December 14, 2005

Thoughts on "Munich"

I saw Spielberg's new film tonight, and three observations to start out:

1. It's a wonderfully and skillfully made film, with some of the best storytelling of any movie in recent memory.
2. It's in no way anti-Israel or anti-Semitic.
3. What was, for 140 minutes, the best movie of the year is undermined by a ridiculous and insulting conclusion, which very much undercuts everything that came before it.

When I first heard Spielberg was planning to tackle the aftermath of the massacre of the Israeli Olympic team, I was incredibly excited- it's a serious, important subject that could be trusted in the hands of very few directors. And for the first two-plus hours, "Munich" is everything all Spielberg-lovers thought it would be- a fascinating and powerful look at historical events, in the tradition of "Schindler's List" and "Saving Private Ryan." Filmed in numerous countries in just four months, the film also works as a spy thriller, with multiple layers of international intrigue.

From a political standpoint, the film does nothing objectionable for the majority of its running time. Yes, 'Munich" depicts the Israeli assassins as engaging in killing of those behind the massacre, though it takes pains, on multiple occasions, to depict the agents as going to extraordinary lengths to avoid killing civilians, and eventually having moral qualms about being assassins. (Are the depictions of such qualms themselves anti-Israel? If you ask me, they're pro-Israel). There is moral ambiguity, yes, but the Israelis are never, for one second, depicted as villains.

Remember when "A.I.: Artificial Intelligence" came out four years ago, and cineastes debated which parts had Spielberg's fingerprints and which had Stanley Kubrick's? I found myself doing much the same watching "Munich," spotting which parts had the director's fingerprint and which bore that of screenwriter Tony Kushner. And while the first 95% of the film is mostly Spielberg, the film's sorry epilogue is all Kushner.

Like "A.I.," "Munich" has about five endings, and also like "A.I.," the last one is the worst. It indulges all of Kushner's worst tics as a writer: bizarre dreams/visions, the insertion of sex where it doesn't belong, a disturbing lack of subtlety, and wildly off-the-charts leftism.

There's a scene set at the Israeli consolate that doesn't fit thematically at all; a sequence of "visions" for some reason set while the hero is having sex with his wife; a nonsensical final scene of dialogue, and (worst of all), the film's final shot, which shatters the previous two-plus hours of nuance and subtlety with a hammer-over-the-head connection between its events and September 11. It doesn't fit, it doesn't belong, and it draws wildly incorrect conclusions.

It's really a shame, because had "Munich" been a straight re-telling of the story, and kept its tone throughout, it would likely have been an all-time classic, on par with 'Schindler's' and 'Private Ryan.' The performances by the international cast are top-notch across the board, especially Eric Bana as the lead Israeli agent, Daniel Craig as a hard-line member of this team, and Geoffrey Rush as his Mossad handler. The cinematography by Spielberg regular Janusz Kaminski is exemplary and, once again, the film holds up well on its own as a spy thriller, even divorced from all the political implications.

For those reasons, I recommend seeing "Munich." But I don't remember when I was more disappointed by the ending of a movie.

Posted by Stephen Silver at December 14, 2005 01:19 AM

Good lord BLOGGER, its funny how any Spielberg does in your mind is platinum. Writers do not have the final say on anything in a film, so BLAME SPIELBERG for the ending if you didn't like it, because he is the one who greenlights that.
As for it being Anti-semetic or Anti-Israeli, why would the film be that when Spielberg himself is a Jew. That comment just makes no sense at all. This post could have been edited and more succinct. Don't quit your day job BLOGGER.

Posted by: A at December 14, 2005 10:01 AM

I don't understand why you state a concern about some possibility that the film may be anti-semitic / anti-israeli - I haven't followed the hype about this film, but are people saying this is an issue?

Posted by: Jeff S at December 14, 2005 04:00 PM

A and Jeff.

Don't be so naive that something coming from a jew cannot be anti-semitic. If your comments are simply made to be jackasses, it is like saying that an Arab cannot be anti-semitic because Arabs are semites. Of course Anti-semitism in that context means pure jew-hatred, something an Arab is completely capable of, and sadly something which is all to common.

If you are serious but naive here is my attempt to explain. There is a lot of self-criticism, bordering on self-hate amongst Jews.

Especially when it comes to Israel there is a large segment of the Jewish community who have completely morally equated the Arabs and the Jews in the conflict which has manifested itself into a severe form of criticism which they would not levy at Israel's enemies and actions which can only be described as anti-Israel including protests, divestiments, written slander and viritol aimed at the IDF, Sharon, "settlers", religious jews and anything else that signifies Jewish power and pride.

In this category is what I will term "propoganda" which promotes the Arab cause as the expense of Israel. Such luminaries as Noam Chomsky, Rabbi David Lerner, Norman Finklestein are examples of those who have taken the Arab narrative/fantasy to heart.

Many believe that this movie belongs in the category of extreme and unfair criticsim of Israel by a Jew. In short, many believe that this movie's message which is not that that Arab terrorism is wrong, and that Arab instansigence has been the barrier to peace, but rather both sides are the reason there is perpetual war because there are "extremists on both sides." Classic cycle of violence stuff.

Such a view of the conflict is common cover for those who really want to stick it to Israel yet want to demand nothing of the Arabs. You see, so that line of thinking goes, if Israelis are being extremist, we are justified in getting them to stop being extremist and thus we can demand concessions, threatening them with sanctions, and outright demonizing them including boycotting, divestment, slanted media coverage -- all for the greater good -- the Arab narrative.

While I haven't seen the movie as Stephen has, these are the criticisms from the pro-Israel community - that Israel has moral concerns about killing terrorists, not becauase the Israelis are genuinely human, but because killing terrorists is wrong. After all, such "Israel-bashers" would say the terrorists have point of view that should be considered too. Who are we to say who is right and who is wrong. There is no right and wrong anymore, that perished with Hitler, now we only have, at best, both sides are wrong.

I don't know if that message comes through in the movie, but some reviews indicate that it does, as well as some of Spielberg's interview with, I believe Time magazine about the movie that Spielberg entertains this view -- both Israel and the Arabs are wrong to engage in violence, not recognizing that it was the Arabs who have tried to wipe Israel off the map and continue to do so and that if the Arabs would lay down their arms there would be no more war.

Posted by: J. Lichty at December 15, 2005 01:09 PM
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