Published at: Dec. 23, 2005, 12:26 a.m. CST by staff
Hi, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab...
I’ve been hard on Steven Spielberg in my time here at Ain’t It Cool, and I didn’t even mean to be. I’m not going to recap his whole career, because evidently I’ve done that over and over while writing about his work in the last few years. Best as I can figure, I missed out on reviewing AMISTAD or SAVING PRIVATE RYAN for the site, even though I was already contributing by that point. So I’ll run some links so you can look back at what I have covered.
I just went back and re-read those pieces tonight, and I’ve been pretty consistent about beating up Spielberg for certain tendencies of his. I think CATCH ME IF YOU CAN is the only one of those films that I liked whole-heartedly. Even in the films I disliked the most, though, you can read how much I admire individual sequences or images or ideas. The truth is that for my generation, Spielberg is one of the primary architects of our fantasy life, and as he’s evolved as a filmmaker, we’ve been busy evolving as viewers.
With MUNICH, I feel like he’s finally reached a place artistically that he’s been working towards for over a decade now. I know the film’s been heavily discussed in terms of real-world politics for several weeks now, but none of that really matters to me. When I sat down to see MUNICH, I sat down to see a film, not to have the Israel/Palestine conflict resolved, and certainly not to have the entire idea of terrorism summed up for me. I’m not a fan of overtly political films that exist for the sole purpose of advancing an agenda, and if that’s what MUNICH was, I would consider it a failure.
But it’s not. Not by a long shot.
In fact, MUNICH may be the most adult film that Spielberg has ever made, moreso than even SCHINDLER’S LIST. MUNICH takes a clear-eyed look at a terrible moment in cultural history and the ramifications of that moment, and it’s brave enough to say that there are no simple answers, no absolutes, when you are dealing with violence and hatred. The things that are getting Spielberg attacked the most vigorously right now are the things that make his movie matter, and oddly, the choices he’s made here are in direct opposition to the choices that so frequently have crippled his other work. This is a reinvigorated director, a man who had something very personal to express. For the first time in a long time, I find Spielberg to be above criticism, above reproach. Say what you will about the film... and certainly, it’s not to everyone’s tastes... but you can’t fault him for lack of courage or conviction.
MUNICH opens with a brief dramatization of the events at the 1972 Olympic Games, where Palestinian terrorists broke into the Olympic Village and took several Israeli athletes hostage. Spielberg doesn’t dwell on the events, but instead paints with some broad brush strokes. It’s intense, and very effective. There’s one moment where we are inside a room, watching someone step out onto a balcony, and on a TV in the room, we see the actual news footage of the person stepping out. It’s a brain-bending moment of reality and recreation colliding, and I think it’s a canny way of merging the two so that you stop thinking about what’s “real” and what’s not. More than anything, the opening fifteen minutes or so deals with the media’s reaction to the events, and the way they were broadcast around the world.
Gradually, we shift away from the events in Munich and start focusing on the various communities that are watching the events unfold, and Spielberg does a phenomenal job of making you feel what it must have been like to be a Jew anywhere in the world watching it happen. The feeling of the community around you drawing closer even as the world seemed to get darker and more forbidding is remarkable, and I’m sure it helps that I immediately flashed on my own feelings on the morning of September 11th. In those moments, you can’t help but see the world as “us” and “them,” and you feel terrified about being under attack, but also galvanized by the sense that you’re surrounded by people who feel the same way. It’s only at the very end of this sequence, fifteen minutes or so into the film, that we finally meet our main character, Avner, played by Eric Bana. He’s watching them, too, and he’s feeling that same sort of helplessness as everyone else. The difference is, Avner gets a call that puts him in a position to actually do something about what he’s seen. Ephraim (Geoffrey Rush) puts Avner in a room with Israel’s top military leaders, including Golda Meir (Lynn Cohen) herself. Avner’s told that there must be a response to what has happened, and that eleven names have been put on a list, eleven people who were part of the planning of Munich. Eleven people who must die.
As a set-up for a film, it’s the model of simplicity. How much cleaner can it get? Avner’s team is assembled, and they set off on a trip around the world to slowly, surely, cross off those eleven names. Daniel Craig, Ciaran Hinds, Mathieu Kossovitz, and Hanns Zischler play the other four members of the team, and each of them makes a strong impression, although to varying degrees. I was quite moved by the work of Kossovitz, who has proven to be a better actor than director, and I say that as someone who enjoys the films he’s made. He’s a toymaker by trade, but as part of Avner’s team, he’s the bomb builder. So much of what happens in the film hinges on his ability to complete his part of the assignments, and much of the moral burden ends up resting on him, as well. It’s a heavy load, and watching it slowly crush him is one of the most wrenching things about the film. Ciaran Hinds also does some great work, and although he seems to be the most buttoned-down of the group, a few key scenes reveal the depth of the anger that he brings to the assignment, a reminder of how personal this is for all of the men.
I’ve heard many people make reference to the quote “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind,” enough so that I thought the quote would appear in the film. It doesn’t, but Spielberg certainly conveys the idea with the way the film unfolds. What begins as a sort of adrenalized macho sprint to deal some revenge out becomes more and more complex as the team gets more entrenched in what they’re doing. Their swagger begins to falter, and it’s obvious that none of them are unaffected by what they’re doing. Even though their mission is a secret, and they aren’t officially sanctioned by the Israeli government, it’s obvious that news of their actions is being carried underground. When Avner sneaks home between two missions for the birth of his child, people tell him how proud they are of him, how he’s doing something great. Avner’s the son of a military hero, and it’s interesting the way he seems to not only be the fatherless child of so many Spielberg films, but also the absent father at the same time. His little girl starts to grow up and Avner’s back in the field, away from home, dealing in death while completely missing this new life. It would be one thing if Avner knew that what he was doing was totally justified and that every action he took genuinely made a difference, but the more he does, the more he comes to believe that the targets he was given may not all have had something to do with Munich. Even worse, as soon as they kill someone, new people replace them, and in some cases, the replacements are worse. Are they helping Israel at all? Or by giving in to the urge to meet violence with violence, are they making their country into something else? Are they, in fact, simply terrorists as well? These are hard questions, and the thing that makes the film work is that they are made personal, not global. Avner and his team have every right to debate these things because the blood is on their hands. When there is collateral damage and innocent blood is spilled, they are the ones who have to live with that. Spielberg makes the violence in the film terrifying and visceral and he never shies away from any of the details of it. There’s a hotel bombing that shocked me, and I’m not someone who is easily shocked by onscreen mayhem of any type. Much of the blood that’s spilled happens close-up, and that’s the way it should be. It’s easy to order a death, but it’s much harder to be the one who actually causes it. This film is about being in the room, smelling the gunpowder, hearing the last gurgle of life as it leaves someone, and having to weigh the cost of that against the good that it does... if any.
The final act is where screenwriters Tony Kushner and Eric Roth really bring the whole film together, and I think if you dismiss this part, you’ve missed the whole point. Once Avner returns to Israel, the hardest part of the process begins. He’s haunted by what he’s done. He’s haunted by how much of his daughter’s life he’s missed. He wants to step back into a normal life, but he’s not even sure that’s an option anymore. Even worse, he’s afraid now of his own government, afraid that they may punish him because of what he knows and what he’s done. Paranoia begins to creep into every aspect of his daily existence. He knows how easy it is to reach anyone, and he doesn’t feel safe anymore. But does anyone truly feel safe in a world where people are killed to prove ideological points or to underline political differences? Should they ever feel safe? We make our lives and we find our peace in small things, in our children, in our communities. We do what we can to feel safe and secure, and even knowing what evil there is in the world, and even knowing how horror can reach in and take anyone at anytime, we continue. We do it because we have to. It’s the only option we have, and the final moments of Spielberg’s film masterfully cut between two radically different events to show that, even faced with the darkest potential of the human heart, there is a way for us to deal with it, a way for us to drive that darkness back. It’s not easy, but it’s worthwhile, and the entire film feels like Steven Spielberg’s own personal bid to keep that darkness at bay. I find myself flashing back on any number of moments in it, even days later, but none moreso than a simple conversation between Avner and a Palestinian in a stairwell. Neither of them knows who the other is, and for a moment, they are able to simply talk, not agreeing with one another, but free to push without it becoming a confrontation. In that one conversation, we see the seeds for a different resolution, one without bloodshed. But it’s just a moment, and as soon as it happens, it’s over, and things turn inevitably bloody. The fact that even that moment of hope exists is enough, and maybe those moments are all we have. Maybe we can build from them. Maybe we can’t. But that’s what hope is all about, and for a film to articulate such complex ideas so well is accomplishment enough. MUNICH is indeed one of Spielberg’s finest hours, and should provide much fodder for conversation not just this Christmas, but for years to come.
I’m still wrestling with my review of Terrence Malick’s THE NEW WORLD, and should have that up later tonight, and I’ve finally gotten back to updating the DVD blog, so there’s good stuff popping up over there, too. Back to work for me. Until then...