the escalating revenge factor over time, and the tragic human toll in repsonding through strength on both sides. The dead care not about equivocation; everyone dies the same.

The flaw with Munich's politics is not that it sees both sides the same, but that is has not the will to really tell the Palestinian side. Only in one scene do we get their take, and it is the most superficial one possible. "Everyone wants a home." Even the most casual oberver of the conflict already knows that. Speilberg tells the story from one side, and in so doing provides a warrant for one kind of violence and only implying one for the other. Omri is wrong; this film is pro-Israel, not just neutral. By only humanizing one side, there is no equivocation here, but advocacy.

Now, I don't have a problem with advocacy. I want films on both sides; it is through these stories that we empathize with the parties in the conflict (Paradise Now is very high in my Netflix queue). Of course, I had my problems with how that humanization went down here, but that is a different issue. I am all for a pro-Israel film. But saying that this pro-Israel film is not pro-Israel enough lacks self reflexivity. And I think Ron turns a blind eye to the advocacy here, that he wants Speilberg to have been fair, or found blame in parties outside the two primary antagonists.

The film is pro-Israel. Complicating counter terrorism is not equivocating between it and terrorism.

And it is still only a fair film.



Blogger ronvon2 noted on 5/24/2006 12:54:00 PM that...

I agree, I think it is a more Pro-Israel film than anything (phone conversations with Omri solidified this view:). The decision to tell the story from the Israeli point of view inherently suggests advocacy, especially considering how Spielberg humanizes them as troubled, but dedicated heroes. In fact, I still dont fully understand Omri's (and others' argument) as to moral equivocation. In order for that to occur, there has to humanized stories showing moral turmoil on both sides. In fact, the depiction of the terrorists is one of little to no remorse, undercutting any humane element whereas the Israelis are shown as thoughtful, troubled, and noble, in both their ethical considerations and dedication to justice.  

Blogger ronvon2 noted on 5/24/2006 06:47:00 PM that...

By the way, I love how many of these reviews now contain lit reviews...we are definitely disciplined academics.  

Blogger Omri noted on 5/25/2006 12:38:00 AM that...

I've read and reread what seem to be the relevant posts, and I still can't figure out what the basis is for describing this film as pro-Israeli. Is it that it says that "Israeli atrocities are necessary"? Because I refuse to grant the premise that counter-terrorism conducted through extra-judicial executions is an atrocity. Clarification here as to the stasis point between us would significantly advance the discussion.

Marcus misses the point of my criticism by dividing my two concerns (the inaccuracy of the film and its equivocation between Israeli counter-terrorism and PLO terrorism) into two seperate dynamics. Indeed, if the film was just inaccurate then Spielberg could quite robustly defend himself by pointing out that it is meant to be fictional (although how well is that thin excuse serving Dan Brown these days? And how genuine is it in either of their cases? If Spielberg doesn't believe that Israeli and PLO violence is equivalent, let him say so). The point is that - perhaps by coincidence - all of the film's inaccuracies seem to be in the interest of facile equivocation. For instance - why 11 terorist targets (a blatant fictionalization) Because there were Israeli athletes. And I'm surprised at Marcus: fidelity to truth is important for sparking discussions about terrorism because arguments built on lies are genuinely worse than useless. It's naive to say that the dead don't care about equivocation - dying in the interest of justice and dying in the interest of injustice are perhaps the only thing that the dead care about.

As to "the escalating revenge factor over time" - this, if anything, is at the heart of my concern. As a moral matter, the Israeli-Arab conflict is quite simply not a cycle of violence. I won't bore you with the history - although certainly if you wish me to, I won't shirk the duty - but as I recall the last time this argument was held at the Union Grill PJ dismantled ya'll on this question. As an empirical matter the statement is also unjustified - the greatest periods of quiet have been followed by the most aggressive Israeli responses to Arab instigation. Does anyone really believe that allowing Hezbollah was allowed to overrun Israel would somehow temper Islamist hatred of and violence towards Jews?

The attacks against Black September members was not just revenge - it was an attempt to establish a deterrent, to demonstrate that Jewish blood could not be spilled with impunity. As a moral matter, it is distinct from terrorism. As an empirical matter, it was more effective than not. Too bad Spielberg makes his viewers just a little more comfortable believing the opposite.

There's another argument here which emerges from a rhetorical - rather than an ethical or an empirical - sensibility. If Speilberg's film really was just a fictionalized intervention into an ongoing political debate, then it is fair to ask: in what direction does the film move particular pendulums? Are current debates structured by too much or too little equivocation between terrorism and counter-terrorism; does contemporary criticism of Israel give the Jewish State too much or too little leeway in defending itself? In other words - the productivity of Spielberg's film must be judged in the context of the really existing discursive conditions that it finds itself in. The question is not how could Munich be read if everyone was like Marcus and Ron, but how is Munich being deployed by actual political actors. Munich confirms rather than challenges misconceptions and obfuscations about Israel and about terrorism, and it does so both in form and in content. It is irresponsible at best, terrorist-excusing at worst. Most accurately, it is cheap propaganda.  

Blogger ronvon2 noted on 5/25/2006 01:34:00 PM that...

Let me take Omri's arguments in turn. First, the word "atrocity" is Omri's alone, and rhetorically it belies his entire response and creates a anti-Israeli strawperson to substantiate his warrants. In no way does the film, and at least myself, suggest such responses are "atrocities." The question is one of solvency (I'll address the empirical deterrent question in a bit).

As for the equivocation argument, Spielberg does answer this: (plus Dan Brown is making tons of money, so I think he could careless about the truth). Moreover, the only evidence I have seen Omri deploy, repeatedly, to support the equivocation argument are the parallels drawn between the 11 victims and 11 terrorists. This read fails to appreciate cinematic conventions, in particular Spielbergean conventions, that use parallelism, not as a moral statement but as a narrative device to tell a "clean" story. I believe a more intended read is to demonstrate the parallels in the death count, which does not always suggest a moral valance. We live in society where the death penalty is hotly debated: some argue for it, others against it, but all sides agree that justice must be served and the criminal act is wrong. The question is how to execute that justice. However, Omri makes the argumentative move that because Spielberg questions the type of Israeli response, he is therefore equivocating the terrorism with the response. A non-sequitor that Spielberg is quite vocal about. Also, I have yet to hear a response from Omri that challenges my humanization argument. The only story told is from the Israeli POV. They are the ones who execute justice and adopt a very human perspective on the entire conflict. As a matter of cinematic and narrative convention, the moral compass of a story is intimately tied to which characters are developed and how they respond to various events placed in the narrative. In order for Omri to "win" the moral equivolence argument, there has to be some kind of response to such a claim. And the argument that the movie "shows" members of the PLO and gives voice, however minimum, to their broader cause does not counter the care and attention that goes into developing the Mussad perspective. Moreover, the character development of the Mussad agents and repeated showing of the terrorists murdering the athletes casts the terrorists as the monsters as opposed to offering the sympathetic read Omri requires to make his argument.

Now, I have heard arguments from friends in the Jewish community who were unsettled by the film's depiction of the Mussad as too reluctant. Their argument, which I think Omri echoes to some degree, suggests that Mussad agents would never question the moral foundations of their acts. In other words, they kick ass with such ethical clarity that anything short of that is tantamount to some sort of weakens (or in short, moral equivocation). On those grounds, yes, I have few answers. However, I offer the following thought experiment: how would a movie that depicits the Mussad agents as exacting and unflinching in their performance of justice play out with American audiences? Omri suggests that we must consider how the movie plays out in a real world context, so I believe that to be a fair question (and to answer your real world question: the US has recently reconfirmed its committment to Israel and the vast majority of Americans are in fact very supportive of counter-terrorist measures--like the death penalty arguments, all Americans wish to combat terrorisms, the only debate is whether the chosen actions (torture, war in Iraq) are just and whether they are effective. To suggest that questioning of methods is tantamount to equivocation is a mischaracterization of the argument).

Which leads me to the empirical question. Yes, there has been calm after Israeli reponses. But, that is not the sole result of deterrence. Historically, Israeli reponses to Arab attack have been so devestating and so complete that only the means not the desire for retaliation was suppressed And since deterrence is more of a psychological issue than one of capability, I can reverse Omri's question: Does anyone really think Israel's swift and devestating response to Arab violence really temper hatred toward Jews (plus Omri's question does not really get to the heart of deterrence, rather is has the tacit assumption that those who dont wholly endorse Israeli responses are some how advocating Israel to be overrun. As a friend of Israel, I object to such a false dichotomy).

You are right, we may be starting at different points of stasis. But I am not certain your starting point is substantiated by the full spectrum of textual evidence from the film.