Monday, January 02, 2006

Munich

Steven Spielberg's "Munich" has been called his "by far the toughest film of the director's career and the most anguished". A lot of people probably believe this. I don't know. I think Schindler's List was probably much tougher and much more anguished. It is a sad sign of the times that a movie about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would be considered more anguishing to make than a movie about the Holocaust.

I am not surprised Manohla Dargis, who is not a big Spielberg fan, wrote this. Those who find Spielberg a virtuoso filmmaker but purveyor of cheap, crowd-pleasing emotional thrills (not my assessment) doubtless find Tony Kushner, Munich's screenwriter and a reliable radical, a welcome influence. Kushner, the author of the great Angels in America, is no slouch.

Neither are on the top of their game here. Spielberg's great energy comes through unevenly here; his movie is an overlong graphic collection of assassinations. It is a mystery as to why Mr. Spielberg has not been criticized for cheap emotional thrills in a bizarre closing sequence where a sex scene is mixed with the murder of Israeli athletes or gratuitousness for the manner in which he depicts the killing of a female rogue Dutch assassin. Sex serves as both a foil and a corollary for the killing in this movie, an idea that is rather banal by now but oddly offensive here.

Kushner's script is transparently calibrated to promote his own personal political viewpoint. Anyone familiar with Mr. Kushner's stance on the conflict will recognize this. Mr. Kushner's theme, so simple and unoriginal but so well-regarded in Hollywood, is that violence begets violence, and that terrorists (Mr. Kushner would doubtless prefer "alleged guerrillas" or some other derivative that removes the linguistic violence of the word "terrorist") should be brought to trial rather than targetted for death.

It's a cinematic op-ed piece, not especially well-argued, ignorant of the complexity of the issues, and perhaps worst of all, ignorant of the facts, based as it is on a book with a discredited source. That makes it an arrogant op-ed piece, with Mr. Spielberg and Mr. Kushner (and I believe Mr. Kushner is more responsible than Mr. Spielberg) ignoring the actual parties and forcing their interpretation on the conflict.

Every director and writer who chooses to make a movie about a subject like this ought to watch Gillo Pontecorvo's "Battle of Algiers" and learn its lessons. They are:

1. Keep your own political views at bay and stick to the facts. If you really believe in them, they should stand on their own. And if you're wrong, you're wrong. Pontecorvo's political outlook was, if anything, to the left of Kushner.

2. No big ideological speeches. Munich's script doesn't trust its audience to draw its own conclusions, so it has its characters tell them to the audience. Avner, the lead character, asks Ephraim, the Mossad head who recruits Avner to lead a team who will assassinate Palestinians implicated by the Mossad as terrorists, why the terrorists could not be brought to justice rather than killed. (The question is a serious one in this context, though not serious in today's West bank context.) But in a story where the accepted truth is that the Israelis who participated in the revenge killings showed little ambiguity about what they did, it is all the more unfortunate that Mr. Kushner chose to have them wear their emotions on their sleeves. Pontecorvo's French general was in a similar position to Avner. He was a hero of the French resistance from the World War II. He was honest about what was necessary to get the job done and said so. And by his saying so, Pontecorvo presented his argument without skirting the facts. He didn't have to invent lines about civilizations compromising with their own values, as Kushner has Golda Meir tell her security cabinet.

It's not surprising that Kushner doesn't trust his audience to understand him without these literary indulgences of his.

Kushner and Spielberg fail to heed these lessons, and as a result, Munich is a failure.

A couple of notes:

Many Arabs are unhappy with Spielberg for presenting the Israelis as conflicted men while presenting the Palestinians as fairly irredentist, most distinctly in a scene where a PLO member speaks to Avner about not resting until Israel is once again in Arab hands. In other words, one side is humanized and the other isn't. This is a strange criticism, given the movie's clear effort to present the targets as fathers with young charming daughters, intellectuals, poets, friendly guys who will offer you a cigarette, and so on. Taken with Kushner's effort to remind the audience that the evidence on these men was limited and certainly not public, it seems as though the criticism is hardly justified.

Irina has a different take. She argues that the lesson is that a guy doesn't have to wear a military uniform in order to kill people; he can be a poet who kills, an intellectual who kills. Scholarship and artistry is no barrier against evil. I doubt this was Kushner's intent given his politics, much as he would not hesitate to deliver such a lesson about American and Israeli civilian politicians. It is, nonetheless, a useful lesson to draw from this movie, particularly for those who think of Sheikh Yassin as a harmless paraplegic clergyman.

1 Comments:

At 11:40 PM, Blogger Irina Tsukerman said...

Oh, this is great. This is really the first, or one of the first, reviews that focused on the artistic flaws of the movies. Except, you misconstrued what I was saying. I'm not maintaining that's what Spielberg and Kushner were trying to say. You're probably right,a nd they weren't. But that's what I realized as I was watching the movie!

 

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