Friday, May 26, 2006

Munich on DVD: Spielberg’s Masterpiece


Copyright © 2006 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

The American Right is against complexity virtually everywhere it rears its head, but especially when it comes to depictions of the so-called “war on terror.” (For that matter, they’re strongly opposed to people like me writing the phrase “the so-called ‘war on terror.’”) In a typically vicious diatribe, published in the April 26 Los Angeles Times, against reporters like the Washington Post’s Dana Priest and the New York Times’ James Risen for having revealed details of President Bush’s flagrant abuses of due process, the U.S. Constitution and the laws he took an oath to uphold — and the Pulitzer Prize committee for giving them awards for those stories —columnist and Foreign Affairs contributor Max Boot wrote, “I want journalists to cover the present struggle as a fight between good and evil.”

Likewise, also in the Los Angeles Times — this time in the May 7 issue — crime novelist Andrew Klavan openly called on the American movie industry to depict the “war on terror” in the same black-and-white, good-and-evil terms with which they depicted World War II while that war was actually happening. “We need some films celebrating the war against Islamo-fascism in Afghanistan and Iraq — and in Iran as well, if and when that becomes necessary,” Klavan wrote. “We need … films such as 1943’s Sahara and Action in the North Atlantic, or The Fighting Seabees and Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, which were released in 1944. Not all of these were great films, or even good ones, but their patriotic tributes to our fighting forces inspired the nation.”

Two days after Klavan’s column appeared, Steven Spielberg’s Munich — a film which no doubt epitomizes everything Klavan thinks is wrong about Hollywood’s treatment of the “war on terror” — appeared on DVD after disappointing box-office returns in its theatrical run. The film ran 164 minutes in its theatrical version, and the DVD is preceded by a curious five-minute apologia from Spielberg, who obviously felt moved to respond to the controversy surrounding this film, particularly the accusations of historical inaccuracy both in the movie itself and in the book Spielberg and his writers, Tony Kushner (that’s right, the Tony Kushner of A Bright Room Called Day and Angels in America) and Eric Roth, drew on as their source: George Jonas’s 1984 book Vengeance: The True Story of an Israeli Counter-Terrorist Team.

I bought and watched the Munich DVD on the first day it was out, and I was astonished by both the professionalism with which it was made and the depth with which it explores the issues Spielberg set out to raise. Munich seems to me to be a great film which succeeds on every possible level: a triumph for Spielberg, his long-time producer Kathleen Kennedy (who put him on to the material), his writers and his cast, all of whom except semi-star Geoffrey Rush are unknowns and therefore able to slip into their roles far more effectively than well-known “name” actors would have been.

The story begins with the abduction and murder of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics in Munich — presented through a mix of re-enactments and archival news footage that’s all too successful in recreating the strange roller-coaster of emotions common to hostage situations like this, especially when (as here) there’s an initial report that the victims have been rescued successfully and then the truth that they’ve all been killed emerges later. It then shifts to the Israeli cabinet, where prime minister Golda Meir (brought to life in a chillingly matter-of-fact performance by Lynn Cohen) orders the reprisal killing of 11 Palestinian activists involved either in Black September, the terrorist group that planned and ordered the Munich attack, or other terrorist acts against Israelis.

Ephraim (Geoffrey Rush) is the Mossad agent assigned to recruit a team to carry out the assassinations, and he picks Avner Kaufman (Eric Bana in the film’s lead role) to lead the team on the ground, officially firing him from the Mossad and setting up arrangements to pay him in Switzerland. Things are complicated by the fact that Avner’s wife is seven months’ pregnant with their first child, and Avner’s disappearance into the netherworld of international espionage for however long it will take to kill the 11 people on his list means that he will probably not see his child for years — but Avner is the son of a former Mossad hero and he takes the assignment.

The bulk of the film is a slow, methodical detailing of how an international hit team functions: how it identifies its targets, finds out their location, and carries out the killings either by guns or bombs. Mossad’s orders were to use bombs wherever possible for maximum public impact, despite the risk of collateral damage. In one scene the man in charge of the remote detonator, which is linked to a bomb concealed in a telephone that is wired to go off when the phone is answered, hangs back on the detonation because the person answering the phone is not the victim, but his daughter. In another, the bomb is wired to a bed in a hotel room and it’s duly set off, killing the victim — and, via shrapnel-like glass particles, blinding an Israeli woman who was on her honeymoon in the next room.

One of the most welcome aspects of Munich is how brilliant a piece of filmmaking it is on a purely technical craft level. In a year in which three of the five Academy Award Best Picture nominees were made by first-time directors — Paul Haggis (Crash), Bennett Miller (Capote) and George Clooney (Good Night, and Good Luck), it’s nice to see a movie made by a consummate filmmaker with over three decades’ experience who knows instinctively when to keep the camera still and when to move it, when to hold it on a scene and when to cut. Aided by his frequent collaborator, composer John Williams, who scored most of the film’s music only for strings, Spielberg created a powerful mood that emphasized Avner’s moral dilemmas and explained quite readily why he finishes the movie with the Mother of All Post-Traumatic Stress Disorders.

Munich is a grimly paced film, and some of the action scenes get pretty gory, but it’s more about character than about action and, in particular, the crisis of faith (it’s hard to call it anything else!) Avner goes through as he begins to question the ethics of his mission and whether he’s reducing himself to the moral level of his terrorist enemies by carrying it out. That’s the part of the film that so incensed conservative critics — including David Brooks, who couldn’t come right out and say that the director of Schindler’s List didn’t know the difference between good and evil, so he said that Spielberg had forgotten it because he refused to make the Islamists = Nazis equation Brooks had — and probably sealed its fate at the box office despite the fact that it’s a great film, easily the best of the four of last year’s Academy Award best picture nominees I’ve seen (all except the winner, Crash).

It would have been very easy for Steven Spielberg, of all directors, to go into Jaws/Jurassic Park/War of the Worlds action mode and make a nice, compact, exciting two-hour movie of this story, with lots of action and no moral complexity, and have produced the kind of good vs. evil parable people like David Brooks, Max Boot and Andrew Klavan want movies of the so-called “war on terror” to be — but that wasn’t what he wanted. Instead he stretched out the story, partly to evoke the kinds of contrasts between the precision of the means and the madness of the ends the late Stanley Kubrick, who befriended Spielberg in the last years of his life (and clearly taught him something), loved to do; and partly to draw us into the dilemmas faced by the characters.

In that regard, Munich bears an intriguing resemblance to a movie that, though made in an Allied country (Britain) during World War II, was utterly unlike the ones Klavan lauded in his column: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, co-written and co-directed by Michael Powell and German refugee Emeric Pressburger. Though Pressburger had seen the Nazis’ evil up close and personal, he and Powell made a movie that not only acknowledged the moral complexity of even such a “good war” as World War II but, like Munich, openly questioned whether, in adopting fundamentally inhumane tactics like directly bombing civilian populations, the Allies might be defeating the Nazis only to lose their own soul. And, like Munich, Blimp was controversial when it was made; British prime minister Winston Churchill hated the film and kept it from being released outside the U.K. for nearly two years.

One curious aspect of Munich is its utter humorlessness: even scenes that could have been skewed for comic relief, like the one in which the Israeli assassins come to a safe house that’s been arranged for them in Rome only to find that the place has been double-booked and an Arab group still has another day to go there, are instead used to highlight the moral and ethical issues at the heart of the film. In that confrontation, and in others, the differences not only between sides but within the Israeli team come through. At one point Steve (Daniel Craig), the tall, blond team member who’s both the least “Jewish”-looking of them and the most gung-ho, makes the chilling comment that the only blood that interests him is “Jewish blood” — and it’s a shocker to hear a Jew mimic the Nazis’ racialist madness and differ only in that he puts Jews at the top of his racist ranking of humanity instead of the bottom. Thanks to the literacy of the Kushner-Roth script, the film is able to raise these kinds of issues and have the characters talk about them without sounding either phony or overly preachy.

Munich is a classic-in-the-making, the kind of great film they’re not supposed to be making anymore, and a real surprise coming from this director, who only twice in his previous career (Schindler’s List — now why should it have been such a surprise that Spielberg made a terrorist movie a work of moral complexity when the hero of his Holocaust film was a Nazi who redeemed himself by saving Jews? — and Amistad) has reached so far into himself and pulled out such a level of emotion. If there’s a surprise in this film it’s only that he made it right after War of the Worlds, and after the publicity interviews he did for his action blockbuster portraying it as his response to 9/11 and implying that the implacable, unreachable Martian invaders of his “take” on the Wells classic were the way he saw al-Qaeda. I suspect Munich will be one of those films whose stature will grow over the years and will finally be recognized as Spielberg’s masterpiece.