Friday, June 3, 2016

Steven Spielberg, part XXX: But killing Palestinians isn't exactly cheap


MUNICH

Munich could well be its director's final masterpiece, but a masterpiece it is nonetheless, and, no matter what, you still have to admit that taking on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict represented a somewhat braver thing than simply suggesting that the Holocaust was bad.  Plus, do you know how many cool explosions Schindler's List has?  That's right.  It has none.

2005
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Written by Tony Kushner and Eric Roth (based on the book Vengeance by George Jonas)
With Eric Bana (Avner Kaufman), Daniel Craig (Steve), Ciaran Hinds (Carl), Matthieu Kassowitz (Robert), Hanns Zischler (Hans), Matthieu Amalric (Louis), Michael Lonsdale (Papa), Geoffrey Rush (Ephraim), Omar Metwally (Ali), and Ayelet Zurer (Daphna Kaufman)

Spoiler alert: to the best of my knowledge, Israel never faced another terrorist attack again


2005 must be Steven Spielberg's darkest year: it began with his release of War of the Worlds, his science fiction allegory about post-9/11 America; it ended with Munich, his historical allegory about post-9/11 America.  Luckily, Munich is the more elegant of Spielberg's diptych—and by far the more ferocious.  Naturally, Munich's been the object of bitter controversy ever since people first laid eyes on it—but I doubt that Spielberg would've had it any other way.

No, a movie about Israel, Palestine, and terrorism—produced by the world's most successful filmmaker four years after the September 11th attacks, and only one year after the American invasion of Iraq—was never going to be anything but controversial.  The irony of it, then, is that Spielberg's easy-to-follow, largely unobjectionable program also comes wrapped inside a cold, clammy objectivity, of a kind that you shall find virtually nowhere else in Spielberg's entire filmography, except right here.  Ultimately, Spielberg's attempt to be objective represents nothing but the director's earnest attempt to clarify all the many thorny questions that he and his screenwriters have raised, about terrorism and counter-terrorism, about violence and counter-violence, about nationalism and humanism.  (Quite thankfully, however, Spielberg, Tony Kushner, and Eric Roth always remain sober enough to avoid supposing that they've come up with any real answers.)  Yet Spielberg's "objectivity" necessarily comes with an attempt at being even-handed, as well as fair—and I'm afraid that what this means is that there's sufficient material in Munich to make everybody angry.

That obliges me, I suppose, to disclose my own biases; and although this is not foremost a political blog, of course I have political opinions, and the eagle-eyed reader will have seen them arise, from time to time, in these reviews.  (Actually, I guess they arise just about every time; but such, I think, is the inevitable consequence of writing about practically anything.)

Anyway, this one's special, so let's lay it out there: basically, I'm pro-Israeli, by which I mean that I am generally inclined to support Israel.  Israel is a part of my civilization, and (more importantly) a compromised but legitimate democracy; furthermore, it's entirely impossible to forget that the circumstances of Israel's creation are, let's say, unique.  Still, I'm not so "pro-Israeli" that I overlook their sins, and Israeli policy toward Palestine has been a disgrace for longer than I've been alive, which is really disheartening, when you consider that I'm 33.  (Oh, and I also supported the Iraq War in 2003.  I have since changed my mind.)

Now, I'll happily concede that Munich allows one to read (or hate-read) whatever one wants to into it.  And yet I get the faint impression from Spielberg's film that he feels somewhat the same way as I do about Israel (if not Iraq): these are our people (his connection being a tad more direct than mine), and their concerns are necessarily ours.  Thus he sincerely wishes there were a better answer to the eternal question, "where do the Jews belong?", than the Zionist's de facto response, "on the land they took from others by force of arms."  Then again, judging by the final phase of Munich, he may suggest the best answer is "the United States of America," and I'd agree with that, too, although that's a somewhat naive solution to Mideastern woes.  (Besides, they were invited to Poland eight hundred years ago, too.  Look how well that turned out.)  But, please, let's not forget the real reason that Spielberg ends his tale in America.  It's certainly not because that's where he thinks that Jews are at their safest.  Oh, goodness no: it's because America was where a certain pair of twinned towers once were.  And if a filmmaker were to pass up this awesome chance to punch his audience squarely in the nose with his movie's two most important messages, then that filmmaker just wouldn't be Steven Spielberg, would he?


So that's exactly how Munich closes: with a shot of the World Trade Center, serving as a solemn reminder about how cycles of violence perpetuate themselves, as well as how easily we can lose our sense of home and homeland, when we betray what home means, in order to keep it safe.

It starts, however, in Germany, as such things regarding Jews have a distressing tendency to do.  During the 1972 Olympics in Munich, eleven Israeli athletes were taken hostage and subsequently killed by the Palestinian radical group, Black September.  In response, the Mossad dispatched a team of assassin-spies to Europe to take revenge.  The leader of this team, we discover, was a man named Avner Kaufman, and this is where the fact ends, and Munich's fiction begins.

So: Avner is assigned by his prickly Mossad chieftain to undertake a mission of targeted killings against the Black September leadership.  It could take months, or years.  He is given a team comprising Steve (a thug); Carl (a cleaner); Hans (a document forger); and Robert (a bombmaker, or so Avner is told, although we learn later that the toyshop owner's actual training is in bomb disposal, which handily explains why his bombs so routinely fail to properly fucking work).  Avner is less reluctant to take up the mission than you might expect, given that his wife is seven months pregnant.  He will see his wife and newborn daughter, clandestinely; but he won't be with them, and thus does Avner's isolation begin to grow.

In the meantime, however, it's killing the Palestinians responsible for Munich that motivates Avner—or, at least, that's what motivates his superiors and his subordinates.  Truthfully, it seems like it's less some active thirst for vengeance on Avner's part than it is a bland, general patriotism that drives him.  The fixation he does ultimately develop upon the Munich massacre comes slowly, and never all at once—indeed, when he first sees it on TV, his reaction could best be described as a kind of shrugging sadness.  It is not until he has painted Europe red with Palestinian blood, losing three of his own men in the process—not to mention finding himself the target of other dangerous agents like himself—that he really starts to think about what happened in Munich.  The more he thinks about what Munich means, and what his own killings mean, the more Avner starts to come apart.  In the end, he finds himself reunited with his family in Brooklyn, far from the country he no longer wishes to serve—and as far from home as any man could be.

It's almost certainly Eric Bana's best performance; the low-affect would-be movie star hasn't had a good time of it in Hollywood.  But the impenetrability that limits the actor is precisely what Munich needs in its central figure.  Bana makes a reality out of Avner's slow, almost silent breakdown of normalcy.  He starts out generic; but he ends hollow.  He is surrounded by excellent turns on all sides—Daniel Craig's proto-Bond, Ciaran Hinds' dubious worrier, Matthieu Amalric's jealous and easily-riled French information broker—but Bana dominates by sucking all the energy of the film into himself, and giving very little back in return, until he really starts to crack.

It's Avner's unravelling that gives Munich its story; and, truthfully, it has no other.  The assassination team tackles each of the eleven Septembrists in turn, and this gives Munich a plot and a shape.  Yet it's only in the vaguest sense that Avner can be said to be proceeding toward any real goal—and then, only because his prime target, Ali Hassan Salameh, simply keeps eluding him.

But that certainly doesn't mean that Munich is not, per se, thrilling, because it is.  The situations are low-key and plausible, but they are immaculately machined; inspired by true events, they are naturally depicted with chilly brutalism (which presents itself here, of course, as its own kind of stylization).  Make no mistake about it: Munich is absolutely entertaining.  It doesn't even lack a sense of humor; when the angry Frenchman sends Avner to a safe house, and the Frenchman turns out to have double-booked his terrorist hotel with Black September operatives too, it's rather bleakly funny, because it could so easily end in everyone killing everyone else.


Indeed, taking place in 1972 and 1973, it's all too fitting that Munich presents itself with such a thoroughgoing 1970s mood.  It's baked into the story, and it's baked into every frame of Janusz Kaminski's chimeric cinematography, too, giving Munich the look of a 1970s film, from the colors, to the 'Scope ratio, to the ugly daylight glares.  Above all, the 1970s are there in all those glorious telephoto zooms.  They are a blunt instrument, but an effective one, insinuating that Avner and his men are both always watching, and always being watched; and they season Spielberg's Munich with something of the flavor of a De Palma film.  The great composer John Williams follows suit, mostly abandoning his usual orchestral bombast; instead he offers a heavy, pumping main theme that serves to heighten the suspense, without ever turning it into an adventure.  It's one damned fine period piece, is what I'm saying.  But if I want to really encompass Munich's achievement, then I have to go further than that: it's a film that happens to marry its form to its function as magnificently as just about any film you could name.

Yet, even for a 70s-style paranoid thriller, Munich is quite remarkably willing to remain unsatisfying.  That's how it so totally captures what it means to be locked inside Avner's vicious cycle: by becoming his nation's wrath, he burns his soul to ash.  All that's left afterward is the bitter, brittle shell where the nice family man and the amateur chef used to be.  Munich never offers poor Avner any resolution; it does not so much as offer him a pyrrhic victory.  Tellingly, Avner doesn't even manage to complete his mission.  Instead, he fails, and he runs.  Then he's simply back in Israel, trying to repress the sheer trauma of it all—at least, if Kaminski's sudden switch to a blindingly washed-out color palette is any particular indication.

But the most fascinating way Spielberg plays with the paranoid thriller framework is to turn it completely inside out, making heroes out of the agents who skulk in the shadows.  We identify with Avner and his gang because that's what movies have taught us to do.  They're our heroes—they have to be.  You don't break bread with faceless assassins, do you?

And so we do get to derive a certain joy from their missions; and that is the fact of the matter, even though these missions, if we're being honest, consist entirely of ambushing and executing a series of Palestinians, whom the Mossad has identified as enemies of their state, possibly not even with any real accuracy.  We can't even help it: this is not an anti-war film, and unlike Saving Private Ryan, it has no interest in proving Truffaut wrong.  Spielberg puts a spoonful of sugar in, to help the medicine go down, because he's that kind of guy, though his medicine is unpalatable indeed.  Thus we're obliged to feel our heroes' panic, when they rush to save the little girl that they've accidentally put in the way of their bomb—they are not amoral men, and that's what makes them so interesting.  With that brilliant coup, we get the sense that it must be safe to follow these assassins down into the darkness.  And so we do.

But Munich takes its time with these men, and in their darkness.  We cross the line with them, and, like them, we don't notice that the line was there.  We don't realize that until the Dutchwoman sputters her last bloody breath through the two holes in her chest; maybe we don't even truly realize it until a second later, as the blood pours across her naked breasts.  It's the most chillingly grotesque scene in the Spielberg canon.  And it's not even her execution that takes your breath away—for, in perfect fairness, this woman has earned her death, when she undertook to murder one of Avner's men.  Instead, it's the sheer indignity of it: the pathetic way that she tries to use her sexuality to buy herself a chance at survival; the degrading way that Hans opens her bathrobe up, so her corpse will be found nude.  This is how Munich's illusion of genre fun shatters; and it's worth mentioning, I think, that the Dutchwoman's killing is effected with the single coolest spy toys that Avner and company ever get to play with.  Not to put too fine a point on it, but we've been implicated.

At dinner later that night, Hans sums up what went wrong.  He does not regret killing her.  He regrets not putting her dress back on.  And so it's not much of a surprise when Avner and Steve find their colleague dead—not by Palestinian hands, but his own.  We have discovered by now what Munich is really doing: surveying the process by which men make monsters of themselves, stoking their hatreds into a blazing fire, but only so they can actually carry out the dirty jobs their political masters have so coldly determined need to be done.  In such circumstances, going too far is almost an inevitability.

So it really is a little confusing why Spielberg couldn't find any room here for the most salient mistake of the Munich reprisals—namely, the Lillehammer Affair, which involved the murder of a completely innocent civilian, the subsequent arrest of the agents involved, and the dismantling of the whole damned operation.  It does not so much represent a problem within the film itself; it rankles only when you remember what really happened after Munich.  For my part, I can only speculate that Spielberg and his screenwriters concluded that such a climactic ending would have ran at cross-purposes to their tale, which is designed to conclude with a decided whimper, rather than any bang.  (Well, so to speak.)


Of course, the "climax" of Spielberg's alternate-universe version of Munich, such as it is, does play far better on a second viewing than it ever could during a first, because this time you know what you're getting: sheer Spielbergian emotionalism, delivered in a form so earnest, and so face-peelingly raw, that (sadly) the first instinct you'll have is to laugh at it.

Yes, I mean that sex scene: a sequence cross-cut between Avner's compulsive visions of Munich and Avner's attempt to fuck his wife for the first time in a very long time.  It ends quite badly—for Avner, and for Spielberg too, considering that it was the director's spectacularly bad choice to use the world's worst slow motion in the next-to-last scene of his film.  (He makes Avner's beads of flying sweat look like zero-G diamonds, and permits Bana's ridiculous primal scream to give us a good look at his duodenum.)  That's why it's so much better on a second watch: what it says, in this case, is more important than exactly how it says it.  And what is says, simply enough, is that the violence a man does will follow him everywhere he goes; and, once there, it will poison everything that he once so effortlessly loved—his wife, his country, his home.

Munich is a masterpiece, and (within its fiction, at least) it's hard to find any really serious flaws at all.  In its day, Munich asked impolite questions that needed to be asked.  As nationalism returns to fashion, and as we give in to weakness and turn back to our tribes for protection, its relevance isn't going away any time soon.  In his chronicles, Spielberg has often been consumed by the ambition to encompass everything about his subject: Schindler's List sought to be the Holocaust; Amistad, slavery; Saving Private Ryan, World War II.  Munich, following this pattern, is terrorism; but it goes further than that, further even than Spielberg has ever gone.  Munich tries to grasp history itself, in its single most elemental form.  All of us still want our place on Earth, and the blood we've shed to get it has not stopped flowing yet.


Score:  10/10

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