Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Larger meaning

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in January 2006)

Steven Spielberg’s Munich takes off from the massacre of Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists at the 1972 Olympics, following five covert Israeli operatives, on a mission authorized by Golda Meir, to track down and assassinate eleven men identified as responsible. Eric Bana is the leader of the group and Geoffrey Rush is his field officer. The film feels designed to be important. That’s partly a result of its making – shot in relative secrecy and then released for Oscar season with minimal media stroking by Spielberg or his cast (except for an exclusive Time cover that seems to have alienated much of the rest of the press corps), as though the film – like its protagonists – were expected to achieve preeminence through inherent smarts and moral entitlement. As it is, it aroused pockets of strong support – Slate’s David Edelstein for one counts it as 2005’s best picture – but a more general apathy, and some considerable antipathy.

Idea of Evenhandedness

I think that’s an understandable reaction overall. It’s a long movie – some 160 minutes – although I was generally engaged by it. But this engagement primarily took place on the level of a familiar and at times somewhat mechanical thriller. The movie quickly settles into a groove whereby each target is tracked down in turn via a mysterious French middleman possessing omnipotent information but professing no moral or political affiliation (except the very act of disclaiming all governmental allegiance), each set-up involves some new kind of explosive device or other quirk, and each entails some hiccup on the way to completion. Spielberg’s execution of all this is generally impeccable, but there’s nothing at all remarkable about any of it – it’s like a retread of however many John Le Carre-type adaptations.

This would all be fine, if it were merely the genre skeleton on which Spielberg imposed something thematically bracing. But it’s in this area that Munich proves most keenly disappointing, and disappointing in exactly the way that one has sadly come to expect from him. The film simply displays little intellectual heft or political courage; to take only the most recent example, it seems thin and undernourished compared with Syriana, which displays less grasp of classical filmmaking, but is nevertheless far more compelling by virtue of its willingness to pick a thesis and stick to it, balance be damned. Munich is merely frustrating, and constantly causes you to wonder why Spielberg took on the subject in the first place.

A few samples of the commentary will get this point across better than I can. This is Leon Wieseltier from The New Republic. “The real surprise of Munich is how tedious it is. ... It is soaked in the sweat of its idea of evenhandedness. Palestinians murder, Israelis murder. Palestinians show evidence of a conscience, Israelis show evidence of a conscience…All these analogies begin to look ominously like the sin of equivalence, and so it is worth pointing out that the death of innocents was an Israeli mistake but a Palestinian objective. No doubt Munich will be admired for its mechanical symmetries, which will be called complexity. But this is not complexity, it is strategy. I mean of the marketing kind. … Munich is desperate not to be charged with a point of view. It is animated by a sense of tragedy and a dream of peace, which all good people share, but which in Hollywood is regarded as a dissent, and also as a point of view.”

Compromise and Dialogue

Here’s a more explicitly ideological expression of the same general reservation, from David Brooks in The New York Times.  “By choosing a story set in 1972, Spielberg allows himself to ignore the core poison that permeates the Middle East, Islamic radicalism. In Spielberg's Middle East, there is no Hamas or Islamic Jihad. There are no passionate anti-Semites, no Holocaust deniers like the current president of Iran, no zealots who want to exterminate Israelis.

“There is, above all, no evil. And that is the core of Spielberg's fable. In his depiction of reality there are no people so committed to a murderous ideology that they are impervious to the sort of compromise and dialogue Spielberg puts such great faith in.”

There’s much other available commentary along the same lines. And the basic point seems to me incontrovertible. Spielberg doesn’t help his case in a recent interview with Roger Ebert, where he seems to have little specific to say about his film’s thesis, but goes on vaguely about “larger meaning” and how “the dialogue needs to be louder than the weapons” and how discussion “is the highest good – it’s Talmudic.” Munich is duly filled with seemingly endless exchanges and meditations on how one act of vengeance may merely precipitate another. I cannot assess the claims for historical accuracy, but with a truly probing director that wouldn’t matter. Co-writer Tony Kushner wrote Angels in America, which generated great meaning and resonance, partly out of real people, without holding itself hostage to mundane pro- or con- accounting based on the mundane facts.

One of several weird paradoxes of Spielberg’s career is that he’s a master at creating fantasy worlds, bringing about our complete immersion in essentially outlandish premises, but then turns poky and pious in his “serious” projects. Munich ends with a shot of the World Trade Center, some twenty five years before 9/11, as a backdrop to the final conversation between Bana and Rush. The allusion is obvious, that what we’ve witnessed is in some way a foundation for the cycle of hatred and excess that culminated in that grave attack, and from there into the war in Iraq and God knows what lies beyond. But as insights go, this is not one iota more articulate or rational than George W. Bush’s aspirations for democracy in the Middle East.

Threat from within

Spielberg’s other 2005 movie, War of the Worlds, was inherently much easier to take, prompting some to wonder why at this late stage he spends his time on such material, and yet I actually found the film more politically provocative than Munich. That film also has 9/11 references in abundance, some of which might be considered merely opportunistic, but I thought the central metaphor of the overwhelming threat emerging from within, into the midst of a carefully evoked blue collar milieu, was a more intriguing commentary on middle-American complacency and vulnerability than anything in Munich. That film was justly criticized for its soft family-centric ending, and Munich again proves itself vulnerable on this score, as political calculations yield to the imperative of simply protecting one’s own.

The film does hint at some intriguing angles on the interplay of personal and political, through a recurring preoccupation with lost fathers, but this comes to seem more like a Spielbergian indulgence than a substantial contribution to the “larger meaning.” I don't want to overstate the case – Munich is full of intriguing sequences, and Spielberg’s calculating grimness is hardly more negligible than the achievements of many other serious films. But even as he explains it, his film’s lessons appear targeted mainly at unthinking zealots, and I don’t think I’m paying either myself or you the reader an unwarranted compliment when I say we may be a little beyond that.

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