Tuesday, December 27, 2005


Of all the movies coming out this season, Munich was not near the top of my list of films to see. My main thought when I first heard about it was how Spielberg must have busted his ass to get it done so soon after War of the Worlds. Quick filmmaking, in this case, does not in any way translate into inferior filmmaking. The things I keep reading about this film and the directions it takes astonishes me. An excerpt from Slate's glowing review:

Is Munich an apology for Palestinian terrorists - for men and women who barbarously murder civilians? I don't consider a movie that assigns motives more complicated than pure evil to constitute an apology. The Israeli government and many conservative and pro-Israeli commentators have lambasted the film for naivete, for implying that governments should never retaliate. But an expression of uncertainty and disgust is not the same as one of outright denunciation. What Munich does say - and what I find irrefutable - is that this shortsighted tit-for-tat can produce a kind of insanity, both individual and collective. As members of Avner's own team (played by a blond Daniel Craig, Ciaran Hinds, Mathieu Kassovitz, and Hanns Zischler) are picked off in chilling ways, his escalating paranoia - and his hunger for absolutes, for a "world of our fathers" that is long gone - transcends his time and place.

There are sequences in Munich that make you sick with fear, that are impossible to shake off - among them one in which a Palestinian professor's little daughter is on the verge of answering a booby-trapped telephone. Most horrible of all is the movie's one pure vengeance killing, which is among the most appalling things I've ever seen. We want that revenge - we want it fiercely. But it's staged with such ugliness - as a sexual violation - that we choke on it.

Munich reinforces the idea that - great Miltonian allegories notwithstanding - the notion of evil has become profoundly maladaptive. Today, saying our enemy is "evil" is like saying a preventable tragedy is "God's will": It's a way of letting ourselves off the hook for crimes committed in our name. Not incidentally, it's also a way for our enemies to let themselves off the hook.
Spielberg has taken some heat from those who have bolstered his name in the past. Jews who sang his praises after Schindler's List are now heaping scorn upon him after suggesting that we look upon the efforts of Mossad as anything but righteous. Spielberg, for his part, is having none of it. He recently defended himself in an interview with Roger Ebert:

"Some of my critics are asking how Spielberg, this Hollywood liberal who makes dinosaur movies, can say anything serious about this subject that baffles so many smart people. What they're basically saying is, 'You disagree with us in a big public way, and we want you to shut up, and we want this movie to go back in the can.' That's a nefarious attempt to make people plug up their ears. That's not Jewish, it's not democratic, and it's bad for everyone -- especially in a democratic society."

Yet what is he saying that has people so disturbed? Careful attention to the film itself suggests that it's not so much what he says as that he dares even to open up the Middle East for discussion.

"My film refuses to be a pamphlet," Spielberg said. "My screenwriter Tony Kushner and I were hoping to make it a visceral, emotional and intellectual experience, combined in such a way that it will help you get in touch with what you feel are the questions the film poses. He said he was taught by his parents, his rabbi and his faith that discussion "is the highest good -- it's Talmudic."

But what about the issue of "moral equivalence," the charge that he equates the Israeli and Palestinian causes, when the rightness of one (or the other) is seen as not debatable?

"Frankly, I think that's a stupid charge. The people who attack the movie based on 'moral equivalence' are some of the same people who say diplomacy itself is an exercise in moral equivalence, and that war is the only answer. That the only way to fight terrorism is to dehumanize the terrorists by asking no questions about who they are and where they come from.

"What I believe is, every act of terrorism requires a strong response, but we must also pay attention to the causes. That's why we have brains and the power to think passionately. Understanding does not require approval. Understanding is not the same as inaction. Understanding is a very muscular act. If I'm endorsing understanding and being attacked for that, then I am almost flattered."
A-men. The issues are important ones and are ones that need to be communicated to a wide audience. Munich will not have Jurassic Park like numbers, to be sure, but the subject matter will get out there and start people talking.

From Saving Private Ryan to Minority Report to Catch Me If You Can to War of the Worlds to, now, Munich.


Please keep up the good work, Mr. Spielberg. You are very much still worthy of our attention and admiration.

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