Friday, December 30, 2005

You can't go home again: "Munich" shows mature Spielberg


directed by Steven Spielberg
written by Tony Kushner and Eric Roth
based on the book “Vengeance” by George Jonas
starring Eric Bana, Geoffrey Rush, Daniel Craig, Ciarán Hinds, others

My father and I have never seen eye to eye on Steven Spielberg. I’m a fan, while Dad’s always thought of him as a bit of a hack: not that he isn’t great at what he does best, namely, edge-of-your-seat entertainment, but he should stick to the sharks, dinosaurs, and Indiana Jones. As far as my dad’s concerned, “serious” Spielberg is just a kid trying to imitate his elders, who gives himself away every time he lays on the schmaltz.

I mention this only because I saw “Munich” recently with my parents, and afterwards my father remarked, in a tone of mild surprise, that Spielberg had “matured.” And while I don’t entirely agree with him on Spielberg generally, I have to say I’m with him on this. Not that the director’s inner child has disappeared—it hasn’t, and I hope it never will, because without it Spielberg just ain’t Spielberg. But the Spielbergian assurance that the child will come home again, and all will be healed, has been dimmed, if not extinguished.

It may be that this has less to do with Spielberg’s growth as a director than with the movie’s subject matter; the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, after all, is a subject guaranteed to make even the squishiest sentimentalist throw his or her hands up in despair. Still, I don’t think he’d have been able to tackle such a minefield at an earlier stage in his career. There’s been a lot of controversy about his PR tactics, motives and timing in taking on “Munich,” not to mention the reliability of his source material (the movie’s based on a book that’s been discredited in some quarters), yet everything about the finished film breathes the conviction that it was a deeply personal project. “Munich” doesn’t play like a self-serving bid for Oscar consideration, but a genuinely thoughtful examination of questions of searing moral and historical importance—not just for Israel and Palestine, but for the entire world.

The movie begins with a quick, taut recreation of the tragedy at the 1972 Olympics in Munich, where eleven Israeli athletes were taken hostage and eventually killed by members of the Palestinian terrorist organization Black September. The bulk of the film, however, focuses on its aftermath—specifically, a series of reprisal killings supposedly set up by the Israeli government and targeted at the men who planned the Munich massacre. The Israeli government has never admitted to ordering any such mission, and the writers are careful to note at the outset that the movie is only “inspired” by actual events. Nonetheless, the whole film turns on the premise that the assassinations were state-sponsored retribution, approved by then-Prime Minister Golda Meir herself (Lynn Cohen). An Israeli secret service agent named Avner (a delectably worried-looking Eric Bana) is chosen to head the top-secret retaliation squad, which includes a cleanup man (Ciarán Hinds), a paperwork man (Hanns Zichler), a toymaker-turned-bomb man (Mathieu Kassovitz), and a general rough-and-ready strongman (Daniel Craig, future James Bond). Officially, the team doesn’t exist; unofficially, they answer to a dour fellow named Ephraim (Geoffrey Rush) and a safe-deposit box where funds are magically replenished for their perilous enterprise.

Spielberg follows the group’s movements across Europe, as they track down and take out Palestinian leaders who they’re told had a role in plotting Munich (what role exactly, they never learn). Between hits, they reflect on the ethics of their assignment, revealing varying thresholds of acceptance and discomfort; the cleanup man, Carl, seems the most disposed to discuss the issue, while man’s man Steve bluntly declares that the only blood that matters to him is Jewish blood. Avner, for his part, says the least but feels the most, and meanwhile pines for his wife and newborn baby. The general moral ambiguity of their position is thrown into even sharper relief by Avner’s dealings with Louis (Mathieu Almaric), a Frenchman who trafficks in classified information and becomes their principal source for locating their targets, and Louis’s father, known simply as Papa (Michael Lonsdale), whose genial manner and seeming affection for Avner hardly mask the coldly amoral nature of his family business. As the death toll mounts on both sides and the security of Avner’s own team grows more and more precarious, his resolve doesn’t falter, but his sense of righteous purpose becomes increasingly clouded.

“Munich” isn’t Spielberg’s best work—its structuring is sometimes a tad clunky, its tonal shifts can feel forced, and it’s marred by an ugly metaphorical rape of a woman who, it’s implied, deserves what she gets. But overall, as a movie, it’s still pretty damn good. Each hit is orchestrated with the kind of technical virtuosity in which Spielberg is still unrivaled, yet the brutality of the end result is never romanticized or aestheticized. The thrills of execution and vengeance quickly give way to a bitter aftertaste of fear and doubt. As for the film’s underlying politics, such as they are, I find myself frankly baffled by the storm of criticism they appear to have dusted up. The most prevalent accusation, as far as I can tell, is that Spielberg treats the avengers as morally equivalent to the terrorists. He does no such thing. Not for a moment does the film suggest that the Munich murders were anything but a dastardly act that cried out for vengeance. What it does suggest is that violence begets more violence, rather than peace, and that even the most justified killing will always leave its mark on the killer. “Munich” also probes the proposition, offered by Golda Meir, that “every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its moral values” —a statement that could be a mantra for today’s war on terrorism. That the film questions this idea without offering any clear answers or alternatives is a testament to the thorniness of the issue, not any inherent weakness or disingenuousness in its own perspective.

To the extent Spielberg puts a human face on the terrorists, the value of such an exercise all comes down to whether it’s necessary to try to understand the motives of those who commit evil acts. I believe it is; and this, in turn, requires understanding them as human beings, not as demons. Perhaps the best scene in “Munich” is a late-night dialogue on the Palestinian question between Avner and a young Palestinian terrorist, Ali, who doesn’t know that Avner is working for Mossad. Ali is a passing figure who delivers much of the same rhetoric that we’ve already heard from Avner’s targets and others, and we certainly aren’t expected to condone his conclusion that the Palestinians will never rest until every Israeli is dead. Yet he’s also a charismatic man, and the passion with which he speaks of the Palestinians’ desire for a home, something that “none of you will ever understand,” gives him a kind of power that Avner is forced to acknowledge can’t be killed, not even by justice. Later in the film, Avner enjoys a brief visit with his mother, who assures her son that no matter what price he’s had to pay, it was worth it, because they now have a home, always and forever. This echo of Ali’s language isn’t some half-baked attempt to equate Ali with Avner’s mother. It merely underlines the power, but also the cost, of that precious concept of *home*—as well as its terrible fragility. In a very real sense, Avner loses his home through fighting to protect it, and unlike Spielberg’s other lost boys, he can never regain it. Dad was right: Stevie’s all grown up.


Also saw:

3-IRON (Bin-jip)

directed by Kim Ki-Duk
starring Lee Seung-Yeon, Hee-Jae, Kwon Hyuk-Ho
Korean, w/ English subtitles

This is the story of a man who turns into a ghost, and the woman who falls in love with him. Well, that’s one way of reading it, anyway; see the movie and you’ll no doubt come up with several possible alternative interpretations. Ostensibly, “Bin-Jip” (which, literally translated, means “Empty house” —but the golf club plays an important role, too) is about a youth who, for no discernible reason, spends his days breaking into homes that are temporarily uninhabited while the residents are on vacation. He doesn’t steal or destroy anything; he just lives there for a while, takes pictures of himself, tidies up the place and fixes things that are broken, then moves on—sometimes before the residents return, sometimes not exactly. In one of the cushier houses, he meets an abused young wife, who eventually ends up accompanying him to other people’s houses and sharing his routine. This may be the point at which you start to glance at your watch. Be patient: the movie takes a very odd turn in the third act, venturing into a domain borderline-mystical, which may work for some better than for others. It worked for me, though the movie doesn’t probe deeply into its ideas so much as throw them out there for the viewer’s self-amusement. Still, “Bin-Jip” is a delicate, offbeat charmer of a film, less schematic than director Kim Ki-Duk’s much-praised “Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and then Spring” and certainly much wittier. Sit back and let your mind play with it; you’ll be glad you did.



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