Friday, December 16, 2005

A Review of Steven Spielberg's "Munich"

After attending an advance screening:

In his last release, “War of the Worlds,” director Steven Spielberg bombarded us with images of horror derived from the 9/11 trauma. The imagery was remarkable – after the film’s opening alien attack, hero Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) returns home to find himself incredulously covered in gray soot. Later, as Ray’s family flees the first attack region, daughter Rachel (Dakota Fanning) screams repeatedly, “is it terrorists?” This sci-fi remake, which in its first iteration was an expression of the Cold War, became in Spielberg’s hands Hollywood’s first major artistic statement on 9/11.

In “Munich,” the second of his post-9/11 cinematic explorations, Steven Spielberg has taken on the war on terrorism itself. It is a commonplace recited by many Israelis that since 9/11 Americans are learning to live in a vicious world which Israelis have lived in for over 50 years. Spielberg and playwright Tony Kushner apparently agree – for this dramatization of today’s war on terror is seen through the prism of the more “ancient” Arab-Israeli terror war, when methods and practices were first being developed. They have taken us to a time when Middle Eastern terrorists were just beginning to bring their campaign to regions beyond the hot Middle East, and Israel was struggling – all by itself – to learn how to respond in kind. This movie takes us back to the first great international terror event, the 1972 Munich Olympics hostage attack on the Israeli athletic team by Black September. And then it follows the first “war on terrorism,” as we witness a clandestine Israeli assassination team kill off each of the architects of that attack.

But this is no heroic shoot-em-up with a lovable Indiana Jones. “Munich” after all bears a screenplay by Tony Kushner. Our conflicted hero in “Munich” is Avner Kauffman (convincingly rendered by Eric Bana), and Avner is a man working deep, deep undercover. He becomes a valiant state-sponsored assassin, conflicted within and yet honored by mother and country. By the end of the movie, Avner abandons his homeland and is a shadow of his former self. The road to this transformation is what takes up most of this 2½ hour movie.

“Munich” is an ambivalent and flawed movie, lacking most of the special cinematographic techniques which distinguish the Spielberg look. It is visually a fairly pedestrian, by-the-book European travelogue-cum-spy story. So wedded to Europe is our story, that all the scenes representing to be taking place in Israel were shot in Europe – a surprising lack of location shooting in a movie that strives for authentic look-and-feel.

To be sure, this movie is first-and-foremost concerned with Israelis – their humanity, their thoughtfulness, and their murderous efficiency. But it is the implied message of the narrative that terrorism cannot be defeated through a policy of targeted reprisal killings as the Israelis continue to employ, and the Americans toy with – there are often innocents in such attacks; and more practically, with every dead terrorist there are 6 more enraged and willing volunteers to replace the “martyr.”

In the clandestine world of state-sponsored hit teams, Avner himself becomes a target – by whom he does not know – and struggles to keep his team and family intact. Avner begins to doubt his controller and his convictions. By the end, he is a lost man.

Israeli director Eitan Fox covered similar territory – the Mossad killer who loses his professional edge to doubts – in his 2004 film “Walk on Water” and did so in a far more palpable way. “Munich” lacks the richness of character Fox’s “Water” so convincingly evokes.

This new movie is no magisterial “Schindler’s List” or “Saving Private Ryan.” It is too much like the plodding “The Bourne Identity” to be taken as a work of genius. “Munich” is a serious Spielberg movie (was this the man who gave us “1941”?), and attempts to pose serious questions about the United States’ current “war on terror.” For those who doubt its currency, the final shot of the movie reveals all of Spielberg’s true intentions. The accusation that Spielberg and Kushner are trumpeting some diatribe against Israel cannot be entertained by anyone who sees the movie for its larger political message. It is a movie that is neither too sympathetic to the Israeli cause, nor too wrapped up in Palestinian victimization. It is a cinematic argument that violence begets violence, and that a war on terror corrodes all who come near it. Though the movie is an admirable effort at political relevancy, it is not a defining piece in the Spielberg oeuvre.

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