munich
Image take from the invaluable CineMaterial

I find it a little remarkable that I have no reviews of Steven Spielberg films from the time I cohosted the movie review show on college radio station WWSP-90FM. During the time our program was airing weekly, the prolific filmmaker signed his name to exactly one directorial effort: Hook, released in 1991. Given when it landed on the release calendar, it’s possible we didn’t even cover it on the show. (A December 11th release date means we could have already been off in correlation to the school’s winter break). Instead, in order to populate the “From the Archive” feature with a Spielberg film in symmetry with the release of his latest, I need to look an early stretch of my web-placed review writing, when I was still very much in the process of rediscovering my voice. 

I don’t give a damn about Steven Spielberg’s political views on Israel.

The director has spent the past several weeks seeing his name get furiously scrawled across op-ed pages in connection with his new movie Munich, which finds a starting point with the cold-blooded killing of eleven Israeli athletes by the Palestinian terrorist organization Black September at the 1972 Olympics. The bulk of the film dramatizes the efforts of a crew of Israeli operatives who conduct a clandestine mission of vengeance, hunting and assassinating those individuals connected to the “Munich massacre.” Spielberg has faced criticism from all sides as frothing pundits look into the Rorschach test of the film and come away convinced that they’ve seen whatever will anger them the most. The film is too pro-Israel, or not pro-Israel enough, or too soft to take a stand one way or another on the conflict.

The reason that I don’t care is that Spielberg’s views, whatever they might be, are beside the point. No, they’re so far removed from the point that they’re in a completely different theater in the multiplex. Perhaps enjoying themselves by watching Steve Martin pretend he can waterski. Oh, Steve Martin, you befuddled, monstrously potent middle-aged dad!

Spielberg’s new film, it seems to me, has little to say about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Certainly viewpoints are expressed and examined, and details of the conflict get a sufficient airing, but, in many ways, this movie could have been made about any ongoing, bloody war of wills. Spielberg is not trying to make a film that offers a detailed analysis of a particular region’s difficulties, providing judgments or solutions for the geopolitical skirmishes of the day. He is getting at something more general, and maybe more important. He uses this piece of history and this unsolvable, unending battle as a means to comment on the futility of violent acts. Spielberg’s thesis is stated repeatedly in the smart screenplay by Tony Kushner and Eric Roth: the back-and-forth retribution does not lead to any sort of ending, certainly not one with any sense of peace. Eventually, the war will no longer be about land or freedom or whatever provoked it in the first place. It will be about nothing more than punishing the other side for all the punishment that they themselves have delivered, and clinging to the myth of moral superiority to preserve some self-justification and keep the turbine of stone-cold retaliation spinning.

This is a movie, not a doctoral thesis, so there are some components distinct to the form worth considering. On that front, Spielberg is the most sure-footed he’s been since the last time he had to make space on his shelf for a shiny new Oscar. He constructs the film with watchmaker precision; comparisons to Alfred Hitchcock have been plentiful and apt. There’s real tension here, in the machinery of the assassinations and also in the moral arguments between the principle characters. It may seem a talky film to some, but hearing intelligent conversation delivered with passion is one of the reasons that I go to the movies. The entire cast is quite strong, especially Ciaran Hinds (that’s Julius Caeser to you) as a member of the Israeli crew who is clinging to his humanity through steadfastly insisting upon examining the moral quandary inherent to the task he’s taken on.

Munich may not be the best name for the film. It’s not really about the specific incident from 1972. That is just a starting point, an instigation, and a spectre that haunts the Israeli operatives, a reminder that they themselves can be transformed from assassins to targets as quickly as a trigger can be pulled. If only the film could have borrowed the title of David Cronenberg’s 2005 release. Spielberg gives us a history of violence, alright. And reminds us of the cold, hard truth that it’s a history that will not likely reach a happy endpoint.

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