Sunday, December 18, 2011

Director's Spotlight #2.19: Steven Spielberg's Munich

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director’s Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. November and December are devoted to Steven Spielberg, with December dedicated to his “mature” films. Next, 2005’s Munich.

Grade: 87 (A-)

Steven Spielberg started the 2000s out with his most challenging and ambitious film, A.I., and spent the next several years blurring the line between blockbuster and brilliance (Minority Report, War of the Worlds). Released in 2005, Munich was to be Spielberg’s response to 9/11, a Schindler’s List or Saving Private Ryan style prestige picture about righteous men doing justified acts against bad people. Or at least that’s what many thought; in reality, Munich is not a jingoistic film, but rather a punishing examination of  the horrors of revenge, and an impassioned plea for tolerance and examination of when good intentions go bad. That it didn’t sit well with some (despite mostly strong reviews and several Oscar nominations) isn’t surprising. But it’s also one of his most rewarding films.

Avner Kaufman (Eric Bana) is an agent of Mossad, the Israeli Secret Service. He, like others, is horrified at the massacre of the Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists at the Munich Olympics. The Israeli government hires him to lead an unofficial group to strike back and kill the 11 men who planned the Munich massacre. They include Steve (Daniel Craig), a South African-Israeli driver; Hans (Hanns Zischler), a document forger; Robert (Mathieu Kassovitz) a Belgian bomb-maker; and Carl (Ciaran Hinds), a clean-up man. Their handler, Ephraim (Geoffrey Rush), works from afar. The men enter their mission as soldiers eager to work for Israel, but they soon learn the toll revenge takes on the soul.

Munich’s suspense scenes are as tightly-wound and harrowing as anything Spielberg has ever made. The old Hitchcockian suspense shows up again in scenes that drag out the tension to near-unbearable levels, particularly an assassination in which a bomb is rigged to a phone. A young girl answers for her father, the target, and Carl must race to the bomb-maker on the other side of the street to keep him from accidentally killing her. The film is also in debt to old spy movies, particularly the paranoia-inducing films of the Cold War-era (The Manchurian Candidate, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold). There’s even the Howard Hawks “men on a mission” storyline, albeit a darker and less noble one (the actors, by the way, are all perfectly cast). Finally, the film’s unflinching look at the dark side of human nature, the horrors of modern technology, and the mess humans leave behind when making plans recall other late-period, Stanley Kubrick-inspired Spielberg films like Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, and A.I.

Spielberg’s mastery of these techniques are exemplified in the terrifying opening sequence, in which a group of Palestinians take the Israeli athletes hostage, killing some of them. Spielberg intercuts the film’s action with real news footage impeccably, giving a lived-in feel to the proceedings. The world watches in anguish as they wait for an answer that everything’s OK. It’s stolen away with the newscaster’s solemn pronouncement: “They’re all gone”.

Like Schindler’s List or Saving Private Ryan, plans are made as a response to a horrible event, and as a way to pull something good out of terror. But in Spielberg-world, plans are for fools, and they never go off without a hitch. The team starts out with a sense of righteousness, but things become tense as the killings go on. None of the bombs work well: they’re either too strong or not strong enough, and it’s damn near impossible to avoid hurting innocents in the process. It’s another look at the dark side of technology and man’s ability to exterminate each other with ease…except now, the technology doesn’t even work, and they have unintended consequences. The characters gradually realize the morass they’re in: like Captain Miller of Saving Private Ryan, they feel further away from home and humanity the more men they kill, and their actions only seem to make things worse as they add to the hate between nations and their targets are replaced by worse men. These plans don’t work well, and it’s questionable whether they were righteous in the first place.

Spielberg’s films often deal with good men manipulated by untrustworthy authority figures, and Munich is no exception. The Israeli Prime Minister makes deals and plans behind the curtains to strike back at the Palestinians, saying that they had been “ambushed and slaughtered again…there are more dead Jews in Germany”. She adds that “she doesn’t know who these maniacs are and where they come from”, or “what law protects people like these”, and adds that they can’t afford to be civilized with them anymore. Her response, one for retribution, is understandable, but it is without empathy or understanding, and it is doomed to fail. Similarly, Rush’s Ephraim is a shady character, one who doesn’t care who he hurts or how he handles the characters so long as he protects Israel. He, like others, had little empathy for the Palestinians; he only sees them as a threat. He’s not wrong, but his simplifications will cost his country dearly.

The men learn to question those in charge, particularly after their Black Market contact Louis (Mathieu Amalric, who looks oddly like Roman Polanski) tells them that Salameh, the man who planned the massacre, is protected by the CIA. Louis and his family don’t trust governments, and they suspect anyone who works for them. The men learn that his worldview might not be an unreasonable one.

Avner and company enter their mission wanting to do something good for their country. They break bread together at the start of their mission, and Steve in particular finds reason to rejoice after they kill their first target. But, in the words of another character, they have “butcher’s hands, little souls”. They are relatively innocent compared to beforehand (lost boys?), and as they kill more men, they begin to quarrel over the righteousness of their mission. “Unless we learn to act like them, we will never defeat them…they don’t deserve mercy…” says Steve. But the others aren’t so sure. They say that the mission against the Palestinians “will take years, but it’ll work”. But their business is costly, ineffective in quelling terrorist acts, and it causes the men to lose their souls.

In one of the most fascinating scenes in the film, they accidentally run into a PLO group, claiming to be part of the Red Army. Avner discusses politics with the group’s leader, who claims that the Arab states and the world will rise against Israel and give the land to the Palestinians. Avner claims that they’ll never manage, and that their mission isn’t worth the cost. But the leader claims that they’ll wait forever, and that the difference between him and Avner (who he thinks is German) is that Avner has a home to go to in the end, where he does not. This man will fight, to the death, for all time, until he has a place to call his own, and that’s why real war against terrorists is impossible: any retribution only makes things worse, and we have a home where they do not.

But Avner finds that you can never go home. His mission more or less finished, several of his men dead, he returns to Israel. Soldiers admire his work. He is repulsed. The nation honors him for dishonorable deeds. His mother invokes the Holocaust as reasoning that the Jews must take what they have, but Avner isn’t so sure their methods are worth it. He moves to New York with his family, where his paranoia follows him. In the film’s one terrible scene (really the only flaw), Avner and his wife make love without passion as he comes to a sweaty, labored climax, all while thinking about the Munich massacre (the killings are finally shown intercut with the sex scene). It’s an extremely awkward scene that puts too fine a point on what we already know: Avner is forever tormented by his deeds, and by the knowledge that Israel will never be safe. In the final scene, he and Ephraim discuss the futility of their mission. They killed for peace, but “there is no peace at the end of this”. Avner is abandoned by Ephraim, who refuses to break bread with him and more or less turns his back on a soldier with a newly formed awareness. The World Trade Center looms in the background.

Tony Kushner’s script and Spielberg’s direction never spell out the connection between this mission and the U.S. mission after 9/11. They never condemn the United States or Israel. They understand the response, and they agree that the terrorists have done absolute evil. But the response, however well-intentioned, hasn’t been successful. Why? Munich has no easy answers, only questions. It is a difficult film, and my initial response was one of disappointment. But the film improves on each viewing, and as time goes by, it remains one of the most relevant responses to the defining moment of the past ten years.

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